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.