MUDALAPARA, INDIA - When she was a child, a helicopter would buzz over Sujata Sundaran's village twice a year, spraying pesticide over the lush trees on cashew farms nearby.
"It was like snowflakes falling from the sky. The children would run out to look at the helicopter," she recalled, sitting in her mud hut. "At that time, we did not know it would destroy our lives."
Sundaran, 27, said her legs stopped growing when she was about 6 years old, and her mother carries her around like a baby. Sundaran and thousands of other villagers here in the southern state of Kerala say that over the years use of a pesticide called Endosulfan left them disabled.
The villagers helped force a state ban on the pesticide in 2004 and now have joined an international campaign that could result in a global ban.
But the villagers have come up against a powerful opponent: the Indian government.
India is the world's largest producer, exporter and user of the low-cost pesticide, which farmers across the rest of the country continue to use on tea, cotton, rice and other crops. Officials say a ban would jeopardize the country's food security at a time of rising demand and leave millions of farmers without an affordable alternative.
"There are no reports of negative health impact or crop damage because of Endosulfan in any other part of India. If any fresh input comes to us, we will consider it," said Arun Yadav, the deputy minister for agriculture. "Kerala is the only place that had health concerns."
The three companies that produce Endosulfan in India, including one that is partly government-owned, say European competitors are pushing for the ban.
"The demand for banning Endosulfan in India is motivated by the vested interest of European pesticide-makers, who are interested in promoting their new patented products," Pradeep Dave, president of the Pesticides Manufacturers and Formulators Association of India, said at a news conference in December.
Last week in Mumbai, Anil Kakkar, director of the Crop Care Federation of India, which works with the agrochemical industry, said a ban would "result in a replacement of Endosulfan by alternatives which are 10 times more expensive and will be damaging to the farm ecosystem, as most of these are known to be harmful to pollinators such as honeybees."
The European Union, citing health concerns, has refused to import Indian tea if growers use Endosulfan.
Doctors in the Kasaragod district of Kerala say the aerial spraying of Endosulfan over cashew farms between 1979 and 2000 has caused more than 550 deaths and serious health problems in more than 6,000 people. Three years ago, the Kerala state pollution control board reported alarming levels of chemical residue in human blood samples, soil and water in the area.
"India has been stubbornly resisting the global ban. It is shameful because the government is looking at economic loss instead of health hazards," said C. Jayakumar, an activist who campaigns for the global ban. "Endosulfan is an endocrine-disrupting chemical and has to be stopped."
India's National Human Rights Commission said in December that the country's continued use of Endosulfan leads to "a grave violation of human rights" and that the "dangers it poses will linger and multiply through the generations."
More than 70 nations, including most recently the United States, Australia and Brazil, have banned the pesticide. But at a meeting of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants in Geneva last October, India abstained from voting on a ban, saying there was no scientific evidence linking Endosulfan to health or environmental problems.
The debate has gained momentum in India ahead of the next meeting, set for April.
Former agriculture minister K.V. Thomas told Parliament in November that the government would conduct a "fresh review."
Endosulfan is the thirdlargest-selling insecticide worldwide, and India's industry is worth about $100 million. India exports it to many nations, especially to those in the developing world, including Vietnam, Iran and Mexico.
Thousands of workers from Endosulfan-producing factories protested late last year against a ban and asked for a review of a 2002 government report that tested the blood, soil and water samples from Kasaragod and found harmful levels of Endosulfan residue.
A new nationwide study by the government-run Indian Council of Medical Research is underway, and results are expected soon.
"Without using Endosulfan, our farmers cannot survive or save their crop. It is a cheap, effective, broad-spectrum pesticide," said Siva Kumar, a pesticide trader in the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu.
Kerala's government recently announced that it would pay $1,100 to the families of people who died of Endosulfan-related illness and $40 every month to residents who are disabled.
"Six thousand patients living with disabilities is not enough scientific evidence to enforce a national ban?" asked B.C. Kumar, who helps Kasaragod residents secure compensation. Kumar's father was a cashew farm laborer and died of cancer.
On a recent afternoon, two men with no protective gear manually sprayed Endosulfan on a mango orchard in Tamil Nadu.
"I spray Endosulfan on about 90 mango trees every day in this season," said Ramachandran Andi, 30. "The chemical kills the insects that prevent the mango tree from flowering. The drops fall on me, too. But as a farmer, my first priority is to protect the crop."
Andi said he was not aware of any Endosulfan-related health concerns in Kasaragod.