Ten days ago a well-informed reader in Kochi e-mailed a convincing case for banning endosulfan, an off-patent pesticide widely used by farmers round the country, on the reasoning that it played havoc with the lives and livelihoods of poor farm workers. But the reader did not stop with this; he said The Hindu had not given the issue the attention it warranted. This led me to a qualitative study of news media coverage of the issue during the latest phase of the mass campaign for a central government ban on the use of the pesticide.
Although endosulfan has been in use in Indian agriculture for over three decades, its adverse effects came on to the public agenda only during the last decade-and-a-half, when users in India and several countries began to report their experiences with the pesticide. The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POP) was signed in 2001. It held five meetings to decide on banning the pesticide.
On April 26, Kerala Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan went on a fast along with hundreds of party cadres and supporters in Thiruvananthapuram to press the central government for banning endosulfan. Around the same time, a meeting of the Conference of Parties to the Stockholm Convention on POP began in Geneva to take a final decision on the long-pending issue of ban on the organochlorine insecticide and acaricide. While most countries favoured an immediate ban, a few, notably India, played for time, in the end winning for the resisters 11 years' time to find an alternative to endosulfan.
The Kerala Chief Minister's galvanising campaign, which had the support of political leaders and people cutting across party lines, was followed by a State-wide hartal and demonstration by legislators in New Delhi, who had a meeting with an unconvinced Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The fast did have its impact on States such as Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh and ultimately led the central government to agree to a conditional ban.
The Kerala agitations also made a substantial difference to the coverage of the issue by the media, newspapers as well as television. NDTV did a short and moving feature on child victims of endosulfan and a follow-up interview. CNN-IBN, for its part, covered the massive rally and hartal in Kerala, which gave a push to the demand for a countrywide ban on endosulfan. The coverage of the issue by mainstream newspapers and news magazines reflected the popular mood.
In Tehelka Magazine (May 7, 2011), Jeemon Jacob tells the moving tale of about 5000 people in Kasaragod district who suffer from chronic diseases. Their children carry congenital defects, all bedridden since birth. Many suffer from neurological problems and diseases they call “the Hiroshima syndrome.”
The Hindu published several reports and analytical articles, which were informative and educative. Special mention must be made of reports and articles on related topics by the Thiruvananthapuram bureau of the newspaper. For example, in addition to offering factual detail on how the aerial spraying of endosulfan affected 4000 victims in Kasaragod district, the coverage gave readers an idea of the alternatives available to endosulfan.
Remediation plan needed
The Hindu followed this up on May 4, 2011 with a well-informed and balanced editorial titled ‘Eliminating endosulfan' (http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/article1988896.ece). It welcomed the decision of the Stockholm Convention to include endosulfan in the list of chemicals scheduled for elimination at the global level. It pointed out that “for the controversial insecticide to be replaced with benign alternatives,” it was “critical that official policy makes the development of low cost substitutes a priority.” It found the window of 11 years available to replace endosulfan with safer alternatives “unacceptably long,” arguing that “if the harmful effects of the insecticide are indeed true, there has to be urgent action at the national level.” It emphasised the need to fully rehabilitate the people of Kasaragod who had been affected by the indiscriminate use of endosulfan in cashew cultivation.
The editorial also underscored “the need for a good remediation plan,” considering “the wider effects on the environment in the affected region,” as recorded by the Salim Ali Foundation. “Containing the pollution,” the editorial concluded, “requires a systematic study of the soil, air, and water quality. Recovery of the regional ecology would be aided in no small measure by sparing further chemical stresses, and wherever feasible, by switching to organic methods. India has stopped the use of DDT in agriculture and, with sufficient will, can do the same with endosulfan.”
We actually found that during the last 15 months, The Hindu has published close to 60 reports and articles on the endosulfan issue. The criticism by the well-informed reader from Kochi that the coverage was less than the subject deserved speaks to the power, relevance, and urgency of the issue.