On Wednesday, 25 mothers who have travelled with their disabled children from Kerala’s northern district of Kasargod to state capital Thiruvananthapuram, nearly 600 km away, will start a hunger strike in front of the Secretariat demanding justice for the victims of endosulfan poisoning.

They represent thousands of victims back home who have been fighting a long and frustrating battle demanding financial aid, adequate rehabilitation packages and healthcare facilities. The victims had held several rounds of agitations such as rallies, sit-ins and hunger strikes in the state capital in 2012, 2013, 2014, 2016 and 2018, seeking the attention of the governments in power.

The agitations were organised by the People’s Movement for Endosulfan Victims, formed in 2012. This organisation has brought together the victims of endosulfan poisoning, many of whom are disabled children.

Why the agitation?

People living in more than 20 gram panchayats in Kasargod district were exposed to the insecticide endosulfan – a highly potent neurotoxin – between 1975 and 2000, when the public sector Plantation Corporation of Kerala sprayed the chemical aerially on its 12,000-acre cashew estates. Its residues spread far and wide via wind and rain, leaving a trail of destruction in the district and neighbouring regions of Karnataka, killing more than 1,000 people. It poisoned more than 6,000 people. Thousands of children were born with congenital disabilities, hydrocephalus, diseases of the nervous system, epilepsy, cerebral palsy, and severe physical and mental disabilities.

The Plantation Corporation of Kerala stopped spraying endosulfan in 2001, but its impact is still being felt in Kasargod – babies continue to be born with genetic disorders and physical deformities. This is why environmental activists call it the biggest pesticide tragedy in India.

Muneesa, one of the leaders of the agitation, has partial blindness because of her exposure to endosulfan. (Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen).

“We have learnt no choice but to fight,” said Muneesa, 34, an endosulfan victim and leader of the movement. Medical tests have established that her partial blindness was caused by the pesticide. She lives close to a cashew plantation in Kasargod.

She said experience has taught her and other endosulfan victims to hold agitations if they wanted to be heard. “State and central governments have been ignoring us for a long time,” she said. “They have piecemeal solutions to our problems. So we have to resort to agitations at regular intervals.”

In 2012, the victims had staged a 128-day strike in Thiruvananthapuram, which was called off after the government agreed to all their demands, including giving financial aid and setting up of treatment facilities. A year later, when the government failed to keep its promise, the women and children returned to the state capital to agitate once again. It lasted 36 days, and was called off after they received another set of assurances from the government. On January 26, 2014, the women again began an indefinite strike in front of the Thiruvanathapuram home of Oommen Chandy, who was then the chief minister. It was called off two days later, after Chandy assured them that he would give them aid. But government inaction once again forced the women and children to travel to Thiruvananthapuram to hold a hunger strike from January 26, 2016, which continued till February 3.

The agitations, along with legal fights, have helped many victims get financial help as recommended by the National Human Rights Commission almost a decade ago. The commission, in its order dated December 31, 2010, had asked the state government to disburse Rs 5 lakh to seriously ill and bedridden victims, and Rs 3 lakh for other victims within eight months. When the state government failed to comply with the order, the Supreme Court intervened. In an order dated January 10, 2017, it asked the state government to disburse Rs 500 crore to over 5,000 victims of endosulfan poisoning within three months.

However, leaders of the movement said that the majority of the victims are yet to receive the compensation. “Of the 6,212 victims, only 2,665 received the monetary help, while 3,547 people are still waiting for it,” said Ambalathara Kunhikrishnan, who has been leading the agitation since 1998.

Endosulfan victim Mithun, 8, on his mother Sumathi's lap. Mithun is unable to stand on his own due to impaired visual-motor coordination. (Photo credit: TA Ameerudheen).

Discrepancies in list of beneficiaries

The victims have alleged there are discrepancies in the list of beneficiaries prepared by the government for the financial aid.

The government has been revising the beneficiary list periodically after conducting medical camps. This exercise is held to include in the list children born with health problems to parents who were exposed to endosulfan. In 2000, the total list of endosulfan victims had 4,182 names. The number rose to 5,849 later, with the addition of 1,318 victims in 2011 and 349 in 2013. It stands at 6,212 with the addition of 363 victims in 2017.

“Expert doctors had drafted 1,905 new victims in 2017,” said Kunhikrishnan. “But the government scuttled it and the final list had only 363 [new] victims, throwing out more than 1,542 eligible victims. It is a gross injustice. We demand inclusion of all eligible victims in the beneficiary list.”

Kunhikrishnan alleged that government trimmed the list at the behest of pesticide manufacturers. “It wants to show that the impact of the pesticide is on the wane now,” he said. “The government is acting in cahoots with the pesticide manufacturers.”

But a top health department official denied the allegation. He said his department had never prepared a list of 1,905 victims in 2017, as Kunhikrishnan had claimed. “We conducted many screenings to select eligible candidates and picked only 363 victims in 2017,” said Dr Raman Swathi Vaman, the Kasargod district programme manager of the National Health Mission, who is also in charge of collecting the data of the endosulfan victims.

Asked why the number of new victims was reducing each year, he said this is because there has been no fresh exposure to endosulfan. “Spraying was stopped in 2001, hence the number is decreasing,” he said.

A mother with her son at the protest organised in Thiruvananthapuram in January 2018. (Photo credit: FB-Endosulfan Peeditha Janakeeya Munnani).

Demand for medical facilities

The protesters also want the government to act swiftly to bring quality medical treatment to endosulfan victims. They say parents of affected children in Kasargod have to go to either neighbouring districts or to Karnataka for emergency medical treatment as there are no suitable government hospitals nearby. “The state government had decided to set up a medical college in Kasargod district in 2012 and the foundation stone was laid in 2013,” said Kunhikrishnan. “It had announced that the hospital would begin functioning in 2015, but the construction has not started yet. The district should get a medical college immediately.”

Their other demands include the formation of a tribunal to bring the culprits of this catastrophe to book, and the setting up of special schools for the victims.

Muneesa said the victims hoped that their demands would be fulfilled when the Communist Party of India (Marxist)-led Left Democratic Front government, headed by Pinarayi Vijayan, came to power in 2016. “Vijayan had visited us during his election campaign,” said Muneesa. “We were ecstatic when he became the chief minister. But he hasn’t brought any change in our lives close to three years after assuming power.”

She said the mothers of the endosulfan victims in Kasargod had suffered enough. “I request the government to help us live a decent life,” she said. “We want justice.”

Protest march by the mothers of endosulfan victims. (Photo credit: FB-Endosulfan Peeditha Janakeeya Munnani).