Pesticide politics

IT WAS the storm after the lull. And endosulfan was in the eye of it.

Ever since the lid was blown off the March 2002 lifting of the ban on the pesticide's use (see box: DTE impact), resentment has been brewing in Kerala over the government's surreptitious move. The first week of July witnessed a pitched political battle on the issue in the state assembly, with the opposition putting Kerala's United Democratic Front government on the mat.

Under immense pressure, state agriculture minister K R Gouri gave an assurance in the house that she would instruct the Plantation Corporation of Kerala (PCK) not to use endosulfan in its estates. But this was not enough to pacify activists and opposition parties, who demanded that the pesticide be banned all over the state.

The minister's announcement came after a heated debate in the assembly, which was preceded by an adjournment motion moved by leader of the opposition, V S Achuthanandan, demanding a complete ban on endosulfan. He warned the state government of an organised resistance if the spraying of the pesticide resumed.

The row has its origin in the link that was established between the high incidence of diseases in Padre village, located in Kasaragod, and the spraying of organochlorine pesticide endosulfan in the region by PCK. Achuthanandan visited Kasaragod on July 2.

On June 22 the Kerala government had issued a second notification, lifting the prohibition on all uses of endosulfan in the state, except on aerial spraying. Orders were also issued to distribute the pesticide at subsidised rates.

Activists like Sridhar R of Thiruvananthapuram-based non-governmental organisation (NGO) Thanal, who were present in the Kerala assembly, say Gouri was evasive during the proceedings. "Ironically, she started defending the use of endosulfan," says Sridhar and adds: "It was as if she had become the mouthpiece of the industry. Not only did she cite the pesticide's being popular in 80-odd countries, Gouri also contended that PCK had been using it for the past two decades. Clearly, the endosulfan lobby wields a strong influence on her."

What came in handy for the minister was the ambiguity in the reports of the two expert committees that had been set up to look into the issue. The Achyuthan committee and the panel constituted by the Kerala Agricultural University had failed to prove that endosulfan was responsible for the strange ailments in Kasaragod.

However, these findings have been widely disputed. "The Achyuthan committee had no medical scientist as its member. Moreover, the panel never visited any of the affected areas to collect evidence from the victims," alleges Shree Padre, one of the activists spearheading the anti-endosulfan agitation.

Achuthanandan also feels that the state government has colluded with the pesticide industry to keep endosulfan in use. "The multinational company producing endosulfan is powerful enough to buy both opinion-makers and decision-makers," he says. What lends weight to this line of thinking is the state government's outright rejection of the findings of environmental experts and the National Institute of Occupational Health, Ahmedabad, which highlight the harm done by endosulfan. Meanwhile, lokayukta Justice P C Balakrishna Menon and uplokayukta Justice T V Ramakrishnan have issued a notice to Gouri on the circumstances that led to the revocation of the ban.

With regard to a final decision on banning the pesticide, the Union and state governments are passing the buck to each other. Even as Gouri contends that the mandate rests with the centre, Union minister of state for agriculture Hukamdeo Narain Yadav differs. "The Centre can only advise the state on the usage of a pesticide," he told mediapersons at Thrissur on July 1. On his part, Union minister for agriculture Ajit Singh said that the centre would look into the issue of banning endosulfan.

A long-term resolution of the issue appears elusive. But the state agriculture minister has accepted the assembly speaker's advice to issue written instructions, banning the use of endosulfan in PCK's plantations. A sign that the storm has been weathered, if only partially.

(With inputs from M Suchitra in Kerala)