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Pesticide: a bitter harvest

By Roy Mathew

High levels of pesticides in the State's environment call for special care on the part of all. But the Government hardly controls its use in an effective way.

A victim of Endosulfan in Kasaragod. Photo: Johney Thomas

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: A pesticide tragedy in Kerala that claimed 102 lives in 1958 had led to the enactment of the Central Insecticide Act. Though the Act was intended to protect people from the dangers of pesticides, tragedies on a smaller scale continue to occur in the State.

The 1958 tragedy, which also caused severe poisoning of 828 persons, was the result of careless transport of pesticides with food grains, sugar and biscuits. The pesticide (Folidol) leaked into the food materials during transport. A judicial inquiry into the incident and enactment of the legislation took 10 years.

Today, many food items in the market have pesticides at levels harmful to human beings. Contaminated vegetables and grains arrive in the markets from inside and outside the State. The State uses pesticides widely in its plantations and paddy fields, rendering even water and soil poisonous.

The biggest tragedy that the State faced after 1958 was that of the Endosulfan victims of Kasaragod district. Like in the case of the Bhopal tragedy, the company that caused the poisoning has managed to escape liability so far. And several years after the magnitude of the tragedy became clear, the Government is yet to act to decontaminate the villages (to the extent possible) and ensure supply of pesticide-free drinking water to the villagers.

Use in plantations

In Idukki district, perhaps a greater tragedy is waiting to happen with continued use of Endosulfan and other pesticides by cardamom and tea plantations. In Kuttanad, the situation is alarming if one goes by the presence of pesticides in human beings, animals and the environment. However, there is total lack of concern and major studies are yet to be conducted on the impact of the pesticides on the health of the local people.

There is no correct estimate of how much pesticide is being used in the State. A recent study conducted by the Thiruvananthapuram-based voluntary agency Thanal, on the basis of a survey among pesticide dealers, showed that the sales in a single block in Idukki district exceeded official estimates for the entire State. The usage of pesticides per hectare in the district was very high compared to the State and national averages. Palakkad district too had a higher than average use of pesticide per hectare. The State average is about 343 grams a hectare.

The study showed that around 170 pesticide products were in use in Idukki district. Many of them belonged to groups having high toxicity. There is also evidence that even banned pesticides reached Idukki and other districts without proper labels or brand name. Unscientific practices are being followed for spraying pesticides. This put both those spraying the pesticides and others at risk. Deaths have occurred on account of improper use of pesticides in Idukki and other districts. Such incidents usually attract only local attention. Two years ago, many schoolchildren were hospitalised in Wayanad district following application of a pesticide in a banana plantation near their school. In another incident, two children died after consuming plantains kept to be transported to the market.

In Kuttanad

A 1993 study in Kuttanad estimated that about 500 tonnes of pesticide were being used annually in the region. Pesticides such as Lindane and DDT have been detected in the backwaters and soil in Kuttanad besides heavy metals derived from agrochemicals.

Much of the pesticide use in Kuttanad was for paddy. Dealers and agriculture officers influenced by them often recommended more than the required dosage of pesticides for many years in the past. Farmers used pesticides habitually and this led to poisoning of the aquatic system. Besides, residues of pesticides used in the high ranges washed down to the backwaters.

A study by K. Harikrishnan and others of the Rajiv Gandhi Centre for Biotechnology here showed accumulation of the pesticide Hexachlorocyclohexane (HCH, formerly known as BHC) in planktons, fish, benthos, clam, frogs, milk and human blood. The levels of accumulation were the highest among fish (0.20 to 9.58 parts per million). Total HCH in the sediment ranged from 2.13 to 12.24 parts per million. The total HCH in samples of human blood ranged from 0.005 to 0.15 parts per million.

A recent study by Aleyamma Mathew of the Regional Cancer Centre here and others among breast cancer patients from Thiruvananthapuram and other areas showed that the average BHC levels in the breast adipose tissues of the patients were as high as 3,119 nanograms per gram of tissue. Similar levels of pesticide were found in blood samples also.

Pesticides are known to disrupt the functioning of hormones and cause various ailments. There are reports of higher incidence of cancer and other ailments from Idukki and Kuttanad. But these are yet to be confirmed through scientific surveys. However, surveys and studies have established higher incidence of various ailments in 12 villages of Kasaragod district. According to a Health Department survey, 841 persons had been affected by various congenital problems and other ailments, including mental retardation. Miscarriages and stillbirths are not common there.

Aerial spraying

The State-owned Plantation Corporation of Kerala had violated several scientific and legal norms in aerial spraying of its plantations in the district continuously for 24 years. This had been reported by an expert committee set up by the Government. Pesticide applications have a more serious impact on the people in Kerala than in other States because of the higher population and peculiarities of its ecology and aquatic systems. (The average use of pesticide in Kerala is lower than the national average of 570 g/ha. as per 1999-2000 figures.)

Pesticide use for plant protection has also been found to be counterproductive at times with destruction of predators of common insects also by the pesticides. Many species such as frogs have been nearly wiped out from some areas of the State. It affected occupations like duck farming and bee keeping. Bees are pollinators of cardamom and application of pesticides in cardamom plantations has led to the destruction of bees and other beneficial species. High levels of pesticides in the environment also threaten many birds.

These called for special care in using pesticides in the State. However, the Government hardly controls its use in an effective way. Subsidies, in fact, encourage their usage. Hardly any precaution is taken by farmers and others while spraying pesticides in their farms. There is also no effective system of monitoring food materials and warning people against consumption of contaminated produce.

According to R. Sridhar of Thanal, the moment you stop using pesticides, you start the clean up. So discontinuation of the use of pesticide is the first steps towards decontamination of affected areas.

Many see organic farming as a way to reduce the use of pesticides in farming. However, Mr. Sridhar points out that the Government efforts now are oriented towards an export-based system. It will be difficult for small farmers to shift to organic farming unless Government support is there. Farmers, shifting to organic farming on a highly fertilized soil, will experience a drop in production though inputs would come down over a period. So, some initial help through the panchayats or krishi bhavans is called for. In different parts of the State, several voluntary groups and farmers are coming forward to try organic farming. This may augur well for the State.

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