The COVID-19 pandemic has dealt a severe blow to endosulfan victims in Kasaragod district of Kerala. The victims said that the last year has been a traumatic one for them, as they have been unable to visit hospitals, consult doctors and have had to manage with the medicines prescribed to them a year ago. Not only that, the victims said that many of their long-held demands remain unfulfilled by the Kerala government. According to Ambalathara Kunhikrishnan, secretary of the ‘Endosulfan Peeditha Janakeeya Munnani’ (Endosulfan-Affected Peoples' Front), the respective governments, since 2016, have ignored the victims and failed to fulfill their most important demand — to provide a neurologist for the district.
Chandravathy, a resident of Pakkam in Pallikere panchayat, has a 17-year-old daughter with an intellectual disability. She said, "If I say today I'm hungry, you can help me. But only a doctor can help my daughter. We've been demanding a neurologist and electroencephalogram (EEG) testing facility in the district.” She further added that Muneesa Ambalathara, president of Endosulfan Peeditha Janakeeya Munnani, had recently met Kerala Health Minister KK Shailaja and submitted a petition of their demands, particularly the urgent need for a neurologist.
Muneesa, who is a casualty of endosulfan poisoning and is living with visual impairment, said that apart from a neurologist, they have also been demanding a good cardiologist and a super-speciality hospital in Kasaragod, but to no avail. "We have become a liability to the government and mainstream political parties," she said.
While the victims are eligible for free treatment in 17 hospitals, these are spread across Kerala and the neighbouring state, including Mangaluru, Kozhikode and Thiruvananthapuram, making it difficult for them to travel there. And during the height of the pandemic, they were unable to get to Mangaluru as the borders were closed. This meant they couldn’t consult with doctors or get new medicines prescribed.
Chandravathy said that most children who are endosulfan victims have epilepsy. Since there are no facilities for the EEG test (to examine brain activity) in Kasaragod, the parents have to take them to either Mangaluru or the Pariyaram Medical College Hospital in Kannur.
She said that is easier said than done. "For instance, my daughter hardly sleeps during the night,” said Chandravathy. “The next morning, if I have to take her to Mangaluru for the EEG test, she will fall asleep during the journey and wake up once she reaches the hospital. And it is difficult to take the test if she is awake and restless.”
When it comes to financial assistance provided by the state government, Kunhikrishnan said that while the government had announced a Rs 2,200 monthly pension for bed-ridden victims and children with disabilities, they only received Rs 1,700. He said this was because Rs 500 was deducted since they get a disability pension of Rs 2,500 as well. Meanwhile, the cancer patients received Rs 1,700. He further added that the government has been paring down the number of victims they give money to and alleged that not all the victims have received the Rs 5 lakh compensation that was announced by the Supreme Court in January 2017.
Recently, the state government apparently found some ‘ineligible beneficiaries’ who are availing the government pension meant for the endosulfan victims. But the victims say it is not their fault. According to them, in many cases, when someone dies, they inform the panchayat member and supervisor about these deaths. But the authorities fail to ensure the deaths are registered. Eventually, the victims are blamed for not reporting the deaths to the authorities.
Another type of victim-blaming, which they claim has been happening, takes place when an endosulfan casualty makes a partial recovery after years of treatment. These victims are questioned as to why they are still availing government aid. Against this backdrop, the victims are worried that the district administration has plans to do a survey again to identify ‘genuine’ endosulfan victims. The apprehension stems from the fact that, according to them, the government has never lost an opportunity to pare down the victims' numbers and curtail their benefits.
However, former MLA CH Kunhambu, who is contesting from the Uduma constituency in the 2021 Kerala Assembly elections, said that only the new government can take a call regarding a resurvey. The CPI(M) candidate also agreed that there are some ‘ineligible’ beneficiaries who shouldn’t be availing the government benefits. But he said that the schemes for endosulfan victims have been implemented since former Chief Minister VS Achuthanandan's period and any talk of doing away with them is ‘misinformation.’
The victims still feel that their concerns are being ignored by the state government. They noted that till the electioneering for 2016 Assembly polls, leaders of mainstream political parties at least remembered them and visited their houses while campaigning. However, in the run-up to the April 6, 2021, Assembly polls, they say that the political parties have stayed silent. The victims feel that both key players, the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) and the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF), have let them down and, due to no fault of theirs, they are bound to live with diseases brought about by the effects of the toxic insecticide.
The LDF, in its manifesto, said that all victims will get the benefits as directed by the court. In its 2021 election manifesto, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has promised to make arrangement for the treatment expenses of the endosulfan victims.
Endosulfan is an acutely toxic insecticide that gives rise to significant health problems in humans and adversely affects the environment. In the late 1970s, cashew plantations of the state-owned Plantation Corporation of Kerala carried out aerial spraying of the insecticide. This took place over 20 years and resulted in serious health impacts, including "congenital deformities, physical disabilities, mental retardation and gynecological problems" in children and grownups.
The 11 affected panchayats in the district are spread across five Assembly constituencies namely, Thrikaripur, Kasaragod, Manjeshwar, Udma and Kanhangad. There are an estimated 6,727 victims in Kasaragod district. But the numbers are reportedly quite higher than the official figures.
"Our estimation shows that there are around 5,000 victims over and above the official figures. It's also unscientific to restrict the affected panchayats to 11 when studies suggest that aerial spraying of the pesticide is prone to affect a wider area," said Kunhikrishnan.
In 2000, the Kerala High Court banned endosulfan. And in 2003, the Kerala government banned it. Later, in 2011, the Stockholm Convention, too, banned endosulfan because of its threats to human health and the environment.
Over the years, a series of protests have been organised by the victims, including women and children, before the state secretariat and district collectorate to highlight their demands. The notable among them include the protests held in 2013, 2014, 2016, 2019, and even recently in 2020.
Although the insecticide has been banned, the victims fear that the companies are pulling strings to lift the ban in the district and that the new government is likely to fall prey to their pressure.
Gladwin Emmanuel is a freelance journalist based in Kerala.