They are on different ends of the age spectrum. Daya Bai is 81 years old. The social media campaign that is advocating for her well-being is being fuelled by people who are generations younger than the octogenarian.
Yet, a handful of factors unite them. The first is the cause. Social activist Daya Bai’s indefinite hunger strike seeking justice for victims of the now-banned pesticide endosulfan in Kerala’s northernmost Kasargod district entered its eighth consecutive day on Monday, 10 October.
With that, it exposed extreme insensitivity and lethargy, particularly towards those victims, which is the second part.
Despite continuing her fast in front of the state secretariat in the capital city of Thiruvananthapuram, ignoring falling health, Daya Bai and her struggle have failed to rouse the ministers or officials sitting comfortably inside.
A handful of Opposition leaders and civil society representatives did visit her to show solidarity, but even the mainstream Malayalam news media is yet to give her coverage.
Social media campaign
These factors have come together to precipitate a social media campaign that began late at night on Sunday, 9 October, seeking protection for Daya Bai.
The campaign is supported by a joint statement signed by over 50 prominent people, including veteran journalist BRP Bhaskar, social activist SP Udayakumar, and environmentalist Purushan Eloor.
They all seek immediate intervention from Kerala’s Left Democratic Front (LDF) government to protect the nun-turned-social worker and the scores of endosulfan victims who have a near-animal existence deep in the interiors of the Kasargod district.
And that is the third factor that gives Daya Bai and the social media campaign common ground.
After all, whenever Dhaya Bai intervened on behalf of the endosulfan victims and led their agitations, successive state governments gave her promises, prompting her to cease the agitation halfway. All those promises never came true.
Thus it was that she resumed her strike work on 2 October, on the occasion of International Day of Non-Violence and the birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi.
On Friday evening, the police arrested her and shifted her to a nearby government hospital after her glucose levels deteriorated alarmingly.
Except for a drip, she refused any medical help.
On Saturday, she gave a written request to the hospital authorities seeking immediate discharge.
On finding a urinary tract infection, doctors advised her to take antibiotics.
As she never consumed allopathic medicines, Daya Bai was released from the hospital on her responsibility and continued the hunger strike.
“I am not bothered about my health. I refused to break the fast even at the hospital. The endosulfan victims matter to me. I will not withdraw from this agitation without achieving the objective,” said Daya Bai when South First visited her fasting venue.
This outrage at authorities’ apathy is the fourth factor that brings together Daya Bai and the social media campaigners.
Daya Bai and the endosulfan scandal
The aerial spraying of the banned pesticide endosulfan killed over 500 people of Kasargod, besides maiming and devastating 6,728 others living in and around cashew nut plantations.
Daya Bai, who left her native Pala in Kerala at the age of 16 to become a nun, gave up that choice and worked for tribal empowerment in the country’s midlands.
She worked closely with Narmada Bachao Andolan and various land struggles across India, with tribal communities of Bihar, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and West Bengal.
She reached Thiruvananthapuram to engage in the fast after taking a break from the works among Gond tribals of the Chhindwara district in Madhya Pradesh.
When asked about her demands, Daya Bai told South First that the state government must exert pressure on the Central government to establish the proposed Kerala branch of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in Kasargod, as that would not only extend world-class medical treatment to the endosulfan victims but also enhance the scope of scientific research to assess the physical and mental deficiencies of the victims.
“The Union government has sanctioned AIIMS to all states, and each state government would decide the location. In the case of Kerala, the government suggested Kozhikode as its priority. The second choice is Ernakulam, and the third is Thiruvananthapuram. In the case of Kozhikode, it already has two medical college hospitals and several super-speciality hospitals,” she pointed out.
“At least 200 acres of land is required for AIIMS. The Plantation Corporation of Kerala, which once sprayed endosulfan in its cashew plantations, has a lot of vacant land in Kasargod. Just a policy decision of the state government can save several people,” she added.
Daya Bai also wanted daily-care centres in all the village panchayats and municipalities in Kasargod to ensure relief to those bedridden by killer pesticides.
She also advocated for the state government to conduct regular medical camps to identify and treat those affected.
She also wanted to construct a promised medical college in Kasargod, for which a foundation stone was laid in 2013.
Endosulfan victims suffer in Kasargod
“Healthcare facilities are pathetic in Kasargod. A mother-and-child hospital was inaugurated last year, but it is not functioning. The demand to convert a speciality hospital constructed two years ago for covid patients into a neuro specialist hospital to treat those mentally affected by the aerial spraying of endosulfan also failed to evoke any response,” said Daya Bai.
“The state government must also respect all court orders awarding monetary compensation to families whose members have died or those who have become disabled due to endosulfan,” she added.
The activist also called for special schools for children with physical deformities, as traditional schools refuse them admission.
“Four years ago, I went to see the endosulfan victims of Kasaragod. The situation there was pathetic, and since then, I decided that I should do something to improve their living conditions,” she said.
“Nowhere else in India have I seen such an unfortunate group of people. Two decades of intense spraying of the killer pesticide created a situation in which thousands of people were born with either deformities or mental or physical disorders, or other severe health complications. The most painful thing is that Kerala has ignored them shamelessly,” she said
Among the Kerala districts, Kasaragod is the most backward regarding healthcare facilities. Most people there depend on private hospitals in Mangaluru in Karnataka.
Daya Bai alleged that the Kerala government has stopped screening for new endosulfan victims.
“The last medical camp for screening was held in 2017. The government has failed to keep the promise that screenings would be held every year,” she said.
“Even now, children with congenital disabilities are being born in Kasaragod as the impact of the poisoning gets transferred. Whenever we protest, the government gives false promises. Now we are losing our patience,” she said.