The state of Kerala in India is held up in global circles as a paragon of progressiveness. The southern region has a 97 percent literacy rate, the highest in India and far higher than the current literacy rate in the United States. Health care is nearly universal and 95 percent of babies are delivered in hospitals. Life expectancy of 73 years is very high. Some attribute these stunning statistics to the Communist state administration, which has controlled Kerala for much of the last 50 years and placed a high priority on social welfare issues.
A worker's paradise, however, Kerala is not. The cashew orchards that provide employment to many rural farm workers are regularly dusted with a highly toxic pesticide called endosulfan. Kerala has become the epicenter of a growing controversy on the use of endosulfan, with the government agreeing to compensate families of farm workers who perished due to poisoning from the pesticide use. The scandal is widening to such an extent that many are calling it "The Second Bhopal," a reference to the industrial disaster at a Union Carbide plant that claimed thousands of lives. Now, as the global scientific community stands poised to ban endosulfan, making it only the 22nd substance to get onto the chemical blacklist, the Indian government is the most vocal opponent of the ban.
At a United Nations meeting in Geneva last week, scientists voted to draw up a risk management evaluation for endosulfan, as Reuters reported. This is the last step before putting endosulfan before a vote on a global ban under the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs treaty). The treaty addresses chemicals that are known to strongly affect and easily accumulate in humans. The ban, if enacted, could take place as soon as 2011.
The opposition of the government stems from the deep disconnect between views on pesticides and toxicity between the developing world and the wealthy economies of the West. This gap appears to be closing as China and Brazil threaten to take the lead in the movement to slow carbon emissions and promote renewable energy. But in areas of food production and, in particular, crop production for export, the gap between these two worlds is in some cases yawning.
India's opposition is not a huge surprise. India uses more endosulfan than any other country and Indian chemical companies also export the substance. The government of India, bulwarked by strong agricultural interests, has long opposed an endosulfan ban, arguing that the pesticide can be used safely and that a ban would discriminate against Indian agriculture. Agricultural interests in the U.S., Australia and Brazil all oppose the ban, but governments of those countries have not expressed the same public opposition as that of India.
The pesticide, a brown or cream colored powder which is sprayed on crops by airplanes and by workers on the ground, is popular for a wide range of crop usage, including cotton, cocoa, cashews, potatoes, cabbage, coffee and soybeans. The substance kills most types of insect pests, including whiteflys, aphids, leafhoppers, Colorado potato beetles and cabbage worms. Farmers like endosulfan because it's cheap and does not tend to create resistance. In other words, it's a hugely effective way to kill bugs.
Unfortunately, endosulfan appears to kill many other things, as well. Environmental groups have alleged poisonings from improper use of the stuff has killed hundreds, if not thousands, of agricultural workers, primarily in the developing world. In the Kerala incident, the government acknowledged that endosulfan had killed at least 135 workers.
Exposure to endosulfan in humans can impact the central nervous system and cause hyperactivity, nausea, dizziness, convulsions and, in case of high exposure, rapid death. Longer-term exposure likely damages the kidneys, reproductive organs, nervous system and the immune system.
Scientists also believe that endosulfans are contributing to mysterious and terrifying frog die-offs in the Sierra Nevada mountains due to aerial spraying of endosfulans on crop fields in California, according to TreeHugger. In Australia, researchers have tentatively connected endosulfans with malformations of fish, including fish that have two or three heads, according to newspaper The Land.
India is clearly poised to become an economic powerhouse with its enormous population, nascent technology sector and rapidly growing economy. Along with Russia, China and Brazil, India will have a much greater say in global matters in the next decade and beyond.
Indian opposition in the next two years could result in further delays to a blanket global ban, as might be mandated by the United Nations. The hope is, India's leaders will decide that killing its own people with a pesticide that destroys just about everything else, good and bad, is wrongheaded when it comes to the country's long-term health, environmental and economic policy.
Alex Salkever is Senior Writer at AOL Daily Finance covering technology and greentech. Follow him on twitter @alexsalkever, read his articles, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
India's killer pesticide: World wants endosulfan ban, but India holds out