By Rama LakshmiWashington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 7, 2011; 10:43 PM
|Thotan Jekan, 37 sprays controversial pesticide Endosulfan on the cotton and vegetable crop in his village. (Rama Lakshmi - Washington Post)|
MUDALAPARA, INDIA - When she was a child, a helicopter would buzz over Sujata Sundaran's village twice a year, spraying pesticide over the lush trees on cashew farms nearby."It was like snowflakes falling from the sky. The children would run out to look at the helicopter," she recalled, sitting in her mud hut. "At that time, we did not know it would destroy our lives."
Sundaran, 27, said her legs stopped growing when she was about 6 years old, and her mother carries her around like a baby. Sundaran and thousands of other villagers here in the southern state of Kerala say that over the years use of a pesticide called Endosulfan left them disabled.The villagers helped force a state ban on the pesticide in 2004 and now have joined an international campaign that could result in a global ban.
But the villagers have come up against a powerful opponent: the Indian government. India is the world's largest producer, exporter and user of the low-cost pesticide, which farmers across the rest of the country continue to use on tea, cotton, rice and other crops. Officials say a ban would jeopardize the country's food security at a time of rising demand and leave millions of farmers without an affordable alternative.
"There are no reports of negative health impact or crop damage because of Endosulfan in any other part of India. If any fresh input comes to us, we will consider it," said Arun Yadav, the deputy minister for agriculture. "Kerala is the only place that had health concerns."The three companies that produce Endosulfan in India, including one that is partly government-owned, say European competitors are pushing for the ban.
"The demand for banning Endosulfan in India is motivated by the vested interest of European pesticide-makers, who are interested in promoting their new patented products," Pradeep Dave, president of the Pesticides Manufacturers and Formulators Association of India, said at a news conference in December.
Last week in Mumbai, Anil Kakkar, director of the Crop Care Federation of India, which works with the agrochemical industry, said a ban would "result in a replacement of Endosulfan by alternatives which are 10 times more expensive and will be damaging to the farm ecosystem, as most of these are known to be harmful to pollinators such as honeybees." The European Union, citing health concerns, has refused to import Indian tea if growers use Endosulfan.
Doctors in the Kasaragod district of Kerala say the aerial spraying of Endosulfan over cashew farms between 1979 and 2000 has caused more than 550 deaths and serious health problems in more than 6,000 people. Three years ago, the Kerala state pollution control board reported alarming levels of chemical residue in human blood samples, soil and water in the area.