More than 80 countries have agreed to a global ban on the toxic pesticide endosulfan, known to cause neurological and reproductive disorders in people and animals. The ban was enforced under the Stockholm Convention, an international treaty for controlling persistent organic pollutants. This puts the widely used pesticide on course for elimination from the global market by 2012.
According to the United Nations, some 18,000 to 20,000 tons of endosulfan is produced around the world each year, with India being the world’s largest producer—it’s a $100-million industry here.
Each year, India manufactures about 10,000 tons of endosulfan, followed by China, which manufacturers some 5,000 tons, with Israel, Brazil, and South Korea producing the rest. The biggest users are India, Brazil, and China, while Argentina and the United States also consume significant quantities.
The chemical is mostly used to protect crops of cotton, coffee and tea. But if endosulfan is harmful enough to be banned, why has it been produced? And why use it?
The answer lies in a twisted web of realities. Endosulfan is the cheapest pesticide widely available, meaning that while the ban has been welcomed by environmentalists, the Indian pesticide industry is getting its knickers in a twist for obvious reasons. It’s arguing that there’s no clear established link between endosulfan and health problems. Farmers, meanwhile, are worried that more expensive chemicals will have a domino effect on their prices and profitability.
Activists, though, point to what they say is the clear misery the killer chemical has unleashed upon the people of the southern states of Karnataka and Kerala. In Kerala, where endosulfan was banned almost a decade ago, the chemical has killed over 500 people and caused mysterious diseases affecting about 10,000 people. People are still reportedly dying from complications caused by the chemical in areas near the cashew plantations in Kasargod and the cardamom estates of Idukki, where the pesticide was sprayed over crops for more than two decades.
But the furore over endosulfan isn’t just about the facts and figures for the toxicity of this specific chemical. It’s a signal of how in the years to come, the environment vs development debate is going to get more and more fraught.
Neeta Lal is a New Delhi-based senior journalist