Sunita Dubey is a regional coordinator based in New Delhi for Toxics Link India, an information clearinghouse for toxics and related issues.

Monday, 26 Feb 2001

DELHI, India

As usual, I wake up with Monday blues. It takes me almost an hour to reach my office. Typically I enjoy observing the hustle and bustle of city life through the bus window, but today I am busy prioritizing and organizing the work to be done before I leave town tomorrow. I am going to Ranchi to attend an international conference on fossil fuels and climate change.

First thing after reaching the office, I download my email. Among all the regular email, one catches my attention because of its subject: “SOS-Help needed.” This email is from a local activist, Shree Padre, who lives in Kerala, a southern state in India. With the help of the local community, Padre is resisting a government move to aerially spray endosulphan on cashew plantations. For the past year, we have been helping his organization by providing information on endosulphan, a pesticide that has been banned in many countries due to its toxicity and acute health effects. Endosulphan is proposed to be banned globally under the U.N. Environment Programme treaty for “persistent organic pollutants” (POPs). Chemicals categorized as POPs have a highly persistent nature, extreme toxicity at very low concentrations, and the ability to enter the food chain. POPs’ associated health effects include reproductive failure, hormone dysfunction, tumors/cancers, behavioral abnormalities, and gross birth defects.

A disproportionate number of children in the village are born with birth defects.

Shree Padre’s village is small, with just 400 households, and is surrounded by lush, green forest. Most of the inhabitants are farmers practicing sustainable agriculture. However, for the past 25 years, endosulphan has been sprayed on plantations near the village, poisoning the water sources, affecting the villagers’ health, killing birds and insects, and generally disrupting the tranquility of this small hamlet. The villagers’ lives have dramatically changed as residents have become afflicted with diseases previously unknown to them, such as cancer, cerebral palsy, and birth defects. The government has made it a thrice-yearly ritual to send helicopters to spray endosulphan on its cashew plantations, engulfing the whole area in a poisonous cloud.

It took many years to establish the connection between pesticide spraying and the residents’ deteriorating health. Since then, the villagers have knocked on all possible doors to stop the poisonous spraying, but their pleas have fallen on deaf ears. Now they have asked our help in stopping the spraying scheduled for tomorrow.

I am struggling with the question of how to resolve this problem when my colleague, Madhu, walks in the office. I tell her about tomorrow’s spraying, and we sit down to devise a quick strategy.

The first call I make is to the joint director of the central insecticide board, which is the primary agency dealing with pesticide use. He tells me that his organization has not given permission to spray, and moreover, that aerial spraying is not permitted due to its negative health impacts. It takes a lot of talking to persuade him that this is actually happening in a small village despite the residents’ protests. He seems helpless and directs me to another officer, who supposedly is authorized to take action. I know this is just the start of a chain reaction, and that, in the process, I will be directed to many other officials who will give me the same story.

At 2 p.m., I call a high-ranking official in the agriculture ministry. I have to pass intense scrutiny and give a long explanation before I am finally allowed to speak with him. He seems to express concern and tells me that he will look into the matter. I explain the urgency to act, as the spraying will happen tomorrow. He says that he will fax a letter to the concerned state official and gives me his phone number in case I want to follow up. Next, I phone the agriculture production commissioner of Kerala, who is very resistant and not ready to acknowledge the problem. It takes a lot of arguing to make him understand the issue.

I put the phone down and think about how insensitive some people can be. Dealing with government officials is like banging my head against the wall. It’s 4:30 p.m. now, and I still have to organize all the documents to take to the conference. Before leaving, I again call the agriculture ministry to confirm that the letter has been faxed. Then I write a quick email to the local activist, briefing him on the day’s developments.

It’s 6:30 p.m., and I am back in my bus seat, looking at a man by the side of the road selling peanuts and trying to keep them crisp with a hot earthen pot.