Muthu, an environmental toxicologist, still close to his roots as a Harijan (untouchable) boy, growing up poor in rural Tamil Nadu, wants to protect those who always get the dirtiest jobs, the poorest and most vulnerable, from the chemical risks that increasingly characterize such jobs -- be they leather tanning or applying pesticides.
The New Idea
The dirtiest, riskiest jobs in India have always gravitated to the poorest, especially the Harijans. At least in much of rural India, for example, Harijan families have taken on the job of applying pesticides to their area's crops.
Muthu believes these families of pesticides applicators have a cancer incidence 60% above the norm for the rest of the population. He plans to measure their health rigorously and, once he has documented the problem irrefutably, work to introduce long overdue safeguards ranging from worker education to removing especially dangerous substances from commerce.
Muthu plans to use his data very actively. He'll go to the families directly involved and show them precisely how they are being affected. He'll work with the organizations of the Harijans and other Scheduled (especially disadvantaged) Castes and Tribes. He'll reach out to broader groups in society also put at risk; e.g., fishermen whose water and fish are affected or in any case concerned with human rights, health, or the environment.
Later he'll carry this technique to other areas where the very poor are being exposed to lifethreatening risk in India's increasingly industrial and chemically based society.
Muthu's concern that "the poorest" are most exposed and unprotected and need help adds a powerful new dimension to public concern about the risks of the chemical revolution. Marrying concern for equality and worry for public health should strengthen both.
The chemical revolution that swept the developed countries over the last fifty years is now catching up with a vengeance in the newly industrializing nations. However, public understanding of the risks, let alone a regulatory response, lag woefully behind.
In the countryside, where three quarters of India's population lives, this gap is especially wide. The "green revolution," with strong government backing, has introduced the heavy use of fertilizers and pesticides in wide areas. Tanjore District, southern Tamil Nadu's rich Cauvery River delta, bread basket and one of the much discussed early successes of the green revolution, is a prime example. Massive quantities of chemicals are applied, frequently with little regard to labeling directions. Some of these chemicals are banned overseas. Much of what is applied travels with the water from one irrigated rice field to the next, which makes waterborne concentrations at any time or place speculative.
The Harijan families who specialize in applying these chemicals get a somewhat above average wage. However, they are generally illiterate and have no special training. They mix the chemicals with their bare arms, are exposed to them generation after generation, and cannot be expected to apply safeguards they've never been taught.
Worker health and safety, especially chemical hazards is a very important area that has received too little attention. This is especially so for the weakest communities least able to understand the risks or to defend themselves. And it is even more so when the hazard occurs outside organized industry in the villages.
Tanjore's Harijan pesticides applicators are a good example of this broader problem. Muthu will begin his work in Tanjore, documenting the consequences of unbridled exposure to dangerous chemicals -- and then actively attack the causes.
As a professional, Muthu knows how to document the problem in an unimpeachable manner and he is beginning to do so. However, once that is done, he must proceed in two difficult directions at once.
First, he plans to extend his work beyond Tanjore to the rest of Tamil Nadu. Second, he must build a set of allies ranging from the applicators immediately affected to national Members of Parliament. A number of Muthu's colleagues in Ashoka, e.g., Shriram Panchu, founder of the Madras-based Consumers Action Group, are very interested in collaborating in this effort.
Muthu's vigor and determination was apparent even when he was a young boy. This won him scholarship after scholarship until two years ago he completed his PhD in environmental toxicology. He has written extensively in the field.
Over the last several years he worked hard at a similar problem the extensive chemical damage being done by Tamil Nadu's important tannery industry. (This one state provides 70% of India's exports of hides.) He's analyzed the water and soil. He's studied the health of the workers. He's organized village youth and women's groups to press for far greater environmental safety. He's helped farmers whose lands have been rendered almost totally uncultivatable to seek compensation. He's brought the press in to report on the problem.
Building on this experience he now plans to go after a far bigger problem, one affecting millions of farmers and agricultural workers across all of India. Not to mention their neighbors and consumers. Or unprotected poor workers everywhere in the country.