Living With DDT
By K A Shaji
``I don't make my omelette from local eggs as they smell of pesticide," says carpenter TV Gireesh as he stands outside India's only DDT-manufacturing factory. DDT is a deadly insecticide banned in most countries. Located 18 km from central Kerala's Kochi city, the government-owned factory has long been accused of severely polluting the environment in the industrial belt where it is located, affecting human and animal life as well as harming crops and vegetation. Gireesh is among the increasing number of activists who want the factory shut down without delay.
The nauseating smell of DDT assaults the senses as one nears this industrial belt built around the once small villages of Eloor and Edayar. There are about 200-odd factories in the region but it is the DDT factory of the Hindustan Insecticides Limited (HIL), manufacturing DDT and Endosulfan since 1956, which has many of the area's 40,000 residents up in arms. There is by now sufficient evidence to show that water in the village's wells has become unfit for drinking and that large tracts of land are turning uncultivable by the season.
DDT is the most notorious of the 12 chlorinated chemicals identified for elimination by the world's most authoritative agreement on the subject, the Stockholm Convention of World Nations on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs). A signatory to the Convention, India has banned the use of DDT in agriculture. HIL's DDT production is thus fully export-oriented: its client list has eight African countries, including Namibia, Zimbabwe and Botswana. International groups like Greenpeace also oppose DDT production at the factory. An Empowered Committee set up by the Supreme Court on environmental issues has also called for immediate shutdown of the factory.
Environmentalists say the factory has polluted the local Periyar river. According to a study by S. Bijoy Nandan of the Central Inland Fisheries Research Institute, 16 species of fish, including eels, catfish, goby and cyprinids, have disappeared from the river. Some 30 more species are threatened; five are classified as endangered. Located adjacent to a highly sensitive wetland ecosystem, the HIL plant discharges effluents in an open creek. A 2006 study by Greenpeace and Britain's Exeter University found that water from this creek contained more than 100 organic compounds, 39 of which, including DDT, were highly toxic. "DDT and related compounds are of particular environmental concern," said Greenpeace India activist Sanjiv Gopal. "Not only are they toxic but they are also highly resistant to degradation and are liable to accumulate."
Environmentalist CR Neelakandan says besides its effluent killing birds, frogs and fish, the pollution from the DDT factory is badly affecting women. According to a health survey held this year by the Kerala government, breast cancer and complications related to reproduction are increasing in the region. Says Thankamma Ayyappan, who lives near the factory and was diagnosed with breast cancer four years ago: "Doctors have confirmed that it was caused by exposure to DDT. It is cruel of the government to run a factory that kills its own people."
SOME YEARS ago, local activists commissioned experts from the Occupational Health and Safety Centre of Mumbai, the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) of New Delhi and St John's Medical College of Bangalore to study the health problems caused by DDT. The report found that in comparison to a less polluted village in the same district, the chances of Eloor's inhabitants contracting cancer were 2.8 times higher. Children were at a 2.6 times higher risk of bodily deformities due to congenital and chromosomal aberrations. Chances of children dying due to birth defects had increased 3.8 times. Death from bronchitis was up 3.4 times and from asthma 2.2 times. Air pollution was 85 percent higher than in Kochi city. Since that report, another study by the Cochin University of Science and Technology has confirmed the high prevalence of DDT in locally available milk, fish, chicken and eggs.
But despite the overwhelming evidence, the government has refused to consider shutting down the factory. Activist Purushan Eloor, campaigning against the factory for a decade, says: "HIL's best option is to produce another product. But it has taken no R&D initiative in this regard." In 2004, the Supreme Court issued a directive to state pollution control boards to ask industries without environmental and other authorisations why they should not be shut down. Following this, the Kerala State Pollution Control Board ordered over 100 industrial units to tighten hazardous waste disposal, and served closure orders on 32 units. But the order made no difference to HIL.
Purushan claims that at a conference called last year in Senegal to discuss the status of pollution control as per the Stockholm Convention, he saw an executive of HIL distribute copies of a letter addressed to the Convention's Secretariat by the Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC), which controls the HIL workers' union. The letter stated that DDT was harmless and claimed no worker associated with DDT production at the factory had been diagnosed with health hazards in the past 50 years. Purushan asks, "Why was an HIL official part of India's official delegation to a conference that aims to eliminate the production and use of DDT?"
INTUC is the major force among the 356 employees of HIL. The union is supportive of the management, as it fears job loss for employees in the event of the factory's closure. Fearful of retribution, union members refuse to talk to outsiders but, speaking on condition that they not be named, some workers said they continued to work at the factory because they had no alternative livelihood.
HIL general manager Venugopalan Nair has views similar to INTUC's. "If DDT is harmful, why has it not affected our employees?" Nair asked in a chat with this correspondent. He said the workers at the factory sleep on DDT bags and eat near the production unit and yet have stayed unaffected. But his arguments don't cut much ice with the local populace. "We want to breathe fresh air and drink clean water," says local grocer Zakeer Hussain. "People are losing their health because of the pollution caused by DDT."