Harper's Magazine | August 2004
finalist for the Livingston Award in International Reporting
“Other Notable Science and Nature Writing” in Best American Science and Nature Writing 2005
I have come 1,500 miles from Delhi to visit the tiny, remote hill village of Vaninagar, a place that has been devastated by a spate of mysterious illnesses over the last two decades: rare cancers, birth defects, mental retardation, miscarriages, suicides. Babies that were carried to term were sometimes born blind, or epileptic, or with deformed limbs. Children shriveled and died from leukemia, and old women were covered with lesions that wouldn't heal. In a culture bound by notions of karmic retribution, people naturally assumed it was a curse, that they had angered their theyyams, or guardian spirits.
Some of the villagers, however, along with a growing number of scientists, doctors, and environmental groups, have blamed the 4,500- hectare state-owned cashew plantation, which for twenty years conducted aerial spraying of the organochlorine pesticide endosulfan over its cashew crops. The plantation borders dozens of villages and drains into the drinking water of thousands of rural people. The pesticide companies, the plantation management, and the state government have so far refused to accept any responsibility, and the matter has been swallowed up in India's infamous bureaucracy for more than two years,The argument over what has caused these diseases, and who is responsible, has divided Kerala politically and has pitted the purported economic interests of the state's corporations against the health of the state's citizens. [pdf]