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Kasargod's 'endosulfan foeticides'

May 04, 2011

Women of Kasargod in the Indian state of Kerala are resorting to successive abortions due to abnormal pregnancies caused by pesticide endosulfan, says Jeemon Jacob of Tehelka. An oblivious Indian government is yet to enforce a ban on the chemical which has already affected thousands in the region.

Pregnant women in Kasargod district are fighting the endosulfan tragedy in their own way — by opting for abortion. A sacrifice conducted in silence, even a 10-year campaign against the chemical has not yet convinced the government to ban its use.

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Without the intervention of the welfare state, they are now released from the fear of death and chronic disease. They have seen enough. They have lost many in a short span of time. Around 1,000 people have already died in the past seven years. Another 4,600 persons are living with chronic diseases. Most of them have babies with congenital defects — bedridden since birth. They spend their life nursing their babies till their death. They know that their babies will not grow up or go to school like normal children. They have gone through all this.

Doctors call it the ‘Hiroshima syndrome’. But these mothers have never heard of the place. They have been aborting their babies and successive governments have failed to do anything about this havoc that the deadly chemical has unleashed. Hardened by life, these women don’t want to deliver deformed children anymore. They are struggling to come to terms with the tragedy at a time when India is trying to resist a global ban on endosulfan.

The 'Hiroshima syndrome'

Carmine Crasta, 31, lives in Yenthadukka village, close to cashew plantations owned by the state government. Her seven- year-old son Martin was born with neurological problems. Husband Maurice D’Souza, a carpenter, spends 60 percent of his earnings on the treatment of his only son. Carmine has terminated four pregnancies in the past seven years. “It was a hard decision. But I had no choice. How could I have another baby like him?” Carmine says, tears welling up in her eyes.

Kasargod, AT the northern end of Kerala, has the largest cashew plantation belt that covers 5,600 acres in 11 village panchayats. The plantations have been aerially sprayed with endosulfan since 1976, three times a year regularly till 2000, to check the menace of the tea mosquito bug. Aerial spraying of the highly toxic organochlorine pesticide polluted water bodies, soil and vegetation. The after-effects of the indiscriminate use of endosulfan haunt Kasargod. Kerala’s health department identified 4,600 victims in 11 village panchayats and issued health cards entitling patients to free medical care.

In 1979, the local community noticed stunted growth and deformed limbs among newborn calves. By 1990, the health disorders were noticed among humans. Mothers started delivering children with congenital anomalies, mental retardation, physical deformities, cerebral palsy, epilepsy and hydrocephalus.

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The National Institute of Occupational Health, a wing of the Indian Council of Medical Research, conducted a study in the affected areas and identified aerial spraying of endosulfan as the reason behind the complex health problems in the region. But it was not enough to convince the agriculture ministry to order a ban on the chemical.

Sujatha Premnath, 25, a post-graduate, is an anganwadi worker with an Integrated Child Development Services project in Kumbadaje village and is married to a businessman. She underwent the trauma of miscarriage when her foetus was only three weeks old. She became pregnant again in January 2010 but had to undergo medical termination of pregnancy in August that year when the foetus was found to be abnormal.

Health Minister PK Sreemathy admits that Kasargod has a high incidence of abortion. “Although there is no data available on the abortions in the district as most women go to Mangalore, we are aware about the seriousness of the issue,” she says. It’s not only abortions; high infertility rates is also a cause for worry.

Mothers deliver children with mental retardation, cerebral palsy, epilepsy and hydrocephalus

Dalit families of Bovikkanam are the most miserable of the lot. Seventeen families of the Chokliya caste doing odd jobs in the cashew plantations, drink water from the streams in the valley. They soon found their women were delivering babies with deformities. The men suffer from various chronic diseases.

Unaware of how to raise their voices in protest, they have come to accept their destiny.

A wave of abortions

However, not everyone has kept silent. Like 31-year-old Savithri Sundaran, the only one who can read and write among them. “Miscarriages are common in the colony,” she says. “Here, nobody consults doctors or seeks medical help.” Savithri has had two abortions in three years.

“After my abortions, I am scared of getting pregnant again,” elaborates Savithri, a mother of two daughters. Her neighbour Nayana, 23, is suffering from kidney problems. Nayana’s son Sharat underwent surgery when he was 12 months old. Like Savithri, she too had two abortions.

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The mothers of Bovikkanam have been conditioned to accept the tragic reality. They have come to terms with it. But they do have one question: Why doesn’t Prime Minister Manmohan Singh save them from this misery? Does he need more studies to put his signature on a ban on the use of the deadly pesticide?

“We have suffered enough. Look at the deformed children. Do you need more evidence to ban the poison? When you use the toxic pesticide for a little gain, you are killing a generation. The souls of the unborn babies won’t pardon you,” warns a mother with folded hands.

The infertility and high incidence of abortion in Kasargod has taken another toll. No one is willing to marry women from the 11 villages of the affected area. “Women are the worst hit by the endosulfan menace. They bear everything in silence,” says KV Muhammed Kunji, president of Punchiri Club of Muliyar.

A ban long due

“Now the major challenge for us is to find suitable alliances for our girls. Men from other villages are not ready to marry our women. They fear that it’s risky to marry a girl from these villages.” Kunji acknowledges the social stigma attached to the affected area. His Punchiri Club is at the forefront of anti-endosulfan agitations gathering momentum in Kerala.

Now 43, Kunji had started organising people to protest against aerial spraying as early as 1994. As a leader of the Indian Union Muslim League, he led a group of social activists to sensitise the local population and politicians about the dangers involved in spraying the pesticide.

“I am not a scientist; neither am I very highly educated. I have learnt from my experiences. Thirty years ago, our villages were healthy places to live. After the spraying of the poison we have lost our peace of mind. What crime have we done to deserve this misery?” laments Kunji.

"In a way, our infertility is a blessing in disguise. I have stopped worrying," says Padmavathi

It was under his guidance that a medical camp was organised in 2003. Attended by about 1,000 people, it was an eye-opener. Women with multiple ailments thronged the camp, as did men suffering from cancer and other chronic diseases. A medical survey was also conducted to document the various health problems facing the villagers. The initiative led to thousands of people joining the anti-endosulfan stir across Kerala.

“Today, when hundreds of people are registering their protest against endosulfan by signing on the ‘signature tree’, a symbol of our misery, Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar and other senior officials in the ministry, are running a campaign for the endosulfan lobby,” complains Kunji. “This is most unfortunate. They are playing with our lives.”

The people whose lives have been made into living hell by the poisonous chemical have had enough. They now want the government to act.

Source : Tehelka
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