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Bedridden by pesticide, but won’t skip vote

Endosulfan victim Santosh Menezes with his mother Gracy D’Souza at their home in Kokkada. Picture by KM Rakesh

Santosh Menezes is eager to vote. Like many in his age group he loves cricket and idolises Tendulkar, Dhoni and Yuvraj. But unlike the others, he cannot communicate or move about.

Bedridden since birth, the 24-year-old will have to be carried by his parents to the polling booth on April 17.

Santosh, who lives in Kokkada village in Belthangady taluk, some 70km from Mangalore city, is among the 6,000 victims of Endosulfan, the deadly pesticide the Karnataka Cashew Development Corporation had sprayed on cashew plantations between 1980 and 2000.

Subsequent events have been catastrophic for people in three districts that reported cases of foetal deaths, unnatural termination of pregnancies and severe mental and physical deformity in newborns.

In January this year, Karnataka High Court ordered the state government to pay Rs 3,000 as monthly interim relief to each of the 6,140 victims across Mangalore, Udupi and North Kanara.

Since then the victims have been getting a token monthly relief of Rs 1,200 in money orders. The rest — Rs 1,800 that was to be paid through their accounts — was received just once, last month.

It’s a recurring tale in Kokkada, which falls under the Dakshina Kannada Lok Sabha constituency and where nearly every third house has been battling the debilitating effects of Endosulfan. Today, many like Santosh are waiting for Thursday, when Karnataka votes, hoping that the representatives they elect would ensure sufficient financial assistance and medical care.

“He’s telling you he will vote,” says Gracy D’Souza, translating into words her son’s frantic gestures that only she can interpret.

After 24 years of nursing her bedridden son, she can read every gesture he makes. “Last year he voted (in the Assembly election), now he’s thrilled to vote again,” Gracy, who has three other children, says.

Voters in this village have basically two main choices: Congress nominee Janardhana Poojary, a former Union minister, and sitting BJP MP Nalin Kumar Kateel.

Neither has bothered to visit the victims. In fact, every political party has steered clear of the Endosulfan issue itself.

But the families of the victims would still vote. “Whether they care for us or not, we have to vote,” says Santosh’s father, Albert.

Venkata Subramanya, too, is counting the days. “I don’t know who to vote for (this time), but I’ll vote,” says the 25-year-old, whose condition is better than that of Santosh.

His parents calmed him down lest he slipped into convulsions.

Subramanya was thrilled when his father Ganesh Rao told him that former minister Shobha Karandlaje of the BJP was contesting in neighbouring Udupi-Chikmagalur constituency. “I will vote for Shobha akka (sister),” the young man says.

He doesn’t understand that Karandlaje, the one politician who visited them, is contesting from the neighbouring constituency.

Energy minister under B.S. Yeddyurappa, Karandlaje is credited with pressurising the then government to come up with some initial support. She was also a regular visitor to the area.

“I hope Shobha madam will help the victims living in Udupi,” says Rao, who repairs irrigation pump sets to feed his family of four.

The families of the victims have reconciled to their fate, but what hurts them the most is the indifference. “We live near the main road, they (the candidates) could have come and reassured us,” says Rao, whose worry is not just about the medicines his son needs every month. The medicines cost Rs 4,000.

“Who will take care of him after us?” he says. That’s a question to which no parent like him has an answer.

Subramanya, who couldn’t comprehend lessons in class, dropped out of primary school. But he loves Carnatic classical compositions that he often hums.

His idolises Shridhar Gowda, president of the Endolsulfan Virodha Horata Samiti (Forum to fight against Endosulfan).

Virtually blinded by the effects of the chemical — Gowda has just 5 per cent vision in his left eye — waged a lone battle for the victims in south Karnataka. “We have a common destiny that we are ready to face, but there is something our political leaders and governments must do for the victims,” he says.

He recalls the number of times he tried to meet political leaders in Mangalore and state capital Bangalore. “Even the media have ditched us.”

After years of fighting with the authorities, a day-care centre had been allotted to both Kokkada and nearby Puttur taluk. Neither has adequate facilities.

With a qualified physiotherapist and a nursing assistant, the Kokkada centre operates from a local community hall. The roof has asbestos sheets and the hall is a veritable oven in summer.

“Most days we don’t have power, but even with power the heat is unbearable for these children,” says Dr Nijin M.S.

The young physio from Kerala, who ignored lucrative job offers, has been running the centre since a few months after it started almost three-and-a-half years ago.

It’s not that the authorities don’t have a model to follow. According to Gowda, victims of Endolsulfan in neighbouring Kasargod district in Kerala have already received a compensation of Rs 5 lakh.

“All we are asking for is a similar package,” says Gowda. “What we demand is an interaction with all candidates to know their stand on Endosulfan victims.”

Poojary did make his stand clear — but on a 74,000-acre petrochemical hub that he has promised. All other parties have opposed the project as they fear it would kill traditional agriculture in these parts.

In Belthangady, where hundreds of Endosulfan victims live, Poojary promised to end the moral policing by groups like the Sri Ram Sene.

Kateel spoke of a “(Narendra) Modi wave” during a brief interaction in Moodabidri, 30km from Mangalore.

He promised better civic facilities and infrastructure. “I will do everything to make Mangalore a railway division.”

Kateel has been campaigning to release Mangalore from the Palakkad railway division.

Karnataka votes on April 17