Cardamom cultivators in Idukki district not only use a cocktail of pesticides but also apply allopathic medicines and even liquor to the cardamom plants.
Enquiries show that steroids like wysolone, antibiotics, vitamin B, aspirin and even rum are in common use along with pesticides. The farmers believe that they would check pests, aid growth and even spur flowering of the plants. A worker employed in spraying said that two millilitres of rum is added to every litre of pesticides besides other ingredients. Some farmers even use concoction of decomposing meat, eggs and other substances.
Principal Agriculture Officer of Idukki K. K. Chandran said that though allopathic medicines like steroids would initially boost growth and yield, they would damage the plant in the long run.
However, the prices of cardamom have shot up in recent month and the farmers are willing to do anything to improve their yields and the quality of the pods. The persistent organic pollutant endosulfan is used in most plantations despite a ban in the State. Apart from checking a broad spectrum of pests, farmers believe that it promotes flowering.
Endosulfan is smuggled from Tamil Nadu under different names. Batches of workers from Tamil Nadu carry endosulfan with them while travelling daily by bus or jeep to Idukki district. About 1000 jeeps are plying to Kerala daily and if each of them brings in ten litres a day, they stand to gain Rs. 1000 a day per vehicle because of price differences for endosulfan in Kerala and Tamil Nadu, notes Thomas Jose, Secretary of Red Cross unit at Udumbanchola.
Professor M. Murugan notes that broad spectrum insecticides used in cardamom and tea plantations kill as many as 80 insects besides several beneficial creatures such as honey bees and ants. The chemicals used in plantations included chlorpyrifos, furadan, phorate, lambda-cyhalothrin and cypermethrin. Resides of hexaconazole (fungicide) and endosulfan had been detected in cardamom, and DDT and its metabolates, phorates and methyl mercury in the soil in the plantations. The mercurial compounds come from a fungicide banned in Japan two decades ago. The plantations also use highly volatile and carcinogenic nitrobenzene to induce flowering.
The main reason for over use and irrational use of pesticides by the plantations were the consultants employed by them who recommend chemical treatment in liaison with manufacturers of agro-chemicals. Hardly ten per cent of the planters went by advice of the Agriculture Department, Spices Board or the Kerala Agriculture University.
When certain pesticides are combined, their effects get amplified because of synergic effect. About ten persons from Kailasappara in the district were hospitalised recently following poisoning while mixing pesticides and fungicides. Similar incidents have happened in the past also.
Pesticide shops dot small towns such as Thopramkudi in Idukki district. The pesticides are used mainly for vegetable cultivation there besides cardamom. Bitter gourd and other vegetables produced here reach even Chalai market of Thiruvananthapuram with an overdose of pesticides.
The easy availability of pesticides makes it the favoured route for those committing suicides. It also causes an increase in suicides as the means to commit suicide is available in almost all households. K. Anil Pradeep, St. John’s Hospital, Kattappana, said that his hospital had received 61 pesticide poisoning cases in 2010 (up to November). Of them, about 50 cases was the result of suicide attempts. Another hospital at Thookupalam was receiving a higher number of cases.