Endosulfan, Asbestos : Ban the Poisons Now!

Gopal Krishna and
Radhika Krishnan

On May 13th 2011, the Supreme Court (SC) banned the use, sale, production and export of the pesticide endosulfan throughout the country, citing its harmful effects. For more than two decades now, several organizations and concerned individuals have been waging a protracted battle demanding this ban, and the SC verdict is an important step forward in their struggle. This battle has not just had to contend with the powerful pesticide lobby, but also with various governments who have repeatedly tried to protect corporate interests over concerns of health and safety of millions of people. However, the battle is unfortunately far from over: according to the SC verdict, the ban will remain effective till the time a joint committee (formed under the aegis of the Indian Council of Medical Research and the Agriculture Commissioner) submits its report to the court about the harmful effects of this widely used pesticide. Given the track record of the state machinery and government institutions of pandering to corporate interests, there is every reason to remain skeptical of what this joint committee appointed by the UPA will recommend. If the ICMR gives a clean chit to endosulfan, the ban imposed by the SC will be lifted. 
The history of the use of endosulfan in India is a tragic one: the Plantation Corporation of Kerala (PCK) started trial spraying of endosulfan in the cashew plantations of Kasargod in 1977-78. From 1981, the PCK started regular spraying of Endosulfan two to three times a year. And over 20 years of aerial spraying of this highly toxic pesticide on cashew plantations in Kerala and Karnataka has left many with mental and physical disorders. Victims suffer from horrific congenital deformities, physical disabilities, mental retardation and a range of gynaecological problems. According to a estimate issued by several organisations and concerned individuals, more than 9000 victims of endosulfan have been identified in Kasargod district of Kerala alone, out of which over 4800 patients are bedridden. Over thousand victims of endosulfan have already died in this district. Similar effects are also being witnessed today in Idukki and Palakkad districts of Kerala, as well as in Dakshin Kannada, Kodagu and Udupi districts of Karnataka.
The concern related to the health and environmental impacts of endosulfan is not new. Way back in 1991, the Ministry of Agriculture constituted a high-powered committee (known as the Banerjee Commission) to review whether endosulfan should be continued to be used in India. This pesticide is so toxic, and its impacts so well documented that as many as eighty one countries have already banned its manufacture and use. Why then was this highly toxic pesticide allowed to be extensively used for several decades? The story of the use of endosulfan in India is also a story of how an unholy nexus between government institutions and profit-hungry corporations cynically sacrificed the lives and the health of hundreds of people, by flouting every democratic norm.
To begin with, in 1991 itself, the Banerjee Commission recommended that the spraying of endosulfan should not be allowed in areas where water bodies exist. However, endosulfan continued to be sprayed in Kasargod where 13 rivers and many other water bodies existed.  Moreover, spraying of endosulfan was done without the mandatory permission from the Civil Aviation Department; even the Central Insecticide Board has testified in the Kerala High Court that the spraying took place illegally.
Secondly, successive governments and several government institutions (including various departments of the state and central governments as well as state-run educational and research institutions) repeatedly worked to shield the pesticide lobby and cover up the harmful impacts of endosulfan. For instance, the central government had accepted the reports of the O P Dubey committee and the C D Mayee committee – both of which had given a clean chit to endosulfan, despite the fact that several groups and individuals had questioned the recommendations and findings of these committees. It has repeatedly been pointed out that these reports were manipulated and facts distorted to defend the use of endosulfan. 
For the past many years, the pesticide industry had resorted to virulent slander campaigns and bullying tactics against all those who raised their voices against endosulfan. Surrendering to this influential lobby, the Indian government has consistently been opposing a global ban on endosulfan. At the recent UN conference in Stockholm, the Indian government, bowing down to an international outcry against endosulfan, grudgingly accepted that this pesticide is harmful and should ultimately be banned. However, once again protecting corporate interests, the UPA has asked for ‘exemptions’ for endosulfan to be used on 16 crops (including cotton, tea, rice, wheat and mango)! Therefore, if the ICMR decides that endosulfan is safe for use, India can continue to use endosulfan for many more years.
It is high time now that the use and manufacture of endosulfan is permanently banned. As a result of spirited movements in Kerala and Karnataka against endosulfan, the state governments in these states have finally banned the use of endosulfan. But it is now necessary to push for a country-wide ban. Also, criminal prosecution should be taken against the corporate as well as the central and state government authorities who were responsible several deaths and disaster due to the prolonged use of endosulfan.
Asbestos: Yet another Killer
“We now have around 500 asbestos cancer cases every year in Ontario from a population of 13 million. If you (India) continue on your current path, you will multiply our death count by 100 times. That would be 50, 000 Indian workers dying every year from asbestos. In Ontario, we learned that safe use of asbestos is impossible. I urge you from the bottom of my heart, please do not make the same mistake as we made in Canada. Stop using asbestos and use a safe alternative.”
• Dr Alec Farquhar, Managing Director, Occupational Health Clinics for Ontario Workers
As the battle for a nation-wide ban for endosulfan reached a significant milestone this month with the SC verdict, the battle against yet another mass killer is also intensifying. As several health experts like Dr. Farquhar in Canada are pointing out, all forms of asbestos pose completely unacceptable hazards to workers who mine it, and also to anyone who is exposed to asbestos for substantial periods of time. Professor Elihu D Richter MD from the Hadassah School of Medicine of Hebrew University in Israel puts it clearly: “All form of asbestos kill. India should bury asbestos, not people….India should not repeat the mistakes of going back some 70 years which will kill tens of thousands of workers and their families.”
Asbestos was identified as a carcinogen way back in 1965. Studies by the National Institute of Occupational Health, Ahmedabad, have also shown that long-term exposure to any type of asbestos can lead to the development of asbestosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma. However, in a repeat of the tragic story of endosulfan, despite well-documented information, various governments (central as well as state) are hell-bent on promoting the asbestos industry. While fifty-five countries have already banned asbestos, new asbestos plants are being set up in India.
Today, various state governments (notably the Nitish Kumar government in Bihar) are promoting the trade and manufacture of asbestos. Bihar has in effect become the hotspot of hazardous asbestos production exposing the people here to all kinds of risks. Some of the upcoming plants in Bihar are:
• Chennai based Ramco Industries Ltd. at Industrial Area, Bihiya, Bhojpur.
• Chennai based Nibhi Industries Pvt. Ltd at Industrial Growth Centre, Giddha, Ara, Bhojpur.
• Andhra Pradesh based Hyderabad Industries Ltd at Kumarbagh Industrial Area, West Champaran.
• Kolkata based Balmukund Cement & Roofings Ltd at Chainpur-Bishunpur, Marwan, Muzaffarpur.
• Kolkata based UAL Industries Ltd at Goraul, Vaishali in the name of UAL-Bihar. Earlier this plant was proposed at Bakhtiyarpur.
• Rajasthan based Infrastructure Ltd at Pandaul Industrial Area, Madhubani. Earlier it was proposed in Industrial Area, Kumarbagh, Bettiah.
If the Nitish Kumar is going all out to promote the asbestos industry, in the neighbouring West Bengal, the state government awarded the ‘Environment Excellence Award’ to an asbestos company (UAL-Bengal)! Apart from manufacturing asbestos, while several developed nations across the world are banning and phasing out asbestos, India is willingly becoming the dumping ground for asbestos from countries like Russia and Canada. This promotion of asbestos continues despite the fact that alternatives to asbestos exist. The Central Building Research Institute (CBRI) for instance has developed roofing tiles and blocks using coir fibre and cement.

As people are becoming increasingly aware of the impacts of asbestos, a movement against asbestos plants has also begun. Bihar, where the government is actively promoting the asbestos industry, is witnessing simmering discontent at all locations of proposed asbestos plants. After a Citizens March in Patna led by left parties, the Chief Minister's Secretariat was forced to order an inquiry into the peoples’ demand for closure of the proposed asbestos plant at Muzaffarpur. At a time when governments are hell-bent on sacrificing the health and the very lives of the Indian people in order to promote and protect corporate profits, the movement against hazardous substances, including pesticides and asbestos has to be intensified.