Born prematurely on May 14, she weighed just 1.75 kg at the time of birth. The baby girl had a birth defect called jejunal atresia, characterised by complete or partial absence of the membrane connecting the small intestines to the abdominal wall. Her strained breathing made doctors of the Government Tribal Speciality Hospital rush her to Thrissur Medical College. Even before she could be given a name, the daughter of Anu and Selvaraj from Bommiyampadi hamlet died on May 25.

Attapady is a hilly block of Kerala’s Palakkad district and is home to 30,658 Adivasis who live in 192 hamlets, or oorus, spread across three gram panchayats.

In a state with India’s lowest infant mortality rate – six per 1,000 births – Attapady is an anomaly.

Of the 210 infants born in the block to Adivasi mothers between January and May, seven died, which comes to an infant mortality rate of 33 per 1,000 births. Four deaths happened in May alone.

Reporting the latest death to the District Medical Officer on May 27, Attapady’s Nodal Tribal Health Officer, Dr R Prebhu Das, made a demand:

“Anu has been staying in Bommiyampadi-Cheerakkadavu locality where farmers used prohibited pesticides on banana and areca nut plantations. Many children born to couples from this area had congenital diseases and physical deformities. We need to conduct a thorough study to ascertain whether the pesticide usage has been causing the birth defects in newborns”.

This is the first time a government official has echoed the concerns of Adivasis, who have for long blamed the banana plantations for contaminating the area’s soil and water, which they allege has led to a high rate of miscarriages and infant deaths.

While there has been no major study of the impact of pesticides in Kerala, the environmental advocacy group Thanal has found rampant use of monocrotophos in the state’s banana plantations. The Food and Agriculture Organisation has warned that monocrotophos are highly toxic and their use in agriculture should be carefully managed to minimise ecological contamination.

The Adivasis of Attapady say they are more vulnerable to water contamination since there is no water treatment plant in the area.

“We had raised this issue when government agencies investigated the spike in infant deaths and miscarriage rates in Attappady in 2013,” said Maruthi, the head of the women’s collective. “But no one took it seriously.”

Over the two years of 2013 and 2014, at least 58 infants died in Attapady block. The government then launched special schemes for the Adivasis and established a hospital in the area. The number of deaths came down in 2015 and 2016, but this year, seven infants have died in the first five months. In the past, reports have found a link between hunger, malnutrition and infant deaths in Attapady.

The arrival of a new cash crop

Attapady was once the land of the Adivasis. In 1951, they constituted 90% of its population. Since then, however, their numbers have steadily dwindled with the arrival of settler communities from other parts of Kerala and neighbouring Tamil Nadu. The 2011 census put the tribal population at just 34%.

Since the Adivasis lacked ownership titles, they say, the settlers were able to take over their land. While the Adivasis used to cultivate maize, ragi, pulses and paddy, the settlers chose to plant banana groves.

For a long time, bananas were cultivated mostly along the banks of the Bhavani river, which originates in the Nilgiri Hills of Tamil Nadu and flows through the Silent Valley National Park and Attappady before returning to Tamil Nadu.

But as cultivable land near the banks became scarce, the farmers moved up the hills. To irrigate the land, they installed high-powered motor pumps, which the Adivasis say sucked the river dry.

The banana farmers also used pesticides and fertilizers to increase crop yields. The Adivasis believe that over the years the chemical residues seeped into the land and poisoned their sources of water.

Water pumps installed on the far side of the dried-up Bhavani river. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen

Raveendran, the head of the Adivasi hamlet of Veettiyoor, said, “farmer” was the wrong word to use for the “greedy” banana cultivators. “They pay scant respect to the soil and water,” he said. “Their only aim is to make profits.” He claimed banana farmers earn up to Rs two lakh in profit from 1,000 plants grown on one acre of land. “No other plant would ensure such a huge return,” he said.

Nanjan, an Adivasi labourer, works on a 10-acre banana plantation in Karayoor on the banks of the Bhavani river, said the farm has 10,000 plants and he expected a yield of 15,000 kg of banana by the end of next month. “Banana from Attappady goes to faraway markets like Calicut, Thrissur and even to Ernakulam,” he said. “My employers will make a minimum profit of Rs 25 lakh.” could not confirm the figures as the owner was not available. Most banana cultivators do not live in Attapady. They employ Adivasis to run the plantations, supplying them with farm inputs, including bottles of pesticides.

Banana plantations near Anakkal bridge, which connects Pudur and Agali gram panchayats in Attappady. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen

Too high a cost

Maruthi, 57, is the secretary of Thai Kula Sangham, a women’s collective that was formed in 2001 to tackle excessive alcoholism among the Adivasis, and went on to intervene in environmental issues, organising agitations against sand excavation, quarrying and tree felling.

She lives in Sambar Kudi hamlet in a house surrounded by banana plantations. She firmly believes the use of pesticides in the plantations is responsible for the spike in pregnancy complications and deaths of infants and children. “Many children were taken to hospital after they complained of nausea, headache and fever,” she said.

Adivasi activist and teacher R Rangan, who lives in Pattimalam hamlet, said farmers use pesticides indiscriminately. “Most of the banana plantations are on the slopes of the river. So, the residues of pesticides and fertilizers contaminate water bodies,” he said. Since the Adivasis use the river water for drinking, Rangan added, “it causes severe health hazards”.

A farmer from Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, who is growing 1,500 plants on a piece of leased land in Attappady admitted to using heavy doses of pesticides. “I use pesticides on the plants during different stages of their growth,” said the farmer who asked not to be identified. He learned about using pesticide from fellow farmers. “It is spread by the word of mouth,” he said.

“It begins from the planting stage,” he continued. “Heavy doses of pesticides are needed to fight insect attacks. I also use special fertilizers to increase the weight of each banana. The crop will be not be profitable if I do not use pesticides and fertilizers.” He refused to divulge details of the names of the pesticides and the volume of its usage.

On the question of the allegations by Adivasis that the pesticides were harming pregnant women and infants, he refused to comment.

The tribal activist Maruthi's house at Sambar Kudi hamlet is surrounded by banana plantations. Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen

Toxic practice

Thanal studied the use of pesticides in banana plantations in Thrissur, Palakkad, Thiruvananthapuram and Wayanad districts. It found that most pesticides, which are used to control aphids, mites, locusts and other pests, contained monocrotophos and phorates.

“They are extremely toxic pesticides and are banned in Kerala since 2011 but are still used widely,” said C Jayakumar, environmental activist and trustee of Thanal.

In 2013, at least 23 children had died after eating a meal of rice and potato curry in a school at Chhapra in Saran district of Bihar. The cause of deaths was traced to the use of cooking oil that contained monocrotophos.

The recommended usage of thimet, another pesticide sprayed on the plantations, is 50 gram in two applications. However, the farmers in the districts Tahanal studied use two kg of the highly toxic pesticide per plant, Jayakumar claimed.

The toxicity of a pesticide depends on how often it is used and how long it takes to break down in the soil, water and plants. This, in turn, is influenced by local environmental conditions. While a longitudinal study will be required to assess the impact of pesticide use in Attapady, Jayakumar said the concerns of the Adivasis need to be taken seriously.

On the question of pesticides and fertilizers, Deepa Jayan, the agriculture officer in Agali, said her department had never advocated their use. “We promote organic farming,” she said. “But farmers who want to make a quick buck turn to fertilizers to increase the yields.”

Asking for restrictions on the use of pesticides in the banana farms, Rangan, the activist and teacher, said: “Otherwise, it will become an unliveable place for the Adivasis, the original inhabitants of this place”.

This is the second part in a series on infant deaths in Kerala’s Attapady block. Read the first part here.