Several women in Kerala are aborting their foetuses fearing endosulfan deformities. Is this not a clinching enough argument for a ban? Jeemon Jacob reports
PREGNANT WOMEN in Kasargod district are fighting the endosulfan tragedy in their own way — by opting for abortion. A sacrifice conducted in silence, even a 10-year campaign against the chemical has not yet convinced the government to ban its use.
Without the intervention of the welfare state, they are now released from the fear of death and chronic disease. They have seen enough. They have lost many in a short span of time. Around 1,000 people have already died in the past seven years. Another 4,600 persons are living with chronic diseases. Most of them have babies with congenital defects — bedridden since birth. They spend their life nursing their babies till their death. They know that their babies will not grow up or go to school like normal children. They have gone through all this.
Doctors call it the ‘Hiroshima syndrome’. But these mothers have never heard of the place. They have been aborting their babies and successive governments have failed to do anything about this havoc that the deadly chemical has unleashed. Hardened by life, these women don’t want to deliver deformed children anymore. They are struggling to come to terms with the tragedy at a time when India is trying to resist a global ban on endosulfan.
Carmine Crasta, 31, lives in Yenthadukka village, close to cashew plantations owned by the state government. Her seven- year-old son Martin was born with neurological problems. Husband Maurice D’Souza, a carpenter, spends 60 percent of his earnings on the treatment of his only son. Carmine has terminated four pregnancies in the past seven years. “It was a hard decision. But I had no choice. How could I have another baby like him?” Carmine says, tears welling up in her eyes.
The couple were married in 2001. She conceived the following year only to suffer a miscarriage in eight weeks. “After six months, I became pregnant again,” she says. “We were very happy. Doctors also assured us that everything was fine and I delivered him. He was a normal baby. Very cute. But when he didn’t crawl after a year, we took him to hospital, where he was diagnosed with a neurological disorder. We have approached several doctors since then, but there is no change in his condition. I’ve not lost hope. I pray to God for a miracle.” In spite of repeated prayers, her saints have failed Carmine.
Carmine conceived several times, but each time abnormalities were detected in the foetus. “As Catholics, we believe babies are a gift of God. Abortion is a sin for us. But I could not take a chance when scans showed a congenital polycystic kidney in the foetus,” explains Carmine. Her face shadowed with gloom, she retreats to the kitchen to hide her tears. Doctors have advised her to use copper-T to avoid successive pregnancies, which could be fatal.
“Now I’m scared to be pregnant. Doctors advised me to move out of this area before the next pregnancy. But how can I leave my home? It’s all due to endosulfan spraying. The killer pesticide has polluted our water and soil. Now it is killing our babies,” she says.
KASARGOD, AT the northern end of Kerala, has the largest cashew plantation belt that covers 5,600 acres in 11 village panchayats. The plantations have been aerially sprayed with endosulfan since 1976, three times a year regularly till 2000, to check the menace of the tea mosquito bug. Aerial spraying of the highly toxic organochlorine pesticide polluted water bodies, soil and vegetation. The after-effects of the indiscriminate use of endosulfan haunt Kasargod. Kerala’s health department identified 4,600 victims in 11 village panchayats and issued health cards entitling patients to free medical care.
In 1979, the local community noticed stunted growth and deformed limbs among newborn calves. By 1990, the health disorders were noticed among humans. Mothers started delivering children with congenital anomalies, mental retardation, physical deformities, cerebral palsy, epilepsy and hydrocephalus.
The National Institute of Occupational Health, a wing of the Indian Council of Medical Research, conducted a study in the affected areas and identified aerial spraying of endosulfan as the reason behind the complex health problems in the region. But it was not enough to convince the agriculture ministry to order a ban on the chemical.
Sujatha Premnath, 25, a post-graduate, is an anganwadi worker with an Integrated Child Development Services project in Kumbadaje village and is married to a businessman. She underwent the trauma of miscarriage when her foetus was only three weeks old. She became pregnant again in January 2010 but had to undergo medical termination of pregnancy in August that year when the foetus was found to be abnormal.
“I lost my baby when it was 28 weeks old,” she recalls. “Doctors told me the baby would be born with deformities. So we decided to terminate the pregnancy. Why should I deliver a baby with deformities and allow him to suffer his entire life?” reasons Sujatha. She had only one option — go for an abortion at the Justice KS Hegde Charitable Hospital, Derala Katte in Mangalore.
“I have fixed up an appointment with Dr Giresh, a gynaecologist in Manipal Medical College,” reveals Sujatha. “If he assures me that I can conceive normal babies, I will try to get pregnant again. If not, we will never have babies in our life.” Like many others, she too would prefer to live a childless life rather than give birth to a child with deformities.
Three kilometres away, 38-year-old Kamalakshi has a healthy, one-year-old girl. But her medical history has not been smooth. “My first baby died seven days after his birth. My second pregnancy was terminated at eight months after the doctor told me that the foetus was abnormal,” says Kamalakshi. “I conceived once more only to abort after 16 weeks. Now God has gifted me with a baby girl. She is perfect.”
Mothers deliver children with mental retardation, cerebral palsy, epilepsy and hydrocephalus
Health Minister PK Sreemathy admits that Kasargod has a high incidence of abortion. “Although there is no data available on the abortions in the district as most women go to Mangalore, we are aware about the seriousness of the issue,” she says. It’s not only abortions; high infertility rates is also a cause for worry.
Dalit families of Bovikkanam are the most miserable of the lot. Seventeen families of the Chokliya caste doing odd jobs in the cashew plantations, drink water from the streams in the valley. They soon found their women were delivering babies with deformities. The men suffer from various chronic diseases. Unaware of how to raise their voices in protest, they have come to accept their destiny.
However, not everyone has kept silent. Like 31-year-old Savithri Sundaran, the only one who can read and write among them. “Miscarriages are common in the colony,” she says. “Here, nobody consults doctors or seeks medical help.” Savithri has had two abortions in three years.
“After my abortions, I am scared of getting pregnant again,” elaborates Savithri, a mother of two daughters. Her neighbour Nayana, 23, is suffering from kidney problems. Nayana’s son Sharat underwent surgery when he was 12 months old. Like Savithri, she too had two abortions.
Ironically, infertility is seen by the women as a blessing in disguise. Many of them have not been able to conceive even after years of marriage. Sumalatha married Prashant when she was 16. After seven years, she is still trying to conceive. “Doctors advised me to approach infertility clinics,” she says. “We can’t afford the treatment as my husband is a casual labourer. So we discontinued it.”
Like her, 22-year-old Padmavathi craved for a baby, but was too scared to conceive. “Our husbands blame us for not conceiving. But, even if we become pregnant, we are not sure if the babies will be normal,” she says. “In a way, our infertility is a blessing in disguise. I have stopped worrying,” she consoles herself.
The mothers of Bovikkanam have been conditioned to accept the tragic reality. They have come to terms with it. But they do have one question: Why doesn’t Prime Minister Manmohan Singh save them from this misery? Does he need more studies to put his signature on a ban on the use of the deadly pesticide?
“We have suffered enough. Look at the deformed children. Do you need more evidence to ban the poison? When you use the toxic pesticide for a little gain, you are killing a generation. The souls of the unborn babies won’t pardon you,” warns a mother with folded hands.
THE INFERTILITY and high incidence of abortion in Kasargod has taken another toll. No one is willing to marry women from the 11 villages of the affected area. “Women are the worst hit by the endosulfan menace. They bear everything in silence,” says KV Muhammed Kunji, president of Punchiri Club of Muliyar. “Now the major challenge for us is to find suitable alliances for our girls. Men from other villages are not ready to marry our women. They fear that it’s risky to marry a girl from these villages.” Kunji acknowledges the social stigma attached to the affected area. His Punchiri Club is at the forefront of anti-endosulfan agitations gathering momentum in Kerala.
Now 43, Kunji had started organising people to protest against aerial spraying as early as 1994. As a leader of the Indian Union Muslim League, he led a group of social activists to sensitise the local population and politicians about the dangers involved in spraying the pesticide.
“I am not a scientist; neither am I very highly educated. I have learnt from my experiences. Thirty years ago, our villages were healthy places to live. After the spraying of the poison we have lost our peace of mind. What crime have we done to deserve this misery?” laments Kunji.
‘In a way, our infertility is a blessing in disguise. I have stopped worrying,’ says Padmavathi
It was under his guidance that a medical camp was organised in 2003. Attended by about 1,000 people, it was an eye-opener. Women with multiple ailments thronged the camp, as did men suffering from cancer and other chronic diseases. A medical survey was also conducted to document the various health problems facing the villagers. The initiative led to thousands of people joining the anti-endosulfan stir across Kerala.
“Today, when hundreds of people are registering their protest against endosulfan by signing on the ‘signature tree’, a symbol of our misery, Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar and other senior officials in the ministry, are running a campaign for the endosulfan lobby,” complains Kunji. “This is most unfortunate. They are playing with our lives.”
The people whose lives have been made into living hell by the poisonous chemical have had enough. They now want the government to act.
Jeemon Jacob is Bureau Chief, South with Tehelka.