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Nature A Chemical Epidemic (TEHELKA)


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004

The Indian government bats for endosulfan in the international arena despite damning domestic evidence, reports


IN APRIL this year, a Brazilian magazine, Le Monde Diplomatique Brasil, made a shocking revelation about how a top Indian Foreign Service official has become a lobbyist for the chemical industry. The president of ANVISA (Agência Nacional de Vigilância Sanitária), Brazil’s independent health regulatory agency, Agenor Alvares, accused the Indian ambassador of “putting pressure on us to not ban it (endosulfan), by bringing up rules of the trade barrier clause in the World Trade Organisation (WTO) agreement.” Endosulfan is a deadly insecticide banned in over 68 countries.

It was also banned by the Kerala government in 2002, after a damning report by the government-run National Institute of Occupational Health established that hundreds of people in Padre village of Kasaragod district had died due to indiscriminate aerial spraying over state-owned cashew plantations between the 1970s and the 1990s. Local doctors had started noticing and documenting rising incidence of congenital anomalies, delayed puberty, mental retardation, abortions and cancer amongst the local community during this period. Between 1998 and 2002, international and national health agencies conducted health and toxicological studies in Kasaragod and noted neurobehavioural disorders, congenital malformations in girls, abnormalities of reproductive tract in males and increased rate of cancers.

Soon after, the state health department conducted several medical camps, including a study that established the link between endosulfan and the observed health problems in Kasaragod. In 2007, the Kerala government set up an Endosulfan Victims Relief and Remediation Cell to compensate and medically rehabilitate the victims. So far, the cell has compensated over 180 families of victims who had presumably died of endosulfan poisoning. It has also identified over 300 new families, and is medically and socially rehabilitating over 3,000 villagers.

In Dakshina Kannada and Puttur taluks of the bordering state of Karnataka, a similar health crisis amongst the endosulfan-exposed community prompted Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa to order compensation of Rs 50,000 to each victim in February 2010.

The evidence seems clinching. But, curiously enough, the Indian government continues to be in denial, thereby actively blocking any international process that attempts to ban or restrict the use of this deadly substance. In 2008, the Indian delegation to the fourth Conference of Parties (COP) of Rotterdam Convention on Prior Informed Consent (PIC Convention), headed by environment ministry officials, had blocked the inclusion of endosulfan in the PIC list on specious ‘scientific’ grounds. The Rotterdam Convention incidentally is an international treaty that, through a process of consensus, enlists chemicals requiring exchange of information on health hazards prior to trade. More commonly, this list is known as the PIC list. Mouthing industry science, the Indian ‘experts’ had claimed India’s tropical climate makes the insecticide less harmful (shorter half-life) to Indians! Worse still, the Indian delegation even lied to the representatives of the 126 nations present at the COP. It disputed the findings of a study done by the National Institute of Occupational Health, a government institute, which had found congenital deformities and neurobehavioural disorders amongst children exposed to endosulfan in Kasaragod, Kerala. The same study had been the basis of a ban imposed by the Kerala government in 2002.

In March 2010, the meeting of the scientific Chemical Review Committee (CRC) of the Convention witnessed similar obstructionist tactics of Manoranjan Hota, a director in the Ministry of Environment and Forests. So contradictory was his behaviour, that members of the CRC and government observers levelled allegation of ‘conflict of interest’ against him. On two occasions, Hota posing as an ‘expert’, reversed his earlier position on recommending endosulfan for consideration in the next COP. Frustrated by his shenanigans, the 30-member CRC was forced to voting, much to the discomfort of the chairperson, and voted India out of its entrenched position.

It was obvious to everyone that India’s dubious stance was influenced by chemical industry lobbyists present at the meeting. Independent observers at the meeting noted frequent conferencing between the government official and a representative of the Indian Chemical Council, including ducking out of closedoor meetings to consult with the industry representative.

And this wasn’t the first time. In a shameless display of government-industry nexus in COP 4, the chemical industry representative did most of the talking on behalf of the Indian government during a special meeting convened to understand India’s ‘scientific’ and ‘technical’ objections for inclusion of endosulfan in the PIC list. “While we were hardly given any opportunity to talk to the Indian officials, the Indian chemical industry representatives were huddled in lobby meetings with them, drafting ‘official’ comments and dining with them,” lamented R Sridhar of Thanal, member of the Endosulfan Relief Cell in Kerala, who was present as an NGO observer at COP 4 in Rome in 2008.

SO WHY does India take such an entrenched position every time? The answer may lie in the fact that it is the world’s largest producer, consumer and exporter of endosulfan, ranked amongst the top five most commonly used agricultural insecticide in the world. Its current global use, as per industry estimates, is about 35 million litres. In the past five years, India has exported endosulfan to over 70 countries, with more than $150 million worth of exports between 2007 and 2008.

Domestically too, the government is playing an active role in increasing the use of this insecticide. Tamil Nadu has been aggressively promoting endosulfan after the state agriculture department inked an MOU with Cadbury India Limited in 2007 for enhancing cocoa (a cash crop) cultivation in the state. “For 1,000 saplings of cocoa, 4 litres of endosulfan is given free to the farmers. I got 16 litres of endosulfan free with 4,000 cocoa saplings from the state government as part of the scheme,” said a cocoa farmer from Erode district of Tamil Nadu. “These are all dubious means to promote and increase the dependence of farmers on deadly insecticides like endosulfan. Once the farmer gets used to it, it is difficult for him to get out of the vicious pesticide cycle,” says Sridhar.

BESIDES SHIELDING its state-owned endosulfan manufacturing plant, Hindustan Insecticides Limited, in Kochi, Kerala, it is under enormous pressure from the Gujaratbased Excel Crop Care Limited (a joint venture between the Mumbai-based Shroff Group and Nufarm of Australia), the world’s largest manufacturer of endosulfan with an installed capacity of 6,000 metric tonnes per annum. Not surprisingly, the ‘unofficial spokesperson’ of the Indian government in these meetings happens to be an official from Excel Crop Care, masquerading as some sort of ‘expert’ on international treaties.

A problem that is as fundamental as the Indian government’s willingness to kow tow to the demands of the endosulfan manufacturers is the absolute silence from the Opposition parties on the issue. Even as campaigners attempt to generate public awareness, the chances that someone will bell the cat on the ignoble collusion between the Indian government officials and industry look remote at best.
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