Indian children in pesticide controversy - The area has a large number children with deformed limbs.

BBC News: Indian children in pesticide controversy - The area has a large number children with deformed limbs.  - The BBC's Jill McGivering - in Padre village in Kerala.

A group of villagers in northern Kerala have become the centre of a controversial battle between environmentalists and a major cashew nut plantation.

The villagers blame pesticides used by the plantation for causing widespread physical and mental illness in hundreds of children and adults.

Many children face an uncertain future

But pesticide manufacturers say there is no scientific basis to the claims.  They are fighting for the right to carry on using the chemicals.

Abinash is 12 but has the speech of a three year old.  His big achievement this year was learning to crawl.  He was born with cerebral palsy - just one in a whole generation of children in this small village of Padre with acute mental or physical problems.

Young victims

At the village school, 150 children gather for assembly.  There is a little girl with a badly deformed hand and a missing leg. Another girl with malformed feet. A boy with severe mental illness.

The only source of poisoning or contamination here that we are seeing for the last 25 years is aerial spraying of Endosulphan

Mohan Kumar, local doctor These are the most obvious cases - but teachers here say almost half the children have illnesses, ranging from cerebral palsy and cancers to skin diseases and epilepsy.

The school's teacher Ramakrishnan told me, "The IQ of the children in this area is lower than normal, and there is a definite problem with memory loss. We tell them something one day and by the next, most of them can not remember."

Mohana Kumar, the village doctor, became so concerned about the mysterious outbreak of health problems that he started a special log.

Other villages in the area also report unusual problems.

He is now convinced he knows the cause.  "The only source of poisoning or contamination here that we are seeing for the last 25 years is aerial spraying of Endosulphan on cashew plantations.

"It has been going on uninterrupted, thrice a year, using helicopters. All this poison goes to their body systems and naturally they are affected."

Suspicions about the pesticide Endosulphan grew when an Indian environmental group carried out its own investigations.

Its report recorded high levels of Endosulphan in the local water, soil and plant samples.

Raging debate

The production of cashew nuts is big business in Kerala - and growers say the pesticide Endosulphan is an important way of protecting the crop.  It is currently used in 80 countries worldwide - and banned in 10 others.

Both sides want the debate scientifically resolved

Local pesticide manufacturers say the environmental group's report was inaccurate.  Their representative, Ganesan, says the allegations made by the environmentalists are very judgemental and do not stand scientific scrutiny.

The industry view is this compound has been in use around the world for more than 40 years and it gets periodically evaluated. It is also reviewed before its registration in the respective countries.  (So was every other "registered" POISON before it was banned!)

The villagers say many of their houses are right by the cashew trees - so homes and water sources are bound to be affected by aerial spraying.

Managers at the cashew nut plantation would not comment - but Ganesan of the pesticide association did say aerial spraying of Endosulphan is extremely unusual in India and not recommended by the industry.

Uncertain future

Six months ago, the villagers won a short-term suspension of spraying - a ban the industry is now fighting.

The villagers admit they lack the resources to prove scientifically that Endosulphan is the cause of their ruined health.

But with so much still unknown, they want a permanent ban.

Shree Padre, a farmer in the village who is a member of the anti-pesticide campaign, says, " Already the area, in our soil, in our water, in our bodies, we fear a lot of pesticide residues are there and God only knows when it will by nature vanish from us."

"So we do not want any pesticide to be sprayed on us by any means. Let them grow cashew organically."

For many of Padre's school children, it is already too late.

Both sides, villagers and industry, are calling for a public investigation to establish what really caused this devastation of health.

Those answers might protect the next generation - and even bring compensation for those who will never be able to lead a normal life.

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