The End of Days for Endosulfan


India is the world's largest user of endosulfan, and a major producer with three companies—Excel Crop Care, Hindustan Insecticides Ltd, and Coromandal Fertilizers—producing 4,500 tonnes annually for domestic use and another 4,000 tonnes for export. The pesticide has been banned in two states - Kerala and Karnataka and this Friday, the ruling Left Democratic Front in Kerala called for a hartal across the state to press for a national ban of the pesticide. This month, TRINet looks at the history of endosulfan controversy in India and the struggle by civil society and environmentalists seeking for a ban on this controversial generic pesticide.

Endosulfan – the Story So Far

The Kerala Agriculture Department began planting cashew trees on the hills around Padre village in 1963 – 64 and in 1978, the Plantation Corporation of Kerala (PCK) takes over the estate. In 1981, regular spraying of Endosulfan begins – thrice a year and in 1991, a government appointed high power committee recommends Endosulfan not be used near water bodies and insists that bold labeling be adopted to prevent accidental usage near water bodies – probably the first official admission of the possible health hazards of this pesticide.

A medical practitioner Dr. YS Mohan Kumar and farmer-journalist Shree Padre brought national attention to the health problems faced by inhabitants of villages adjoining the plantations, particularly Padre village. With each advancing year more and more health problems were reported from adjoining villages and surrounding areas.

The government began to take note of this issue only after 2000. Various committees of various departments, Non Governmental Organizations, Indian Council of Medical Research and other agencies conducted visits to the area, conducted studies and surveys to understand the relation between aerial spraying of Endosulfan and the sudden spurt of health problems in the village.

The results of the investigations and studies were mixed and inconclusive. Few studies acknowledged that ecological and health hazards in Padre village were due to Endosulfan poisoning while a few rejected the relationship entirely and some other committees remained neutral demanding more research and studies.

But the studies unanimously recommended banning of aerial spray of Endosulfan in the area, and noted that there were lapses in safety measures followed by the PCK and acknowledged that there were indeed a large number of people with health issues living in the plantation areas.

Endosulfan degrades relatively quickly in water (half-life – 2-22 days), but in soil it degrades slowly (half-life – 28-391 days). The major degradation product, Endosulfan sulphate is not only more persistent but is also toxic. The combined half-lives range from around 9 months to 6 years and anaerobic conditions might extend these half-lives significantly. By means of comparison, the Stockholm Convention regards chemicals as persistent if they have a half-life greater than 183 days. In Kerala, residues were detected in stream water and pond sediments a year and a half after spraying ceased.

In August 25th 2001, the Kerala government issues orders to suspend the use of endosulfan in all crops and plantations until further orders.

In January 2002, a three member team from the National Institute of Occupational Health (NIOH), as requested by the ICMR, releases the first part of the study. The report shows presence of Endosulfan residues in water samples as well as in blood samples from Padre Village. The report concluded that there was a high prevalence of congenital malformations in exposed groups, low IQ, scholastic backwardness, learning disability, early menarche in girls and delayed puberty in boys.

The same year, Thanal, a non profit in Kerala, releases its report Long Term Monitoring – The impact of pesticides on the people and the ecosystem in Kasaragod, Keralam, India. The report concluded that the presence of unusual health problems, studies confirming the biological health effects of Endosulfan and finally absence of such diseases in places away from the PCK plantations, pointed towards Endosulfan being the cause of the health problems. Thanal based its results on its own concluded studies and survey to analyse the health impacts. The survey by Thanal was on various types of disorders prevalent in the district and the number of people suffering from these diseases.

In February 2002, in response to a petition by the Pesticide Manufacturers and Formulators Association of India (PMFAI) at the Kerala High Court, the government issued orders prohibiting aerial spraying of endosulfan and permitted the PCK to so ground based spraying only. The court also ordered the government to take cognizance of the Achutan committee report and to arrive at a decision based on section 27 of the Insecticides Act

In July 24 2002, the National Institute of Occupational Health (NIOH) releases the second part of their report. It finds higher prevalence of neurobehavioral disorder and congenital malformations in females and abnormalities in male reproductive system in one of the affected panchayats, Enmakaje, as compared to control group in Meenja panchayat. The study concluded that the health problems in the Enmakaje panchayat was due to the high and continued exposure to endosulfan through various environmental media such as food, water, soil and air. It also added that there was a close similarity between the spectrum of health effects observed in the study population and those described in animal experiments.

In August 12, the same year, the Kerala High Court bans the complete use of endosulfan in the state pending a decision from the Dubey committee that was to examine report of NIOH, Achyuthan Committee, KAU and FIPPAT report and do a safety assessment of Endosulfan and to recommend on its continued use/restricted use or otherwise.

The OP Dubey committee report, released in March 2003, establishes no link between use of endosulfan in PCK plantations and health problems reported in the Padre Village. The committee recommended a comprehensive and detailed health and epidemiological study in the entire cashew plantation area of Kerala in order to establish a relationship between illnesses in Padre village and endosulfan. Government of Kerala was asked to conduct this study. The Committee recommended that in view of recommendations of other committees aerial spraying of pesticides may not be allowed at all in any situation.

Down To Earth magazine reports about the details of Dubey committee report in the article ‘What Dubey Did’. The article showed how Dubey had suppressed dissent and that majority of the scientific members in the committee had ruled against endosulfan.

In December 13 2005, the Union ministry of agriculture issues a gazette notification restricting the use of endosulfan in any form in the State of Kerala.

Campaign by the Pesticide Lobby

Pesticide manufacturers have been trying all possible means to ensure endosulfan remains in use in the cashew plantations of Kerala. After the Union ministry issued a gazette notification restricting the use of endosulfan in 2005, pesticide manufacturers got together and floated a non-profit, Centre for Environment and Agrochemicals (CEA).
The non-profit claimed to work for the welfare of farmers and promoting the judicious use of pesticides. One of their objectives, they claimed, was to expose scientifically fraudulent reports about pesticides.
They began harassing organizations and any individual who supported the ban, by sending letters and filing defamation cases against the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), the leading organization fighting for a ban on endosulfan. They even went to the extent of lodging fake cases, distributing booklets with obscene cartoons at the CSE gate; and vilified Sunita Narain, Vandana Siva, Toxics Link and IIT-Kanpur scientists. They also picketed the CSE office and Sunita Narain's house for over a month in 2007.

Recent Developments

In October 2008, Endosulfan entered the process of being considered a Persistent Organic Pollutant (POP) in the fourth meeting of the Persistent Organic Pollutants Review Committee (POPRC) of Stockholm Convention held in Geneva, Switzerland and a year later, in 2009, the fifth meeting of the Persistent Organic Pollutants Review Committee (POPRC) of Stockholm Convention reviews and adopts a revised draft risk profile on endosulfan by which it agrees that its POP characteristics call for a global action.

In March 2010, India blocked the listing of endosulfan in Annex III of the Rotterdam Convention at the Chemical Review Committee meeting. Under Annex III the chemical is subjected to Prior Informed Consent (PIC) of the importing country. India had blocked it on previous occasion in 2008.

At the sixth meeting of Persistent Organic Pollutants Review Committee (POPRC) to the Stockholm Convention, in October 2010, Geneva, India opposed a global ban on the manufacture, use, import and export of endosulfan. Of the 29 members in the review committee, 24 supported the ban and four (Germany, Ghana, Nigeria and China) abstained.

Despite opposition from the Indian government, the committee adopted a risk management evaluation and recommended a ban to the Conference of Parties (COP) of Stockholm Convention scheduled to meet in April 2011.

In November 2010, the National Human Rights Commission issued notices to the Central and State governments seeking explanations on reports that the aerial spraying of endosulfan in Kasargode had affected people severely and in the same month, the Kerala Pollution Control Board issues a notification to ban any use of endosulfan in the state under Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act 1974 and Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act 1981. The PCB announced the ban on finding traces of Endosulfan in water and sediment samples collected from the Shiriya river and nearby watercourses in Kasaragod. Violation of the ban will attract imprisonment for a maximum period of six years and a fine.

In February 2011, the government of Karnataka banned the use of endosulfan making it the second state to do so. The Endosulfan Manufactures & Formulators Welfare Association (EMFWA), files a case against the state for banning the pesticide in an ‘unscientific’ manner.

A UN-backed regime of 173 countries on Friday, 29 April 2011, agreed to globally phase out the farm insecticide endosulfan — a decision with significant implications for India, the world’s largest manufacturer and user of the chemical. The phase-out commitment, will put endosulfan in Annex A of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, thereby clearing it for elimination worldwide. The country’s pesticide industry deplored the move, saying it would benefit European manufacturers of costlier alternatives.

Social costs of the Ban

Endosulfan manufacturers say that a ban would trigger import of costly patented pesticides from European and other countries. This may be true in the case of some crops as the price of the pesticide in the market is not always decided by whether they are patented or not. If royalties are to be paid, it affects the profits of the manufacturer and not necessarily the costs of farmers.

The annual loss to the pesticide industry in India, from a ban, is estimated to be between Rs.279 crore and Rs.450 crore. However, this will come down or be neutralised if the industry is able to manufacture substitutes in India.

Environmentalists fighting for the ban say the cost of phasing out the pesticide is a global one and India, if it uses the right diplomatic effort, could get the entire cost supported by international funding and introduce robust alternative systems using that money.

A whole generation of children in Kasargode, Kerala is growing up with serious deformities that cannot be attributed to anything but this pesticide. The state government is faced with a demand for their rehabilitation, treatment and care, the added costs of which runs to crores of rupees. Though Kerala banned the pesticide, it is still being smuggled across state borders to meet a huge demand from big plantation owners, hence the call for a national ban.

Endosulfan’s days are certainly numbered. India has around 11 years to phase out this controversial pesticide. The furor created by endosulfan will have far reaching effects on all chemical pesticides and may someday pave the way for more organic farming methods that are slowly developing in pockets across India.