Article I wrote for Bodhi…Thanks to Chris again for editing.
“Their blindness and arrogance are as solid as an iron mountain” said Martin Luther King. Let us open our eyes to the poignant plights of the victims of Endosulfan in Kasargode. Why do women reject their motherhood? Why is infertility seen as a blessing? Why are children born deformed? Why have honeybees become disoriented and even disappeared?
White butterflies played mischievously in the rain and white “vellilas” ( Mussaenda frondosa Linn
) glistened with pearls of rain drops scattered on them, which brought nostalgic waves of purity of a long lost childhood in me. As I gazed at the lonely clouds up in the sky darkening and slowly pouring down as warm drizzles, I wondered how much the monsoon rains and the intricacies attached to it enthralls us and mused at our desire for the monsoon to knock on our doors every year. A little bit of chance and a little bit of choice, was what introduced me to an enthusiastic likeminded group of young activists which made me part of Project Cardium – a documentary/video snippet about the endosulfan victims of Kasargode and hence the field trip to Kasargode. Second after second, minute after minute as the train took its course through the beautiful, lush countryside of North Kerala, ever so fresh and beautiful in the pouring rain outside, I sat there with an unfathomed but disturbing apprehension and curiosity about today’s visit to meet scarcely empathized and much surmised endosulfan victims of Kasargode. Amidst the lush green backdrop of Kasargod stand the cashew plantations, cash crops for the Kerala Government’s Plantation Corporation. The green hamlets talks about the misery of the unfortunate families torn apart by the effects of endosulfan. Reminiscing in agony about the beautiful childhood I spent in Badiyadukka, a small village in Kasargode, I waited patiently for the train to get to my stop. The wait seemed endless.
I reckon I felt happy and sad at the same time about the mission in front of me. A cup of hot tea and the divine rain outside was invoking such contradictory emotions in me. However, I gathered myself in haste to meet an emerging and vibrant doctor-activist who approached me with a very friendly and cheerful smile at the meeting point. He was Dr.Shafeer Babu, a medical practitioner who was part of one of the mobile units which was responsible for the rehabilitation of the endosulfan victims in about a dozen of affected villages of Kasargode. I asked Shafeer why he had chosen to work here in particular and his response was “I would like to contribute as much as I can, and since am young I have a lot of time and energy to work in remote, challenging environments like this”. We set to a remote village called Kumbadaje which was one of the affected villages, and within minutes, I gelled into the passionate and dedicated team which was on its daily rehabilitation field trip to meet the victims. It felt like we were all humming the same tune, same beliefs, and our vocation with conviction. A candid apprehension tinged with excitement prevailed inside me.
One can never forget those rejected but brave eyes, which looked at me deeply, when I asked Carmine Crasta, 31, a beautiful, serene woman, about her depressive abortion episodes and above all her baby Martin, 6, who was born with a neurological disorder. It was heart wrenching to see her eyes sparkle with tremendous enthusiasm and hope whenever she looked at her son who laid there paralyzed and deformed. “My child responds to me when I call his name now, He is six years old“, she said. She carefully took him in his arms and caressed him with kindness. Her eyes were constantly struggling to reconcile with the joy she feels with his touch and the grief she swallows when she recalls that her son can never have a normal life.
Carmine remembers vividly the spurious spraying of endosulfan without warning and said the whole village turned foggy and blurry for almost 30 minutes. She recalled that she was pregnant at that time and while taking a stroll in her garden, used to watch the choppers flying very low spraying the toxic chemical all over her home and lands and even the well which they used for cooking and drinking. She explained to me that, in the past seven years, she has terminated four pregnancies as she was worried she would bring another Martin into this world. The toxic mist that the choppers sprayed on these plantations engulfed these hapless villagers also, damaging their lives forever. Carmine and her baby were direct victims of endosulfan and her hardworking husband spends a big chunk of his earnings for Martin’s treatment. She worries seriously about how her only son will live, and survive after herself and her husband, passes away in the future. The unadorned story of a lamented motherhood.
Ritesh, who is only 14 and has a neurological disorder, smiled radiantly as though we were there to play and be merry with him. The old man who was in his 70s introduced himself as Ritesh’s father and a thin, fragile woman in the house who was nursing Ritesh was his mother whose face and hands had collapsed into just machinery, arms with no life mainly due to fatigue and stress. She reassured me as though she was reassuring herself that her elder daughter went to school and was a normal child and would fulfill all their dreams and take care of Ritesh after she is gone. I turned my attention to Ritesh who has not stopped smiling and was very hyperactive due to the neurological condition he was suffering from. I whispered to Dr.Shafeer why the child was not given any sedative so that he does not wear himself out and with a deep breath he replied the parents refused to sedate him. They argued that their son was swift and live and made random sounds, which was enough, for them to believe that he was alive and living. Sedation would force him into a vegetable state in his bed. We cannot begin to imagine comprehending the plight of these families, but it was actually very heart warming to know that Ritesh was loved and was smiling as though life was engaging in front of him.
I took a stroll to the pond in their back yard, and the father explained to me that after aerial spraying, the aquatic life in the pond was seriously damaged. The frogs, fish and snakes in the pond he remembers were all dying. They took water for their day to day use from that pond, and it is terrible indeed that such unchecked spraying was conducted over people’s livelihood like drinking water sources, cattle and even school-going children. The diseases found primarily in children were congenital anomalies, mental retardation, physical deformities, cerebral palsy, epilepsy and hydrocephalus. My train journey back was aloof and overwhelming and felt the rain wept for the victims I met that day which had drawn me into a web of emotional turbulence and the thought that it could have been me or my near and dear ones sent chills into my spine. Our children are our future.
Filming Project Cardium
Project Cardium team finally met at Kannur and was into its full swing, and we were filming and interviewing people in Kumbadaje in Kasargode. Travelling and working continuously for 20 odd hours a day for a couple of days seemed to be manageable especially under the feathers of our dedicated team lead, Peter Ivan. Rahul Radhakrishnan and Gokulapalan were with us while travelling around doing field trips. Sarith Kumar an enthusiastic young man was on the camera. Rahul Raghavan and Harish Menon though geographically far away was involved in various activities like scripting and content writing and thus to make Cardium a decent venture. Harish penned down those powerful words which echoed in our hearts and minds which became the heart and voice of Cardium. Through his words we were confident that we would be able to make the viewers think and contemplate on the issue.
We were in Morazha, Kannur, with paddy fields and hilltop as highlights, which echoed the Quit India movement of the 40s. The students of Morazha South A L P School stood in the rain and rehearsed for hours, and those young guns from Kannur where an inspiration to all of us. Eventually at Morazha we met Dr.P.V.Ramachandran, former D.M.E of Kerala and a veteran in the fight against a ban on endosulfan during early millennium, who explained in detail how there are well documented studies about the harmful effects of this pesticide.
Dr. Mohammed Asheel, assistant nodal officer of the Kerala government’s endosulfan rehabilitation programme played a vital role in the culmination of a series of activities which lead to the dramatic and successful prohibition of endosulfan globally. He was very much open about the dirty nexus he witnessed between the Indian official delegates and the pesticide lobby at the Stockholm convention, in Geneva. Asheel was well informed and had researched thoroughly about the range of diseases that endosulfan can cause in humans. His will power and the integration and devotion of his crew and friends famously led him to the Stockholm convention where he created history by showing the world community the Kerala endosulfan story and convincing them to ban the toxic chemical for the good of humanity. Our agriculture minister Sharad Pawar at the same time argued in the Indian parliament that endosulfan was safe and beneficial while the hapless villagers were struggling to come to terms with the tragedy they were drowned in. Asheel’s rehabilitation camps and protocols have made a great change in the way the endosulfan victims were ever treated and considered. He believed that the right to life is above everything, and his conviction was clear and conspicuous. We were inspired and charged by this charming young youth, a strong supporter of science and good will, who is an expression of our generation for better things to come. Freedom is most important for science indeed!
Let us act together as a country and correct the mistakes made more than a decade ago that left us with this tragedy. There is a burden for us all to bear but, predictably, it has fallen most heavily on the lives of those who are the most in need. Our voices can amplify the cries of those who struggle with the aftermath, and amplify the call to our leaders for something to be done. And from those leaders it must be asked, “why are families still being torn apart by the effects of endosulfan when there are so many alternatives already available?”. The plight of those who suffer these consequences is dismissed with talk of economic hardship for farmers if the chemical is withdrawn, but the government seemed more than capable of finding 60,000 crores for the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Cannot a government representing over a billion people find a better path to economic survival? Will it abandon the current one involving the mutilated destinies of its downtrodden?