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Endosulfan: Endgames In Geneva And New Delhi

By Prof. K.M. Seethi

24 April, 2011

Even as the meeting of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POP)—a global regime to protect human health and the environment from dangerous chemicals—is scheduled to be held in Geneva from 25 April 2011, battle lines have been drawn between New Delhi and the State of Kerala on the issue of endosulfan, a highly toxic pesticide which has been in the news for long. In the meeting with an all-party delegation from Kerala on 22 April, the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh reiterated the position already taken by his cabinet colleagues on the question of banning endosulfan. For the UPA government, the die has already been cast in favour of an exemption rather than a ban on the pesticide.

Though more than 80 countries have already banned endosulfan, the most crucial could be the position of India, the supplier of 70 per cent of the world’s endosulfan needs. But India is most likely to play a divisive role in the process of negotiations in Geneva as indications emerging from New Delhi are already in favour of seeking an exemption for endosulfan rather than a total ban.

For the Centre, the startling data from the Kasargod district of Kerala are not enough for a total ban! However, New Delhi appears to be unconcerned about why as many as 81 countries have banned the chemical. The data sheet on endosulfan provided by the WHO and UNEP is also not sufficient for the Centre for a rethinking!

It is widely recognised today that endosulfan is one of the dangerous insecticides belonging to the class of compounds called organochlorines. India is one of the largest global producers of endosulfan. It is the supplier of 70 per cent of the world’s endosulfan needs—a market valued at $300 million (Rs. 1,340 crore). Out of the 9,000 tonnes India produces every year, half is bought by the country’s 75 million farmers, making it the world’s largest consumer of endosulfan. That explains New Delhi’s reluctance to impose a ban!

Endosulfan has been extensively used in India and is one of the prime agents of pesticide poisoning. Many studies point out that it has been dreadfully toxic to humans, fish and other aquatic life. It causes a plethora of adverse effects, including death, disease, and birth defects, among humans and animals. The toxicity would result in cancer, allergies and hypersensitivity, damage to the central and peripheral nervous systems, reproductive disorders, and disruption of the immune system.

Endosulfan has been sold under different trade names in different countries. However, 81 countries, including the United States, EU, etc. banned endosulfan. It is not approved to be used in rice fields in several other countries. The use is severely restricted in others.

The national coffee growers and research centre in Colombia pointed out that endosulfan was much worse than the insect pest, broca which it seeks to wipe out. Innumerable respiratory problems among the workers were reported and the researchers found significant quantities of endosulfan in the blood and urine of agricultural workers using endosulfan. The Pesticide Action Network recorded a number of cases of adverse effects of endosulfan in different countries. In the United States, endosulfan had caused adverse impact on the aquatic life. It was the primary cause of pesticide poisoning in Sudan, Malaysia, Philippines, Colombia, Indonesia, Ecuador, Mauritius and Paraguay etc. Endosulfan users in the cotton industry in Australia were alerted a few years back when significant amounts of residues were found in meat. The environmental groups and rural communities in Australia have been warning of the dangers of endosulfan contamination for several years.

The linkage between endosulfan and human miseries had come to the surface for the first time in Kerala in the 1980s when several cases of ailments and deaths were reported in the Kasargod district of Kerala where a number of villages were severely affected by endosulfan. Almost a decade back, the National Institute of Occupational Health (NIOH), upon the directive of Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), had presented a report to the Government of India linking the use of endosulfan to the prevalence of health disorders. The NIOH report has been sabotaged by the pesticide lobby which has been trying to undercut the negative findings on the use of endosulfan. The NIOH noted that there was a significantly higher prevalence of learning disabilities, low IQ and scholastic backwardness among children, besides serious neurological problems and congenital and reproductive abnormalities among people in the region.

The NIOH report has been confirmed by the team of doctors of the Department of Community Medicine, Medical College, Calicut who conducted an epidemiological investigation since October 2010 upon the directive of the Government of Kerala. This is perhaps the latest in the series of nearly a dozen studies which all confirmed the role of endosulfan in the prevailing health disorders. Most recently, a study conducted by the Salim Ali Foundation found that the indiscriminate use of endosulfan in Kasargod caused a disaster on the biodiversity of the area. It says that the pesticide adversely affected bio-eco system of the area besides causing endless human sufferings. The area clearly indicated a decline in plant diversity between 40 and 70 per cent, particularly for native species, compared to the natural habitat. Notwithstanding such studies, the Union Government is now set to initiate a fresh round of studies to further generate data!

Endosulfan being the most important of the POPs, there is certainly a case for a global ban due to its acute toxicity. While the WHO places endosulfan as ‘hazardous’, the US Environmental Protection Agency classified it as ‘highly hazardous’ and it eventually banned it. The Stockholm Convention has been reviewing the risk management evaluation on endosulfan since 2010. It had already agreed that the POP characteristics of the chemical warrant global action. The Persistent Organic Pollutants Review Committee (POPRC) will report its conclusions and make recommendations to the forthcoming meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP5).

Now the crucial question is whether New Delhi will have rethinking on the question in response to the new concerns for human and environmental security. The Stockholm Convention will be the litmus test for UPA government’s sincerity and genuine concerns for health and environmental security.

(Prof. K.M. SEETHI is Dean of Social Sciences and Director of Research in Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala. He is also Professor of International Relations and Chairman, Centre for Cross-National Communication in South Asia, School of International Relations and Politics(SIRP) in Mahatma Gandhi University. He has been the General Editor of Indian Journal of Politics and International Relations a biannual of the SIRP and currently the Editor of South Asian Journal of Diplomacy, published by the KPS Menon Chair for Diplomatic Studies. Prof. K.M. SEETHI can be contacted at kmseethimgu@gmail.com)

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