Thirteen-year-old Fathima and seven-year-old Asleemiya are smiling at strangers in front of the Secretariat in Thiruvananthapuram. Next to them, in a cane cot, are two little boys lying down, looking aimlessly at the sheeted ceiling above, as their young mothers try to feed them. You don’t need to read the many messages this group from Kasargod has hung at the back of their tent. These kids are not well. Their parents and guardians brought them to the capital on Wednesday to appeal to authorities, the government, and whoever is listening, that they are also victims of the endosulfan tragedy that hit Kerala in the late 1970s.
On Thursday, Kerala Finance Minister Thomas Isaac announced an amount of Rs 20 Crore for the rehabilitation of endosulfan victims in his budget presentation at the Assembly. Kilometres away, Muneesa and others, who had begun their agitation at the capital on Wednesday, were not overly excited by it. Last year, they declared Rs 50 crore for endosulfan victims in the budget, and in 2016-17, the UDF government allocated Rs 10 crore. "We welcome the declaration," Muneesa says, "But declarations are not always implemented. Rehabilitation is still incomplete, there are at least 3,500 more victims to get funds, medical problems continue."
The pesticide disaster
For 20 years, beginning in 1978, the pesticide was continuously sprayed on cashew plantations by the Plantation Corporation of Kerala. The early signs of its deadly impact included mass death of bees, fishes and frogs, and congenital deformities in domestic animals like cows. There was an outcry from farmers, but nothing changed.
In 1994, Dr Mohankumar, a local doctor, found that there was a rising incidence of cases of mental illness and congenital anomalies in Kasargod, according to a report by Dr Aditya of Community Health Cell. Several national and international groups conducted health and toxicological studies between 1998 and 2002, and arrived at the conclusion that the abnormal health problems at Kasaragod were due to the spraying of endosulfan. They found victims with neurobehavioral disorders, congenital malformations in girls and abnormalities of reproductive tract in males. Another report showed increased rate of cancer and gynecological abnormalities as well.
After 500 deaths in 20 years, the Kerala High Court had banned the spraying of endosulfan in the state back in 2002. But years of continuous spraying deeply affected the region, and experts say that the effects last for years afterward. Children like Fathima and Asleemiya, born years later, are believed to be such victims. But their names have not appeared in the government “list” of those affected by the pesticide and requiring treatment.
“They have admitted that there are people seriously affected needing treatment. Even then they are avoided from list,” explains Muneesa, who says she is another victim, her eye-sight affected by the exposure to endosulfan.
Geetha and Muneesa at the protest camp in Thiruvananthapuram
Muneesa talks of an instance last May, where two children of a woman were affected by the spraying, and the second child died of it. “In October they tell us, this child who died is in the list of those who could get treatment. But the elder living child is not in the list, and therefore, not getting treatment.”
“The reason they give is that the aerial spraying took place only in plantations in 15 Panchayats, and only people living in those areas, and two kilometres surrounding it would be affected. But you can’t look at such borders when aerial spraying is done. Even experts have said that the effect would come up to 50 km away from the plantations.”
In 2017, the state government had conducted a medical camp to find out the number of people affected by the spraying of endosulfan. The agitators say that of the 6,800 who applied, 4,838 people were given slips to come to the camp. Of these, 3,888 were examined. The list produced by specialists, of people who could possibly be affected by endosulfan, contained 1,905 names. “Later, this list somehow got reduced to 287 names. And it was children who were mostly avoided from the earlier list. Mothers raised their voices and the revenue minister said it would be reexamined, so then 77 more people were added. We have to raise our voice every time for them to include more people. But if we keep quiet, there will be nothing. That’s not the way it should work. We shouldn’t be raising our voices, they should knowingly give us the treatment,” Muneesa says.
Protests for compensation
Wednesday’s protest is the most recent appeal to authorities over several years. During the rule of the previous government, they came to Thiruvananthapuram in 2012, 2014 and 2016, and returned each time with many assurances, which would only be partially fulfilled. They also appealed to the government on December 10, with a march to the Niyamasabha. But with the uproar over the entry of women at Sabarimala, their voices went unnoticed.
Geetha, who has brought along her child believed to have been affected by the spraying, said they recently met the Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan on December 29 at the Kannur guest house. “They all say they would examine it, but they take time, and in that time, kids die,” she said.
She also spoke of another woman called Mymoona, whose first and fifth children had a condition that left them with fragile bones. The list included the second child’s name but not the elder one’s. “When we took this elder kid, on whom at least Rs 25 lakh was spent for surgeries, to see the Chief Minister. We were offered an amount of Rs 5,000. It’s just sad,” Geetha says.
Daya Bai fasts, sings for the agitation
Daya Bai at the protest camp in Thiruvananthapuram
Last January, social activist Daya Bai joined the strike. She was invited to inaugurate the agitation in Thiruvananthapuram, but went to Kasargod to see the plight of these children for herself. After spending three days there, Daya Bai joined their strike. “I thought it would all end with one strike. But the attitude taken by the government has been so harsh, so step-motherly. If these officials had such kids, would they be behaving like this?” she asks.
The sights she saw in Kasargod made her write in Malayalam again after many years – a song, Karayu karayu Keralame (Cry, cry, Kerala). She performed a street play in front of the agitation on Wednesday and sang the song. “I get emotional when I sing it. I wrote it, crying,” she said.
But the lackadaisical attitude shown by the authorities had only made her stronger and sharper, she says. “Because we have the legal base. Articles 21, 41 – violated. When I took part in the strike last year, many phoned me to say it’s good I did. I hear about crores of rupees allocated in the budget (for the victims). But these remain as declarations – we are not seeing it in action, not experiencing it.”
Dr Ravindranath Shanbhag, the scientist who fought for the victims for years
Daya Bai met Dr Ravindranath Shanbhag, the president of Endosulfan Victims Welfare Foundation, who has extensively studied the issue in Kasargod and Karnataka, and had been instrumental in bringing about the Supreme Court verdict in 2012, that banned the use of the pesticide across the country. In a phone interview, Dr Shanbhag says, “I investigated the issue in 1998 and 1999 and wrote reports in journals. At that time about 63 children in Kerala were affected. Proved in 2000 that these are victims of endosulfan spraying, quoting relevant scientific reports in medical journals. Even in Karnataka, similar things were happening. I visited both places.”
Dr Ravindranath Shanbhag
There was a meeting that Dr Shanbhag remembers happening in the office of the Deputy Commissioner’s office in Kasargod in 2000. One of the ministers, he says, threatened him and said ‘we won’t allow you here, to disturb our people.’ “I said, ‘stop using the spray.’ They didn’t agree. At that point, it was 63 children affected. Now it’s more than 3,000. Back then if they had taken some measure, it would have been contained.”
He had also asked that people be moved out of the place, because the wells and other water bodies were polluted. From 2001 to 2004, he carried out more studies in Kerala to prove that people were also affected genetically. “The reports were given to the Indian Council of Medical Research but the Agricultural Department of Kerala said they were biased reports. They didn’t budge. So, then I went to the international scenario and got 600 papers on the subject.”
He then explains how a pesticide spraying banned in 2002 can still affect children born years after it. “The half life of endosulfan is six to nine years. It means that if there are 2 gm/litre of the substance in the water now, it would become 1 gm/litre after 9 years, and half gm/litre after 9 more years and so on. It would take some 70 to 80 years to be gone. And these people are drinking the water from the same wells which were once affected.”
When his repeated requests were continuously ignored by governments in Kerala and Karnataka, the doctor pleaded his case to the Supreme Court of India with scientific proof. The judgement, as mentioned earlier, banned the manufacture, sale, use and export of endosulfan throughout the country. The three-judge bench was hearing a public interest litigation filed by the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI- Kerala wing) seeking a ban on the toxic pesticide.
Once the SC judgement came through, Dr Shanbhag moved the Karnataka High Court to take into consideration the SC ruling. “By then 8,600 children were affected in Karnataka. The High Court sanctioned Rs 500 crore as compensation and put me in the implementation committee. So every (fully) affected child is getting Rs 3,000 a month, and every partially affected child, Rs 1,500 a month. I hope that Kerala will also take up similar measures.”