India and endosulfan: A bitter harvest

India’s response to the ill-effects of a toxic pesticide has been slow and inadequate

Endosulfan, a pesticide, has been poisoning villagers in India over the past two decades. Its use has caused physical and mental ailments among thousands of children and adults and deaths of many hundreds. In 2011 India agreed to ban endosulfan, and, more recently, it offered compensation to its victims. But now it is falling short to keep both those promises.

The pesticide, once commonly used, damages the central nervous system and causes hormonal changes in mothers and babies. It leads to many birth defects including cerebral palsy, a condition that causes physical disability. Worse still, it lingers in the environment without degradation, leading to its accumulation in the food chain and causing lasting ill-effects.

Commitment to ban?

In 2011 at the Stockholm Convention 128 countries, including India, added endosulfan to the list of pollutants that they agree to phase out of use. Following India’s commitment at Stockholm and after years of effort by the Democratic Youth Federation of India, a non-governmental organization, in May 2011 the Supreme Court banned the use of endosulfan in the country but allowed its exports to exhaust remaining stocks. At present India has 2000 tonnes of the pesticide and raw materials enough to make a further 4000 tonnes of it. As international demand for the pesticide has plummeted, the government has been forced to dispose this stash.

In July, because the Indian government was not ready to foot a $40 million bill for the disposal of endosulfan’s raw materials, it asked the Supreme Court to lift the ban on making the pesticide. In November the Supreme Court’s expert committee requested giving in to this demand. Citing that the treaty that Indian signed allows it up to six years to phase out endosulfan, so it could allow endosulfan’s manufacture and use without breaking its commitment. This recommendation was made even though the committee accepts that endosulfan is harmful to human health.

Sadly, endosulfan remains popular among farmers too. Manufacturing of the pesticide, if allowed, will be greeted with strong demand. Before the ban, India was the largest producer and consumer of endosulfan. It is cheap, easily available and curtails a variety of pests. For those unaware of its environmental consequences, there is little reason to not use it.

Studies show ill-effects of endosulfan use across the country. Kerala is the worst affected state. A 2012 state report linked the pesticide to 4000 afflicted and 700 deaths, many of whom suffered the fate because of aerial spraying over nearby cashew plantations. In some villages 50% homes have a child or an adult with severe disabilities.

In May the Kerela government, based on the recommendations of the National Human Rights Commission, agreed to pay compensation to the victims of endosulfan in Kerela. The amount varied from Rupees 300,000 ($5,500) to 500,000 ($9,500) depending on the victim’s suffering. But despite protests in September and December, the government has only paid 101 out of the 2453 victim families.

The request to allow manufacturing of endosulfan exposes the government’s inability to dispose the raw materials. If undisposed, the chemicals lie in poorly maintained warehouses. A task force setup to inspect one such warehouse in Periya, Kerala, after locals complained of foul smell, found endosulfan leaking from rusted steel drums. The warehouse also lacked storekeepers, fire safety equipment and first-aid kits, posing a serious threat to nearby villages and water bodies.

Endosulfan rehabilitation project, setup by Kerala last year to help the afflicted, started an operation to deal with such cases. Their first task was to contain the leaking drums. They are now hoping to get help from the government for disposal and detoxification, said Mohammed Asheel, the project officer.

Far too little, far too late

Pratibha Patil, former President of India, promised to double public spending on health care to 2.5% of the GDP by 2017. Among its first steps is a $5 billion free drugs plan, the implementation of which began in October. Surely then the Indian government can, apart from preserving the ban, also afford to stop poisoning its own people for a mere $40 million and also compensate those already poisoned.

Image from here.

The future of our materialistic selves

“I need a computer”, I told my dad in 2005. I was finishing the first year of my degree and none of my hostel friends had a computer yet. He knew that.

“Why do you think it’s necessary?”, he asked me. That was what he always asked when I made a demand. It was his way of testing me on whether I knew why I wanted what I wanted.

I told him that I had seen my seniors in college use it for many things that would be beneficial for me. Yes, there were many who wasted their time watching movies but that is not what I wanted it for. I wanted it because I wanted to tap in to the power of the internet.

A guy named Edgar, a computer whiz in my dad’s office had taught me how to use Windows ’95. By 1998, using the Internet Explorer, I had created myself a Yahoo! Mail account (I don’t know what I used it for because I had no friends who had email back then!). But more importantly, I had found Yahoo! Games. I used to love being able to play with random strangers. By the time I had finished high school, I had excelled at using Windows XP and I knew how to use Google to help me with small things.

When I started my degree in 2004-05, I knew there was a lot more I could do with a computer and I explained it to my dad. He was convinced. He bought me an expensive and powerful IBM desktop with a flat screen monitor. My mum thought he was splurging for no reason. That purchase, which costed my dad plenty of money, left me with two important lessons

  1. Buy only what is necessary
  2. If you decided that something is necessary then do your research and buy a version of that thing that serves your purpose the best. Even if it is a little more expensive.

In 2005 in India, we had desktops on offer from the big companies like Dell, IBM and HP. But there were also many computer shops that sold ‘assembled’ desktops. These assembled desktops were usually much cheaper than the branded computers for the same specifications because the shop keeper purchased cheaper individual parts and charged much lower amounts to put it altogether.

But my dad had done his research. He knew that ‘assembled’ computers often broke down and although the shop keepers fixed the machine for free most of the times, it would usually take some time to get it repaired. He preferred to buy me an IBM computer even though it was much more expensive because at least it won’t need repairing that often.

He also realised that I did not have much desk space in my hostel room and wanted to make sure that I could place the screen on my desk and still be able to use the desk (if I had one those CRT monitors, it just wouldn’t have been possible and laptops were too expensive to give to an undergraduate student then). So he bought me something because it was necessary and he did not think twice before spending money about buying only that things which served my purpose the best.

I’ve bought things for myself without having to ask my parents only since I left India but I’ve stuck with the lessons that my dad left me with. These thoughts about purchasing things came rushing back to me when I heard this talk by Bruce Sterling.

Sterling is a science writer and his talk is anything but organised. But if you are patient enough (or just skip to 26:01), he gives our generation some advice on how we could make a real difference to our environment despite consuming what we have to. Although, I don’t agree with everything he says, I cannot disagree with his take on our materialistic lives.

He says that, “You have to think about stuff not like, ‘Oh, this is a nice pen and I must keep it’. But in terms of how much space and how many hours you spend in using that thing.” He calls it a ‘good design approach’. One in which we pay a lot of attention to the purpose of the things we use and how well do those things solve that purpose (very similar to my dad’s philosophy on purchasing anything).

He also goes on to give advice on how we can think about our materialistic lives in a way that will help us improve our lives and cause a lower impact on the environment. “Buying cheaper things or organic things is not the way forward”, he says. We probably make a lot more environmental impact by choosing to buy cheap everyday objects thinking they will solve our purpose. When doing that you don’t think hard enough whether you should buy it or not because it’s cheap.”

He says, “Buy the best possible most commonly used everyday objects. Like a bed. You spend a third of your life in that thing. On a per hour rental basis, the most expensive bed would still be worth it. Get a good chair, especially if you spend a whole day sitting on it. There are great ergonomic designs out there. Use them. Don’t spend time whining about your wrists or your back.”

Makes complete sense to me and I have partly lived by that advice. For my next purchase, I will not forget this advice. He goes on to talk about how to get rid of things that you don’t need and not fall in the trap of buying things you won’t need (35:40 onwards). He asks us to categorise everything in to four categories:

  1. Beautiful Things: Will you be driven to share it?
  2. Emotionally Important Things: Does it have a narrative?
  3. Tools/devices/appliances (things that efficiently perform useful functions): Have really high technical standards for this.
  4. Everything else.

Only recently, I helped a friend move. Now she had so many things that had accrued over the years. Stuff that she hadn’t even seen since the years that have passed in between purchasing it and now. But she held on to those things. Even if it meant that she had to spend extra on the moving van or that she will have less place in the new place she was moving to. In that context, I find those categories above useful to be able to reduce the material clutter in our lives.

There really isn’t an end to our materialistic lives unless we make a conscious choice. Big businesses have spent billions of dollars and years of effort in to making us the perfect consumers. To break out is hard but it is the only sustainable way forward.

How green is your detergent?

Fragranced household products, even those labelled as ‘green’, can emit large numbers of hazardous chemicals that aren’t listed on their labels, US researchers have confirmed. The research raises questions about the risks associated with these products and regulating the claims on their labels.

How green is your detergent? – Chemistry World, 12 November 2010