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Rehabilitation of Endosulfan Victims in Kerala
On 30 January 2021, a group of people under the banner of ‘Endosulfan Peeditha Janakeeya Munnani’ (Endosulfan-Affected Peoples’ Front) marched in front of the district collectorate. The protestors demands were fulfillment of government sanctioned aid and provision of basic health facilities for the Endosulfan victim’s community in Kasaragod, a Northern district in the state of Kerala. The protestors included activists and victims of Endosulfan tragedy that rocked the state in early 2000s. However, despite drastic national and international coverage to the issue, people still await aid and rehabilitation promises of the state government. They have been protesting regularly for the past decade for basic healthcare facilities in the district and continue to do so in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic. While the world is grappling with the biggest healthcare crisis in a century, poor healthcare infrastructure and facilities have been a continuing reality for Endosulfan tragedy victims for more than a decade.
The issue began in the late 70s and is seen as a result of lack of scientific knowledge as well as state governments’ negligence. Since 1978, cashew plantations in Kasaragod, Kerala used a highly toxic organochlorine pesticide to repel tea mosquito bug. It was aerially regularly sprayed three times a year. However, soon after the spraying, animal calves began developing deformities. Few years later, similar problems began appearing on people as well. Apart from Kasaragod, the pesticide was also used in Mango farms in another district, Palakkad, where related issues were noted as well.
Kasaragod as a Case in Point
The Plantation Corporation of Kerala (PCK) was involved in aerial spraying of Endosulfan pesticide in 15 grama panchayat in Kasaragod district, Kerala. The frequency was set at three times a year which continued for more than two decades. Since the beginning of the use of Endosulfan, local population and health authorities began noticing stunted growth and deformed limbs among newborn calves. And, by early 1990s local health officials began noticing serious health disorders among the human population.
As the ailments worsened over time, government authorities and health officials began conducting health surveys to understand causes and progress of illnesses.
Rehabilitation plan for Endosulfan victims
Early government responses
In early 2000s, the Government of Kerala set up a health survey covering the impacted region in Kasaragod district, Kerala. Experts were sent to various affected villages covering environmental impact (contamination of waterbodies and impact on animals), health impacts of PCK workers as well as the local population. The government also initiated setting up medical camps in the district to help categorize the affected people into various categories for further treatment and medical analyses. As per initial studies, the expert panel suggested immediate ban on the use of Endosulfan in the region. Apart from the state government, judicial courts also played an important role in the ban of Endosulfan pesticide and rehabilitation of the victims.
Role of Judiciary in Endosulfan tragedy
In 2001, a victim, Leela Kumari Amma approached a lower court demanding for temporary stay in aerial spraying of Endosulfan in Cashew plantations. The High Court of Kerala upheld the order of lower court in 2003 permanently banning Endosulfan spraying. Following the court order, the Government of Kerala officially banned the use of Endosulfan.
In 2011, the Supreme Court banned the use of Endosulfan. Further, in 2017, the Supreme Court directed the state government to pay compensation to victims as designated by the state depending on the categorization of patients. The Supreme Court also directed the state government to seek help from the centre whenever necessary for aid and structural support. In 2019, the Supreme Court ordered Kerala state to pay a compensation of Rs. 5 lakhs to four children, all victims of the pesticide use immediately. If not paid within the given time, the court said that it was at liberty to use contempt action against the government.
The court has played an integral role in engaging the state and centre government in terms of rehabilitation of the Endosulfan victims. Aside from increased state capacity, the role of the judiciary can help in strengthening the system and increasing the stakes for the victims.
Existing Government Policies for Victims
Following the health survey, Government of Kerala began adopting several aid measures and rehabilitation plans for the victims. After identifying the list of patients and their illnesses, government set up free health camps across the affected areas in Kasaragod district for treatment. The free treatment plan was adopted well with a comprehensive system that enables better medical support for the victims. The victims were given ‘smart cards’ for identification for receiving free treatments from government designated hospitals. Mobile health units were also set up for easy access to healthcare.
Apart from healthcare facilities, the government also provided compensation of victims and their families along with a family pension. The pension amount was decided based on the pre-determined categorization of affected victims. Government also decided to write off loans of all victims and their families considering the difficulty for repayment for the victims and their families.
Government of Kerala was also involved in rehabilitating affected families, providing safe drinking water and other resources. Apart from the help from state government, private actors and NGOs were also involved in constructing shelter homes. For instance, the Satya Sai Gramam Rehabilitation Project for Endosulfan is an initiate to build compact and safe homes for the victims. According to the project plan, more than hundred houses were built in three different places using government provided land. Further, local people, with help from the state government, organized to form an initiate called ‘Snehaveedu’, a care center for the victims providing physiotherapy, vocational training programme and special school for children with disabilities.
Fault lines in Rehabilitation Measures
Despite actions taken by the government, Endosulfan victims still face several problems ranging from healthcare to livelihood. Present issues faced by the victims can be analyzed through three different factors: healthcare, livelihood, and governance. In terms of healthcare, victims face difficulties in accessing adequate medical facilities. Kasaragod, located at the Northern tip of the state bordering, is often identified as a backward district, and lacks a well-equipped public healthcare system. The district does not have a super specialty hospital or a neurologist that can tend to Endosulfan victims, most of whom have neurological disorders. One of the main requests made by the Endosulfan-Affected Peoples’ Front is the establishment of a research centre that can look into Endosulfan victims specifically, with a strong scientific background. While the government conducts regular camps to identify Endosulfan victims, there is lack of a structured, scientific approach in determining the victims and their credibility to receive government compensation and aid. This has often resulted in genuine victims being taken out of the victim list. There is also a fear of corruption that can tamper the reliability of the list.
Further, there are also discrepancies in fund allocation and aid distribution among the victims. Despite a large amount of fund that is set aside for the rehabilitation of Endosulfan cases, there are victims who have not received the compensation money or their family pension which has been put on hold for months and years. In 2019, the mother of an affected child protested outside the state secretariat for the reception of financial aid. Despite strict orders from the High Court of Kerala, people have not yet received the compensation amount, “Of the 6,212 victims, only 2,665 received the monetary help, while 3,547 people are still waiting for it.”
Finally, the issue of inefficient governance is often cited by activists and victims alike. Local government is criticized for tampering with the regularly updated patient list by leaving out people. “Expert doctors had drafted 1,905 new victims in 2017… But the government scuttled it and the final list had only 363 [new] victims, throwing out more than 1,542 eligible victims. It is a gross injustice. We demand inclusion of all eligible victims in the beneficiary list” says a local activist. Many NGOs and activists believe that the pesticide lobby still has a strong role to play. Evidently, a set of Endosulfan non-believers are emerging today, questioning the reliability and authenticity of the research surrounding the tragedy itself. This has been waning the strength of the movement.
In March 2021, the district collector of Kasaragod, ordered for a complete reassessment of the Endosulfan victim list pointing out that there are several ingenuine cases that have been added to simply gain financial and other benefits offered by the government. However, without a structured and well-researched methodology of determining the credibility of victims, there is always a risk of leaving out victims who need government support.
Post-Covid-19 Assessment of Endosulfan Victims
The world faces several challenges today. Increasingly, these challenges are what we least expect and not prepared for. The Covid-19 pandemic can be considered as a wake-up call for politicians and academics alike to focus on unconventional, yet important aspects of development which are often neglected. Health and Environment are two such defining sectors that require maximum attention. The Endosulfan tragedy is an environmental disaster that has lasting health implications of the affected population. With frequent threats of another epidemic and pandemic, the victims of this environmental disaster are increasingly in risk.
In such a scenario, a welfare government like Kerala, must be willing to provide basic medical facilities for the people. However, the state and local government has not been prompt in building necessary health infrastructure in a backward district. The inability to cross borders during the pandemic has negatively affected the victims who needed critical care during lockdown. The death of a young eighteen-year-old girl, Anju, during the lockdown created a stir as the girl could not be taken to her regular doctor in a super specialty hospital in Manipal, Karnataka. Instead, she was transported to Periyaram Medical College in Kannur district which is less equipped. During the pandemic, the government failed to provide uninterrupted family pensions for the victims, and it required these people to risk themselves at a vulnerable time and protest. Further, the government has not taken any initiative to ensure the safety of vaccinating Endosulfan victims. Most of the victims today have neurological and physical disabilities. With no scientific research focusing on the victims, vaccination is a gamble for the affected people.
Apart from medical support, government should also provide material support for the affected people, in terms of safeguarding the community from exposure to Covid-19. Necessary goods and services must be transported to their home without delay.
The Endosulfan tragedy is seen as one of the worst environmental disasters in India. It is a man-made disaster that intensified due to the negligence of the Plantation Corporation of Kerala (and several other countries across PCK). As per scientific studies, Endosulfan pesticide is banned in India today. The issue received global attention and is considered a lesson for the rest of the world. However, today the Endosulfan tragedy is a social issue which points at the poor healthcare infrastructure of Kerala, a state that is ironically applauded for its welfare policies.
Since the ban of the pesticide, the government has taken several policies of aid and rehabilitation since early 2000s. The judiciary has played a vital role in ensuring justice to the victims. However, the state has failed to provide basic healthcare facilities in the affected district. Lack of state capacity coupled with an inefficient medical system led to serious fault lines in the system and rehabilitation mechanism. The Government of Kerala must invest in creating a medical center that conducts regular medical detailing of Endosulfan victims to understand the prognosis of illnesses. Under researched health issues need dynamic policies. In terms of governance, there must be transparency at local and state level during the reassessment of Endosulfan victim list to ensure the credibility of beneficiaries.
Further, the outbreak of Covid-19 has re-emphasized the need for better scientific research which focuses on the Endosulfan victims in Kerala. Being part of a backward district increases the challenges faced by the affected community. However, these are difficult times that necessitates government support and adequate policy responses which focuses on the vulnerability of the Endosulfan victims.