food – farmer – seeds – protest against Monsanto: Why should Chennai care?

August 12, 2011

The SAGE and Tamilnadu Women’s Collective are organizing  a protest in front of the Memorial Hall (opp. the Government General Hospital) 9th Aug 2011 between 4 and  5 p.m. as part of the national campaign against Monsato – Quit India Monsanto campaign.

— By Ram
I have lived in Chennai most of my life. I am 40+ today. I have seen the changes in the habits of eating, food, availability of food, eateries and choices of food in this city in the last three decades of active memory about food.

When we were kids, milk was available from the man who used to bring cows, tie them in front of our house and then milk them in front of us. That gave way to bottles with aluminium foil on top and later to the plastic sheets in which milk is supplied till date. Most of the next generations born and brought up in the city haven’t seen the way a cow is prepared before the milking or the milking process itself. Now cows in Chennai are relegated to some distant corner of the city. They were considered a nuisance, repeated pictures of western travelers (and back from west Indians) finding cows in the middle of the roads (Octopussy, Hyderabad blues opening shot) as a driving nuisance made us believe that speed in the roads is more important than fresh milk for people. We could have decided many options including each area and neighbhourhood having its own cattle  shed or demarcated area for them. But, we made a choice – we (as in our governments) chose easy to drive roads rather than space for cows and fresh milk in our lives.

I used to see water pandals every summer spring up on the road side, even on the smallest of roads and streets.  Drinking water was so free, you went up to one of the pandals and drank from the mud pot full of water. Our own drinking water was the water we pumped from the hand pump in the house and filtered through a white cotton cloth into the large pot at home. The public water was potable direct from the hand pump. Many times after a cricket match on the road side, we have done the ritual of pumping water from the hand pump and drinking direct from it. Water was free everywhere and safe too. Then slowly things changed, the first water bottles that appeared were only with westerners, whose travel guides told them that they will get sick if they drank public water in India. So, they bought water in bottles (it was hard to find them, it was never sold in every shop) and carried it with them. Indian returning from the west (and wanting to go west soon) started to mimic this tamasha too. It was not until we saw the Pepsi’s and Coke’s coming into the Indian market in a big way that we also noticed alongside, water bottles have become a major sales thing too. Soon, offering bottled water to you became a sing of ‘respect’ and drinking from it, ’eminence’. We always mistake whatever is western as respectable and eminent, even their illnesses and weaknesses.  As a people we made a choice – we decided not to patronize free water any longer, so, the water pandals no longer exist (except in a few pockets) and the most educated and eminent parts of chennai, instead of protesting against the non-potability of their tap water, buy water from ignorant farmers’ lands for a pittance, sucking much needed agricultural water in the process.

As kids, we walked around the ‘gangana-mandapam’ market in triplicane, saw vegetable vendors give fresh vegetables every morning to the customers. There was the usual greetings, haggle, enquiry about health, forecast weather, share stories, jokes…we walked around the entire market, picking something from different vendors, each vegetable had a different vendor from whom we picked things up. some sold an assortment of vegetables that are in tune with the way they are cooked locally, so you always had the man selling manga-inji also selling pacha-kuru-melagu along side, you had the lady selling keerai not selling anything else most times. value added sales at the market was vaazha-thandu being cut in front of you and bound in a vazha-ilai, during festivals you had vazha-ilai along with maavilai available in these markets, the vendor knew what a community bought on a new moon day as much as what others bought during the fasting season…selling the air and the spirit of the market was a familiarity and freshness. With times, such markets and market spaces that enshrined the deeper human fabric of mutual trust and co-existence have shrunk literally. Today, the Reliance Freshs’ and More and its local look alikes offer veggies under bright light, big banner and air-condition. No one is familiar and there is no warmth in the air. The poor son of a farmer who is often in a stop over job before moving to better things in life, hates the customer, he hates the lifestyle of the customer and is neither friendly nor cares for what you and I eat. So, we have apples from washington, oranges from malta, peach from china (wrapped in junk styrene, chinese have ingenious ways of exporting their junk along with food),  rubbing shoulders with probably genetically modified corn from USA and other vegetables that have spent anything between 2 days to 2 months in a vegetable mortuary (cold storage). We made a choice – a choice to patronize such shops because, air conditioned comfort to our bodies and not having to walk around too much so that we can become obese and swap our diabetes counts as we wait for the clerk to struggle to make bills in the counter. We chose easy way of shopping rather than freshness and familiarity.

Being predominant rice eaters, we had the ‘andhra’ trader bring rice samples home, and twice or more times a year, large sacks of rice was delivered in the house after the sample has been approved by the collective of women in the house (and many times in the neighbourhood), similarly, several produce that were used in the house extensively, such as tamarind, chilli, etc. and were seasonal, were purchased in bulk. other ‘andhra’ trader brought home ghee that was made in their homes here in Chennai (their son studied with me in school and i have many times visited their house that smelt of ghee everywhere!) and there were ‘enna mandi’s where you went to buy oil of different needs, again in bulk with your own vessels. (there was also the Chettiar who bought amazing cotton clothes from karur or somewhere once in every two months, he was the only one who used sniff powder and I still remember one conversation in which he taught me the aathi-choodi of avvayaar) I don’t exactly remember when this particular culture changed and how…over a period of time, we have stopped identifying different communities and their specialization of different commodities that we consume. There are no ‘specialists’ and specialist knowledge of food or other goods. Everything is supplied by the same super market and it is managed by people who don’t know what is in the shelf and where it comes from, nor do we care any longer. We made a choice again – we chose to do away with the culture of specialized produce directly from the producer, because, they came at their own odd times, at their own seasons, but, we wanted to have them through the year…we can’t stock up anylonger, we have smaller houses for food stocks that become larger with television and other electronic gadgets. We made a choice to not care for the source of food and lesser purchase and maintenance.

We as consumers, city planners, citizens, heads of families, career oriented young professionals…and in some may other identities seem to have made certain choices with regards to our food and its place in our lives. These choices have rendered us to become a society full of illnesses, diabetes medicine as part of the breakfast is a culture today as much as cancer and heart diseases becoming dominant part of a social catching up. Many of these modern day diseases are termed as ‘degenerative diseases’, that we allow our bodies to degenerate while we are busy doing other things. Other things we are doing in a gusto and how – religious activities in plenty we have time to participate even eating ready-to-consume packaged putrified food in the process, listening to spiritual gurus in air-conditioned halls talk of Bhagavat Gita while we sip water out of packaged drinking water, participating in as many rituals as possible and even donating food as a great act of philanthropy, annadana, and shamelessly and thoughtlessly giving water in plastic sachets along with the food in unhealthy styrene plates (to cut costs you see!), visiting the remotest Gods in small towns in our Innovas and Sumos (guzzling fossil fuel aplenty to keep us air-conditioned inside) to gain some unknown commodity called moksha while we are sure that the stock of ready to eat snack is adequately stocked in the vehicle, we are busy planning large family outings and of course, visit the nearest super-market to buy the much abhorred junk-food, saying, ‘this one time’, truthfully knowing that this is not the first, nor the last time, we gift the men and women of Gods with ready to dispense sweets (and chocolates) that they in turn dispense to those who visit them as ‘neivedhyam’, neither them nor us thinking and protesting….choice we make that has all lead to ‘degeneration’ of the physical. But, degeneration of the mind is not far behind, so, we have new forms of diseases that has made counsellors a necessity in every office, that has made psychiatric service important for schools…of course, Gods and God-men in plenty are required to attend to the degenerated spirit!

A choice to degenerate can be made in ignorance, but, a choice to correct it has to be made consciously. We can either bemoan about the wrong choices of yester-years or choose to make a difference to our lifestyles today. The choice today is the state of bodies and minds tomorrow. We choose either to degenerate further or become part of a healing force to the much injured planet. We have a choice.

“Quit India Monsanto” is a campaign that has been launched not against a corporate called Monsanto, but, what it has come to represent to us in our lives. Monsanto has grown and become strong because of our wrong choices, we were ignorant, but, not now. We today know what others who have chosen to make such decisions have become, America is a standing example (if it can stand beyond another S&P downgrade) of what degeneration can do to a strong nation, the Jimmy Conners and Marie Louir Retten of my younger days and Madonna of youth that has given way to obese, low credibility, global bully, arrogant, insensitive image of a nation of today unfortunately lead by a smart looking black President for the first time in their history. We know that is not the way to go.

Yet, the government in Delhi seems to be thinking that is the way to go – from Nuclear energy, Genetically Modified Food, Knowledge Initiative in Agriculture, UID, direct cash transfer instead of PDS, ‘development’ at the cost of ‘environment’…the long list of policies in the pipeline seems to come from the mindset that made the wrong choices in the past. The kind of choices that has lead us astray.  It is as though, Delhi went to sleep twenty years back and continues to sleep and make decisions out of habit in its sleep.

Quit India Monsanto is a call to awaken our food habits, just like Indian Against Corruption is a call to awaken  the ethics in our social engagement, it is a call to dis-engage with the Western thought pattern and life style (or way of life as they call it), to re-engage with our people, our health and nutrition, our knowledge systems and priorities, our communities and their welfare…it is a call from a farmer – activist network, but, it is a call not just for farmer or activist alone. It is for everyone of us who consume and who care. Let’s not perpetuate our wrong decisions and choices beyond our generation, let the children of today not go through the same ‘degenerative’ environment and life style that we went through, let’s start making some changes in our lifestyles, to show we care…maybe Quit India Monsanto is a beginning, to start to make those life style changes….join the movement, join the rally today if you can, make time to say you care.

(reproduced with permission from

Encounters with Endosulfan

June 10, 2011

– Preethi Sukumaran

The endosulfan pesticide debate is trending in India and globally. All eyes are on India, which is one of the few big countries, that still allows use of endosulfan.

Nationally, V.S Achyuthanandan, Kerala Chief Minister and the Left MPs have been protesting India’s stand in the Conference of Parties to the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants (POP) which began in Geneva on Tuesday.

V.S Achyutanandan and the Left M.Ps want India to support the increasingly popular global ban that is being proposed on Endosulfan by nearly 80 countries.

The mood at the Stockholm Convention has been described as tense, as a lot of battles are expected over the Endosulfan issue. Many countries in Europe, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa are supporting the ban, and the U.S, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, and others have already expressed support for the ban in the plenary session.

India is a prime dissenter in the ban, and accounts for 70% of the world production of Endosulfan (Rs4500 crores annually). India cites lack of scientific evidence as one of the key reasons to opposing the ban along with the fact that the proposed alternatives to Endosulfan are not currently affordable.

Where would I encounter endosulfan?

In many un-expected encounters.

  • Endosulfan is commonly sprayed on over 70 crops like vegetables, fruits, paddy, cotton, coffee, tea, cashew & timber. Studies have shown that in India, 20% of all fresh produce have pesticide residues above the maximum residue limit (MRL).
  • Many water bodies have endosulfan run-off & some studies have shown high endosulfan levels in fish
  • Potentially absorbed through the skin , as cotton crops are the significant users of endosulfan
  • Smokers through tobacco

A brief history of Endosulfan

Endosulfan was first registered for use as a pesticide in the U.S by Hoechst (now Bayer CropScience) to control agricultural insects and mites on a wide variety of field, fruit and vegetable crops.

By 2000, after consistent reports of water contamination due to the run off from agricultural use, the EPA cancelled Bayer’s License to sell Endosulfan for use in Homes and Gardens. In 2002, after further studies by the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, the EPA determined that Endosulfan residues in food and water posed high health hazards, and imposed further restrictions on agricultural use of Endosulfan.

In 2007, Endosulfan was recommended for inclusion in the Rotterdam Convention on Informed consent. This is a multilateral treaty to promote shared responsibility on the import and use of hazardous chemicals. Specifically, this convention requires informing purchasers of these hazardous chemicals on all known restrictions and bans, so that purchasers can make an informed decision on whether or not to buy these chemicals

How toxic is Endosulfan?

The EPA (United States Environmental Protection Agency) classifies Endosulfan as “Ib” – Highly hazardous, as does the E.U. The Industrial Toxicological Research Centre (ITRC) in India also classifies Endosulfan as extremely hazardous.

Endosulfan is also widely considered to be a Persistent Organic Pollutant (POP). POPs are organic compounds that are resistant to environmental degradation and have been observed to persist in the environment, to be easily transported across long distances, to accumulate in human and animal tissue, increase in virulence in food chains, and have significant impact on human health and the environment.

Due to their chemical properties, POPs are semi volatile and insoluble. They attach themselves to particulate matter like soil, water and food, and travel long distances around the world, including places that do not even use them, like Antarctica.

Because of their eerie ability to travel, even countries that have banned POPs like Endosulfan, continue to find their residues in their food and environment as they travel from places where they are used.

How does Endosulfan affect human beings?

Acute effects:

Endosulfan is highly toxic and can be fatal if inhaled, swallowed, or absorbed through the skin. Consuming it orally is found to be more toxic than absorbing it through the skin, and this toxicity increases in the presence of solvents like alcohol.

Endosulfan directly affects the Central Nervous System, and high levels of Endosulfan in the body lead to convulsions, epileptic seizure or death. It also comprehensively damages the internal organs like the liver, lungs and the brain.

Chronic Effects:

Endosulfan is a proven endocrine disrupter, and exhibits estrogen like properties similar to DDT. Experimental evidence shows that this property leads to delay in sexual maturation in males or damage of the reproductive system. It also increases the risk of breast cancer among women, and has the ability to alter the chromosomes in mammals, leading to a risk of birth defects.

Tests on laboratory animals show high carcinogenic properties and internal organ damage.

What happens to Endosulfan in the environment?

Endosulfan is fairly immobile in soil, and highly persistent. It breaks down into further toxic compounds, some of which increase in production in tropical areas.  It does not easily dissolve in water, and can bio accumulate in the bodies of fishes and other aquatic organisms.

How widespread is the Endosulfan contamination in the environment?

Endosulfan residues have been detected in air, water and soil samples in India, river water in China, lagoons in Spain, vegetation in Madagascar, Zambia and Ghana, water from the Alps, and river sediments in Malaysia.

How widespread is Endosulfan contamination in the food that we eat?

Endosulfan has been detected in food samples from across the world: Australia (beef), U.S.A and Canada (food samples), Brazil (tomatoes), Cyprus & Croatia (vegetables), India (vegetables, vegetable oil, and seeds).

A high level of Endosulfan has been detected in human breast milk in India, cord blood in Spain, and blood and urine in Croatia.

Has Endosulfan actually killed or harmed people?

In India

Kerala was the first state in India to ban Endosulfan after a court order in 2003. This happened after the Endosulfan tragedy in Kasargode, which is widely considered one of the worst pesticide disasters to happen to a region.

Aerial spraying of cashew plantations began in 1978, and was done 3 times a year covering 15 gram panchayats in Kasargode. There were many warning signals which the decision makers ignored like the mass death of bees, fishes, foxes, birds, and congenital deformities in cows.

Endosulfan is a stomachic and quick contact poison, which destroys quickly but is non-specific, so kills everything it comes into contact with (not just the insect pests it is meant to destroy).

In 1994, independent health observations by a local health doctor, revealed a rising incidence of mental illness and congenital anomalies in Kasargode. Initially radioactive toxicity or heavy metal poisoning of the water bodies was thought to be the reason behind this. After several more complaints in areas where Endosulfan was being sprayed and the work of many national and international groups, Endosulfan spraying was linked back to the abnormal health problems at Kasargode.

The commonly noted diseases were neurobehavioral disorders, congenital malformations in girls, and reproductive tract abnormalities in males. Another report showed increased rate of cancer and gynaecological abnormalities.

A further study by the Kerala Health department reaffirmed the link between Endosulfan and this region’s health issues.

Following these reports, the Kerala State High Court banned the use and sale of Endosulfan in 2002; the State government followed suit in 2003.

Karnataka followed Kerala’s lead in February this year, with a blanket ban on Endosulfan. This followed after reports of physical deformities in areas using aerial spraying of Endosulfan, again for cashew crop in Belthangady, Puttur and Bantwal.

In Cuba

Endosulfan was responsible for the death of 15 people in the Western province of Matanzas, Cuba in February 1999. 63 people became ill after consuming food contaminated with Endosulfan.

In Benin

In Borgou province in Benin, official records state atleast 37 deaths occurred in the 1999 – 2000 cotton season, and 36 people were seriously taken ill.

Next Steps:

Endosulfan is just one of the many toxic compounds that are routinely sprayed on food. Several organisations and concerned political parties are battling with the Indian government to reverse its stand on Endosulfan. The good news is that under all this pressure, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has decided to have a scientific enquiry on the effects of Endosulfan and has promised to take a more considered view on the subject.

There are no debates on this – It is time to embrace organic food. Most major cities have 3 – 4 organic outlets, so supply is no longer an issue. Even if it is not possible to consume only organic produce ALL the time, every little bit helps.

The Good News

Studies show that just as POPs bio-accumulate into the body, they can also get reversed when more and more organically grown food is consumed. Also, personally speaking, organic vegetables taste delicious and burst with flavour so it is no hardship to switch.

In Chennai alone, Srini and I have visited 3 great stores: Restore , NStores and Dhanyam , and several more exist. More than 90% of everything we consume at home is organically grown, and we have seen a significant increase in our health and well being as a result of switching to organic food.

NGOs like Thanal have been at the forefront of the Endosulfan debate in India and have worked very hard to lobby the government and build awareness on these issues with folks like us. Even if it is not possible to work actively with them, they always welcome appreciation, so drop them a mail if you can.


I have been thinking of writing this post for some time now, and many kind people have helped me on my personal quest to understand more about my food, and appreciate the value of organic food.

My thanks go to these people in no particular order:

  1. Ananthoo , Radhika & Restore team at
  2. Kavita Mukhi of Conscious foods & Mumbai farmers market
  3. Vandana Shiva of Navdanya –
  4. Ramesh of NStores –
  5. Madhu of Dhanyam –

A special shout goes out to Thanal, who has fantastic resources on Endosulfan, which I’ve liberally used in this post. Thank you Thanal! (

(reproduced with permission from