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MUTHU PERAMAN

India,

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.

This profile below was prepared when Muthu Peraman was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1990.

Fellow Sketch

Muthu Peraman has been successfully working with governments and private sector industries to create infrastructure and systems to address large-scale environmental pollution. Drawing on scientific investigation, Muthu has used both national and international forums to create public pressure on the government to implement laws and policy to create safe sources of water.

Having trained as a toxicologist, Muthu conducted intense research and analysis on the polluting effects of the leather industry in Tamil Nadu in the late 1980s. Compiling this research into a report, he sent the information to an Environment Tribunal which was set up in Amsterdam. The case of the leather industry was one of the three cases from India chosen to be heard by the tribunal. Along with a press person, and a lawyer, Muthu fought the case against the government of Tamil Nadu in front of the tribunal. The jury past a verdict favouring Muthu, and conditions were laid down for the government to set up treatment plants for contaminated water and effluents. On his return, Muthu oversaw the implementation of these guidelines, and remained involved for five years monitoring the outflow of industrial waste water. Through sustained effort, government water treatment plants were set up across Tamil Nadu, and have been made effective through constant monitoring by not just Muthu, but a range of different stakeholders.

During this process, Muthu became aware of the need for organisation within the factories. He started organising women into self-help groups, and gave them training across a range of industrial and technical skills: leaf stitching, coil assembly and in tailoring. He was also highly disturbed at the high incidence of child-labour in the factories. Through family, livelihood and educational interventions, he started addressing the causes of child labour, and sure enough, he saw the rates drop over the course of 5 years. With many of the self-help groups now sustainable, Muthu has turned his attention towards taking this model to different communities, particularly migrant workers, and children at the stone quarries

Furthermore, Muthu is constantly looking for ways to ensure that water sources in communities remain clean, safe and available for future generations. Towards this, he is working closely with Panchayat representatives, training them on methods and techniques to save and conserve local water bodies in the villages - lakes, ponds and wells.

Muthu started as a postgraduate in environment science, when he consulted with various NGOs on popularising concepts and ideas on environment issues. Around this time, he started work with Pesticide-sprayers in the agricultural district of Tanjore in Tamil Nadu. A deeply marginalized community, pesticide-sprayers come from a backward caste, and face unique health risks because of their occupation. Muthu documented the health and environment impacts of their livelihood, and spread awareness on the issue, which was finally taken up to be addressed by local NGOs. This set Muthu down this path, of advocating for marginalized workers in vulnerable industries, whether pesticide-sprayers, tannery workers or stone-quarry labourers.  

This profile was updated in September 2014. Read on for the Election Profile.

INTRODUCTION

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 PROBLEM




THE STRATEGY




THE PERSON




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