HEALTH : PESTICIDE MENACE
Spray Of Misery
Villagers in north Kerala suffer from mental and
physical deficiencies. Is it the pesticide showered on cashew plantations
that is behind their pain?
| CRIPPLING EFFECT: Bharath can neither walk nor
in Swarga, however evocative the name of the village, is far from heavenly.
Nestled among areca and cashew plantations in Kerala's Kasargod district,
it is a hellish land plagued by diseases and suffering.
Ask Aithappa Naik, a farmhand. His son, Balakrishna,
6, developed very high fever two months ago. The doctor said the fever
would go away. But when it didn't, the worried parents took the boy to
Father Muller's Hospital in Mangalore. A few tests later Balakrishna was
diagnosed for cancer. Paediatrician K.V. Shenoy advised chemotherapy.
The family's last trip to the hospital was on May 18. "We have already
spent close to Rs 20,000," says Naik. "We have pawned all the
jewellery we had. It is becoming very difficult to treat our son now."
PAINFUL EXISTENCE: Vasantha, seen here with his ageing father,
leads a crippled life
A few blocks away from Naik's house, in Nathanige
hamlet, is the home of four-year-old Nizamuddin who is mentally challenged.
"This is not a unique case," says his mother. "There are
lots of children in this area who are not normal. We don't have the money
or the resources to find a cure for them." These are the harsh realities
of life in Swarga and the villagers have to endure them stoically.
Forbearance too is the only option for Hukappa
Gowda, a farm worker who doubles as a autorickshaw driver. His daughter
Mamatha, 17, is confined to a corner in his home near Swarga. "Ever
since she was four, she has not been able to walk properly and she understand
only a little," says Gowda. Initially doctors thought it was epilepsy.
That was 12 years ago. Her condition has not improved. "Every year
there is some complication or the other and we don't know what to do,"
adds the harassed father. "We now feel it is best to leave her alone
because we have no resources to take care of her."
A stone's throw from Mamatha's house, five-year-old
Bharath crawls on a filthy floor, naked. His mother Umavathi is frustrated.
Her husband Ellianna Gowda, a driver, visits her once a week. She has
to look after her son alone: "Bharath cannot walk or talk. He just
sleeps. There are no doctors here, nobody to care for us. There is no
government support at all."
Home after home in this village have similar
tales to tell. Physical deformities, cancers and disorders of the central
nervous system are common, as Dr Mohana Kumar V.S. discovered. Twenty
years ago, he set up a clinic in Vaninagar village near Padre village
where more than 150 of the 2,000-odd inhabitants had severe health problems.
While children bore the brunt of afflictions, their parents fell prey
to cancer, epilepsy, psychiatric disorders and congenital anomalies. In
some cases entire families were in trouble.
Nobody knows for sure why this little pocket
on the border of Kerala and Karnataka in the pristine Western Ghats should
suffer like this, but most blame it on aerial spraying of pesticides,
particularly Endosulfan, in the cashew plantations of the Kerala Government
undertaking, the Plantations Corporation of Kerala (PCK).
"Strange illnesses have afflicted these
villages and there is no thorough study on why this is so," says
Kumar. "There are around 300 cases of various kinds of abnormalities
in just this small area." An enumeration in January in the 4-sq km
Padre village, home to about 400 families, showed three cancer patients,
23 epilepsy patients, 46 cancer deaths, 23 mental and 43 psychiatric cases,
nine congenital anomalies and nine suicides-adding up to 156 instances
of health problems. Another doctor working in the region, Shripati Kajampady,
says, "We have seen a gradual deterioration in the quality of life
here. There are more people struck by diseases here than in other villages.
There is something definitely wrong."
One of the most distressing cases was that of
11-month-old Sainaba of Bovikanna village. Suffering from a hydrocephalus,
a condition in which the head swells due to accumulation of fluid, Sainaba
died on June 4. Her parents Shafi and Jameela had no idea why their child
was suffering thus. The Baby Memorial Hospital had even waived the operation
fees for the child but in vain.
Marginally luckier is Shruti, 7, who survived
infancy but has a tough life ahead. Born with three deformed limbs, she
hops around on one leg and cannot even walk to the school 100 m away.
Her father is an odd jobs man at a farm, her mother died of cancer. The
odds she has to fight against are high and so far no NGO or welfare organisation
has come forward to help her achieve her dream to attend school. Shruti's
neighbour Avinash, 10, has cerebral palsy and asthma. His father works
as a labourer, his mother rolls beedis for a living. "He still gets
fits off and on but we cannot give him medicines because there is no money
to buy them," says the father. At 20 Narayan Naik is twice Avinash's
age but of the same height- 3 ft. He also suffers from skin disorders.
His father Devappa Naik, however, is not taking this lying down. He is
one of the petitioners who have approached the Kerala High Court against
the aerial spraying of Endosulfan.