A database is imperative, yet is nowhere in sight

Published: Thursday 28 February 2002

The Union ministry of environment and forests recently held a symposium on environmental health. Sadly, nothing emerged from the initiative, well-intended though it might have been. Here was an opportunity to meet the challenge posed by the double burden of diseases and a deteriorating environment by involving our medical community - doctors, epidemiologists and health specialists. Instead, a routine round of meetings considered models from home and abroad. Period.

We were delighted that one of our concerns -- the linkages between environment and health - was put on the table. But it would be sad if the ministry turns it into a "soulless" programme. This is a matter which concerns the health of people - young and old, rich and poor. A critical issue like this needs to be taken forward seriously.

We need to learn more from the emerging knowledge abroad and there is no need to recreate this knowledge base. But, we also have to do our own research. We must find out more about our specific concerns in our specific conditions. This is imperative.

Conclusive, scientific evidence is crucial to devise area and sector-wise strategies. A time-series data, with continuous monitoring of morbidity and mortality is also required. But our hospitals are unfortunately not equipped to maintain such records. We at Down To Earth could not even find data on cancer. Where will we hope to get credible data on malaria or encephalitis?

This information must be used for an action plan that prioritises the policy changes needed on the basis of our knowledge on health and environment linkages. In other words, research must be linked to public policy. On the other hand, our work on air pollution has taught us there is an ever-widening gap between research and policy in our country. It is almost as if our decision making systems have become knowledge-proof.

Perhaps most importantly, the action plan for health and environment must be driven by a strong public constituency. The reason why our policy makers can remain complacent about public health concerns is because we have a health-illiterate population. This must change. We find a willing interest in researchers and professionals. The challenge is to build upon this community of interested professionals and secure their commitment.

But is this asking for too much from the moef?

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