Leelakumari Amma – India

Linked with Schools in Kerala, India.

She is one of the 1000 women proposed for the Nobel Peace Price 2005.

People tell about her: Leelakumari’s motivation and pragmatism are exemplary, her signal ability being to draw diverse parties into her struggle: villagers, courts, political parties, environmental groups, and doctors.

Leelakumari Amma - India rogné redim90p.jpg

Leelakumari Amma – India

She works for the Government of Kerala.

Leelakumari Amma (born 1948) won a one-woman campaign against the pesticide lobby, government departments, and her village’s powerful plantation owners. Upon realizing that the spraying of the pesticide Endosulfan (classified as “highly toxic” by the US Environmental Protection Agency) was endangering her son’s health, she won a court order banning the aerial spraying of pesticides on her village. Her struggle has set off wide-ranging discussions on pesticide impact on health, with countries such as Cambodia banning the use of Endosulfan.Leelakumari Amma, the seventh of eleven children, was born on February 25, 1948 in a small village called Kizhuthiri near Ramapuram in Kottayam district, Kerala. Her father was a primary school teacher, her mother a home-maker. When Leelakumari was two years old, her family moved to Payyavur in Kannur district in northern Kerala (then called Malabar): her father had been asked by a Christian missionary to teach in a new school being set up for the settlers. While at school, Leelakumari joined up for an agriculture certificate course.

After completing her studies, Leelakumari got a job in 1975 in the state agriculture department. The same year, she married Karunakaran, who was also working in the agriculture department as a clerical assistant. Her first posting was at Cheruvathur, Kasaragod district; her last, for reasons now obvious, to the Pullur-Periya panchayat. She built a house in this panchayat area and has been living there since 1993.

Soon after the move to their new house, Leelakumari and her family started developing health problems. Her son, who was a good singer, began to lose his voice; for Leelakumari herself, asthma and back pain went from incipient to acute, especially during the winter months. In time, she realized that her problems always peaked when the state-run Plantation Corporation of Kerala (PCK) sprayed pesticides on the cashew plantation in and around her village. (Her house was, in fact, located at the border of the plantation.)

Increasingly alarmed, she began speaking to other people to gather more information and establish her hypothesis. And she found that ailments similar to hers were endemic within her village, all of them unheard of before the pesticide spraying had begun. She also discovered that, even within the close-knit village community, people were trying to conceal their health problems from each other for fear of ostracism: it was time, she decided, to do something, and fast.

Sometime in 1997, she began trying to draft the village people, the panchayat, and local officials, with no significant success. Continuing to work unrelentingly, she managed to get three people to work on the issue: they started a letter signature campaign to send to the concerned authorities. Armed with far more signatures than they had anticipated, Leelakumari sent a complaint to the local political parties, the management of the plantation, and the state agriculture minister. While the minister and the plantation authorities baldly ignored her remonstrance, some political leaders decided to support her and later joined her campaign.

Since the authorities wouldn’t budge, Leelakumari’s next step was the legal system: she filed for a stay on pesticide spraying in the local court. Although the spraying season was looming, and the plantation management had already made the arrangements in complete disregard of her concern, the court granted her the stay.

So, the plantation management began intimidation tactics: it threatened her and even dispatched goons to terrorize her inside her own home. It was a rough time for her – for one, she was simultaneously working for a government agency and fighting the actions of another, which caused a great deal of friction at work. Then, in 1998, the PEK flew a helicopter over her house, spraying pesticide over her compound.

Her son was also undergoing treatment for his pesticide-related illness; from an income never more than meager, Leelakumari paid the high bills for his treatment, and for the court case, as well. Added to this burden was the subtle pressure from her family, scared to tangle with proven official menace. Her family’s reaction was not atypical: middleclass India tends to keep its own counsel over most public issues.

But, inventive as she had always been, Leelakumari redoubled her efforts and got in touch with environmental groups. When these groups arranged for studies in Leelakumari’s area and technical analyses of pesticide use on the plantation, they found that the culpable pesticide that had poisoned Leelakumari and her family was Endosulfan, an organochlorine pesticide that the US Environmental Protection Agency and the European Union have both classified as “highly toxic.”

What galled was that Endosulfan was being sprayed, since as long back as 1978, over 5000 hectares of the cashew plantation in and around her village – by a government agency. The result was appalling: a whole slew of serious health problems, especially in women and children. There were instances of cancer, reproductive problems, congenital problems such as cerebral palsy, and nervous system disorders. The spraying had continued, in the face of Endosulfan’s established toxicity, because the problems of the poor and the disempowered are usually ignored by both the government and the media.

Meanwhile, the following year, before the spraying season began, Leelakumari got an order from the court banning the aerial spraying of pesticides on the village. It was a decision fated to jumpstart widespread public action, as other areas suffering from pesticide spraying converged to join her struggle at various levels. The media, suddenly sensitized to the issue, put its considerable shoulder to the wheel. Local doctors helped with the health data collection. The Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi, collected and analyzed blood samples, incontrovertibly finding dangerous levels of Endosulfan in each of the samples. This concerted across-the-board action finally led to the customary governmental intervention – it appointed commissions to look into the issue.

The National Human Rights Commission, taking it up suo moto, appointed the National Institute of Occupational Health to study the issue: all the studies invariably pointed to high levels of pesticide exposure. The pesticide industry and the plantation corporations mounted a virtual war to disprove these studies, but the High Court of Kerala has proscribed the aerial spraying of pesticides.

The affected villages today have medical facilities, set up by local groups under the aegis of the Endosulfan Spray Protest Action Committee, to deal specifically with health problems that arise from pesticide exposure. The government, on its part, has yet to pay out any compensation, or even set up a medical facility; but it has conducted medical surveys and announced a package. But the process is at a nascent stage.

The struggle, meanwhile, is hardly over. The movement is now demanding a total ban on pesticides in the cashew plantation; medicare and rehabilitation; financial compensation to the victims; a ban on Endosulfan not only at the state but also at the national level; and support for organic farming in the villages.

In September 2002, Leelakumari met with further distress: a major accident resulted in her being bedridden for almost a year. Gutsy as ever, she is slowly resuming her routine life, although she cannot walk without support. Even homebound, her involvement with the movement continues; she lends her indefatigability to her colleagues, encouraging them when they visit her, and speaking to others over the telephone.

The ban on the aerial spraying of Endosulfan is already bearing fruit, so to speak. The disease rate is falling. The honeybee population, which disappeared for almost two decades, is back, with farmers beginning to keep beehives again. Tribal communities are gathering and eating ant nests again: pesticides had killed off edible ants. Birds have started reappearing in the village.

The most critical impact of the long battle, though, has been the generation of awareness on the effects of Endosulfan. People in Leelakumari’s village and elsewhere in Kerala have voluntarily stopped using the pesticide. Both the government and judiciary are today sensitized to the issue.

While Leelakumari’s sheer drive, radical stimulus and pragmatism are commendable, her most remarkable quality is her ability to draw all concerned parties into her struggle – the villagers, courts, political parties, environmental groups and doctors. When she began the struggle, she was alone, isolated, and had little knowledge of the technical aspects of pesticide exposure. All she had to motivate and sustain her was the agony of seeing her children suffering, and her neighbors concealing theirs for fear of social and authoritarian ostracism.

Her struggle has set off wide-ranging discussions on the impact of pesticides on health, with other countries such as Cambodia banning outright the use of Endosulfan. For Leelakumari, it has been a long, painful, but fulfilling haul – for the poor and the dispossessed that the system seems too powerful to take on, she has shown that courage, eventually, pays. (Read all on 1000peacewomen 2005).

As decided earlier, I am Sending youa compilation of the text of presentations made National Consultation on Environment, Human Rights and Law at Mumbai on 28th – 30th April 2006. This is the only portable enough format that can be circulated. Sorry, Some of the slides might be missing whenever, images are present. Dr. PR Arun.

links:

Speaking truth saves lives;

The peace makers around the world;
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