Endosulfan acts as a poison for a wide variety of insects and has been extensively used on food crops. The pesticide has been officially banned in the State of Kerela for ten years but prior to that was a period of 25 years when indiscriminate aerial spraying of plantations took place. This contaminated soil, water sources, animal life, and the people of the district.
Already banned in 80 countries, 127 governments agreed in 2011 on a worldwide ban on endosulfan but the Indian Government contested the decision claiming the country’s agricultural industry relied on the pesticide and that the industry would face heavy financial losses. Instead, the government negotiated an eleven-year phase out period leading up to a ban.
There followed a ban on the manufacture and use of endosulfan in India when the Supreme Court imposed an eight-week blanket ban giving experts the opportunity to determine whether the pesticide was safe for both humans and the environment.
Experts requested an extension as they found themselves unable to submit their interim report by the due date.
At this time manufacturers asked the Supreme Court to allow the export of endosulfan from their current stock. This was denied for fear that some manufacturers might dump the highly controversial agrichemical on countries with weaker regulations for controlling pesticides, and that the toxic product could be brought back into the country if exports were allowed.
Although the Department of Agriculture gave notice of a full suspension of sales and use, some states continued to use the pesticide and there was little interest in finding an alternative. Without an enforced national ban smuggling became a problem.
The people of Kerela were ignorant about the high toxicity of endosulfan and in consequence suffered from cancer, congenital malformation, mental retardation, reproductive disorders, infertility, and blindness. A compensation package was established by the government but the amount was barely enough to cover medical expenses. The worst affected victims received Rs 2000 (£27). There were also stories of intimidation by officials towards those making claims for negligence against the large companies producing endosulfan.
Photographs Peter Caton
When the Agricultural Commissioner convened a meeting of all Indian State Agricultural Departments to consider the use and impact of endosulfan, all but Kerela opposed a permanent ban, denying knowledge of any problems the pesticide created. Environmental groups and farmers organisations were not invited to take part in the discussions.
At that time endosulfan was the third largest selling pesticide in the world and those in India with a vested interest have made every effort to protect their assets at great cost to human health and the environment.
During a photographic assignment to cover the use of endosulfan in Kerela I met a young woman named Mammatha, a victim of endusulfan. A tumour covers half her face and her left eye. She does, however, have perfect sight in her covered eye.
Unlikely to marry and reluctant to leave her home because of shame and embarrassment, she said that she felt her life was already over. I set up a fund raising campaign to raise money to fund an operation to reconstruct Mammatha’s face and I am delighted to say we have raised over £3,000. Sadly, we have been advised that the tumour has spread to Mammatha’s brain meaning that major surgery was not feasible.
Following visits to see Mammatha and her family it has been arranged that the money will fund Mammatha’s education and, accompanied by her sister Manorama, she will commence higher secondary studies in September. Her studies will last three years and money has been set aside for Mammatha to open her own kinderdergarten.