Published: Thursday 15 January 2004

Pick of the post bag

The Kodaikanal lake tragedy
In April 2003, construction work was noticed in the Kalaiarangam area, which lies next to the Kodaikanal Lake. An office shed of the Tamil Nadu Water and Drainage Board (twad) was also erected. On enquiry it was found that a proposal to clean-up the lake had been cleared by the Union government, and the National River Conservation Directorate had granted Rs 10.33 crore for the purpose.

Soon, deep ditches, which today represent a 'death zone', appeared along the roadsides of the sensitive marsh area. Many pipes were even piled up, presumably to collect sewage. Surprisingly, further construction was done on the marsh itself. Alarmed, the citizens immediately called a meeting of the United Citizens Council of Kodaikanal, during which they decided to question the concerned authorities (mainly twad) about the details of the proposal. The managing director of twad stated that divulging the details of the proposal would be "prejudicial to public interest". On July 8, 2003, the Kodaikanal municipality invited non-governmental organisations (ngos) to a public meeting where the contractors presented their shocking plan: a sewage treatment plant was going to be erected at Kalaiarangam, using a fluidised anaerobic bioreactor. More appallingly, neither the officials nor the contractors knew what was supposed to be cleaned up, how it could be done or what are the sources of pollution! By the end of the meeting, it was made explicitly clear that a public meeting could not be assumed as a public hearing, and without appropriate documentation the citizens cannot form an 'informed opinion' about such a large project.

Thereafter, the citizens decided to file a writ petition in the Chennai high court. In October 2003, a review committee inspected the lake, and later a directive was issued to twad and the contractors. The directive stated that the twosome had a grace period of 45 days to submit a fresh proposal to get the sanctioned money. The committee also asserted that informed public participation through a hearing was also mandatory for such a gargantuan project. But this could not prevent large sums of money being spent on the cleaning up of inflows that were intentionally contaminated. The officials and contractors even admitted that the pollution problem would not be solved.

Authorities plan to do similar 'clean-ups' of another 22 lakes, including the Himalayan freshwater bodies and those in the Western Ghats. Communities, whose lives are dependent on the sustainable usage and management of freshwater lakes, should insist on knowing the details of such projects, though their enquiry might be termed "prejudicial to public interest". Currently, the Right to Information Bill empowers the masses to demand accountability and transparency from the officials. If more of us don't take up this basic social responsibility, we stand to lose all with environmental vandalism becoming the order of the day!

Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu...

Democracy overruled

Apropos 'Overruled' (Down To Earth, Vol 12, No 12, November 15, 2003), it is shameful that the National Wildlife Board (nwb), which is supposed to have the final say in wildlife matters, has been reduced to a toothless body. Apprehensions of conservationists about the newly constituted nwb were proved correct in the first meeting of the board itself. The Supreme Court had envisaged that such a body (comprising non-governmental organisations (ngos) and government and private individuals) would have the requisite expertise and independence to ensure that the Union ministry of environment and forests (moef) does not clear ill-advised projects. Obviously, moef feels that development is more important than sustainability, and hence the scales of its 'justice' are inevitably tipped in favour of development. This happens because there is no one to speak out for India's priceless natural heritage. Any institution or individual with the courage to oppose destructive proposals should never expect to become a member of any statutory body set up to grant licenses to projects or implement environmental laws.

The situation in the states is no different. Activities of most state-level ngos are confined to holding mutual back-thumping meetings and organising press meets in glitzy hotels. They never raise their voices against corrupt officials. Their heads, who are usually retired officials used to kowtowing to political bosses, are nominated to the state wildlife advisory boards, as they meekly nod their heads to proposals that can decimate the remaining patches of wildlife habitats. Rarely voiced counter views are steamrolled by the all powerful Mr chairperson!

A new trend is the growth of 'government ngos', which can be abbreviated as 'gngos'. State governments now prefer to work in the garb of ngos. If the officials find the archaic system stifling and rigid, they change the rules with the help of gngos. It also gives them financial independence. To give a gngo the 'fig leaf' of legitimacy, a few retired government officers are made board members. I only wish that ngos also had the chance to set up government departments and work with the aid of endless attendants and resources! What a difference it could make.

The situation is reminiscent of Hitler's Germany where the fhrer methodically eliminated all voices of dissent. In the post liberalisation era, mammon reigns supreme and tigers and elephants are forgotten. The powerful bureaucracy has never heard of words like stakeholders' views or participatory decision-making. Their eyes and ears are closed to criticism.

Global and national mining conglomerates would find it very difficult to survive if proposals to destroy tiger habitats and drilling for oil in marine sanctuaries are held up because of intransigent boards. The first step to send a right signal to foreign and Indian multinational corporations is to ensure that the last 'hurdle' -- state wildlife advisory boards and the nwb-- consist of members who would faithfully read the writing on the wall.

Secretary, Wildlife Society of Orissa

The article 'Overruled' (Down To Earth, November 15, 2003) focuses quite well on the environment policy of the government. It shows how officials exploit the environment to benefit a few. A recent article in the Indian Express appropriately highlights the official apathy. It reveals that th.

Endless industrial hypocrisy

The article 'No entry' (Down To Earth, Vol 12, No 13, November 30, 2003) provokes in a reader both anger and profound sadness. The anger is due to the 'perverse unwillingness' of the chemical and pesticide industries to accept the toxic nature of their products. Like the tobacco conglomerates, they intentionally risk national health. And they do so for sheer lucre.

The sadness can be attributed to the fact that the Indian polity and business sector have been sucked into this global 'development miasma'. Both are attracted to its false glitter because it is perceived as part and parcel of a nation's 'progress'.

But wealth from this kind of industry is stupid growth. It is a choice that reveals poverty of vision and long-term planning. In its wake, an overall decline in human and environmental health is inevitable. This is the real poverty for a nation. It is hardly surprising that Pepsi and Coke were at the 'Symposium on risk assessment of pesticide residues in water and food', busy trying to dissemble, accommodate and find ways around the nuisance of the toxic residues found in their vacuous products. Pepsi and Coke are the root cause of the pervasive obesity and general ill health prevailing in the us and India. Why must India inflict on herself this unnecessary problem? Stupid growth indeed!

Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu...

Tackling e-waste: a must

With the burgeoning use of electronics goods, proper disposal and recycling of electronic waste (e-waste) is gaining importance 'E-waste' (Down To Earth, Vol 12, No 12, November 15, 2003). It is true that e-waste from developed countries is finding its way into India and other developing countries. Reason: it is cheaper to recycle the junk in these nations due to their lax environmental laws. The Indian government should wake up to the menace of the unbridled growth of e-waste 'business enterprises' before pollution assumes alarming proportions. It seems the ship-breaking yards of Alang violate all safety regulations, and the authorities are turning a blind eye to such dangers.

We have to establish safety standards to safeguard our land, water and air from inadequate e-waste handling and disposal. Those handling the junk should be protected properly to minimise health-related problems. Awareness should be raised about the dangers of handling e-waste, both among those directly involved as well as the masses. Recycling paper, plastics and glass may be routine work, but disposal/recycling of e-waste is another matter. Sooner or later the manufacturers/traders have to be held responsible for safe disposal/recycling of e-items like computers and mobile phones. The European Union is working on a proposal, which will place the 'cradle-to-grave' responsibility for products on the producer. India too should take such a stand so that e-waste handing becomes part of the product cycle and does not present a problem. The Union ministry of environment and forests must wake up and take up the responsibility to deal with e-waste. Prevention is better than cure. That's why ecofriendly products should be encouraged.

Bangalore, Karnataka...

The charade of soft drinks

While viewing the Coca-Cola television advertisement, in which Aamir Khan as a Bengali babu endorses the product, I felt enraged. Due to imprudence, such multinational corporations (mncs) are still able to operate in the Indian markets. It is unfortunate that the government policies favour profits over public health, as officials have 'swallowed' national pride.

The mncs can carry on with their charade only as long as the public in developing countries like India continue to reel under the force of consumerism. We must, for our own good, recognise the diabolical pattern in which the us is enmeshing us -- the pattern of death. In Afghanistan and Iraq, the us has destroyed human lives with bombs and missiles. Its state-of-the-art weapons will not work in India, as it cannot make the claim of "saving the humanity from dictatorship" in a robust democracy! Therefore, it is trying to kill us with its drugs, drinks and junk food. It is also making us sceptical about our culture and traditions by piping in trashy television soap operas and movies. If the us or any other country wants to trade in India, it must learn how to respect and value human life. The people of India, and more importantly their representatives in the government, must demand this from each mnc at all costs. If the transnational corporations fail to respect the people and the laws of the land, they must quit for good.

New Delhi...

Forests at the receiving end

The article 'Chop & change' (Down To Earth, Vol 12, No 14, December 15, 2003) is interesting. It is rightly observed that an abnormally high percentage of forestland has been diverted for non-forestry purposes in the last three to four years. The current government has not shown itself to be particularly enlightened about environmental issues, as is evident in the dilution of several regulations and notifications. It is also apparent in the way the National Wildlife Board has been filled with people who will put their stamp on whatever the prime minister's office or other 'developmental' ministries want.

Since 1991, when the new economic policies along with globalisation were introduced in India, the environment has been at the receiving end. This is a world-wide phenomenon: when economies like ours "open up", what suffers the most is the nature and local communities dependent on it. In the post-liberalisation era, there has been greater emphasis on exports to get foreign exchange; natural resources are one of the most imported items. Secondly, it has become much easier for foreign investors to set up shop and undertake destructive activities such as mining. The government's particular fondness for the industrial model of development, combined with a rather weak Union ministry of environment and forests (moef), are the reason why forestland is encroached upon.

Moreover, giving land to encroachers is a great way of earning votes. It is interesting to note that numerous pending applications of the state governments to regularise prior encroachments have been cleared by moef in the last few years.

Founder member of Kalpavriksh -- Environment Action Group,
Pune, Maharastra

Too much noise

It was interesting to read your article on noise pollution "Sound alarm" (Down To Earth, Vol 12, No 11, October 31, 2003). Diwali fireworks, particularly crackers, are responsible for noise and noxious gases. I wonder if it is possible to carry out research for manufacture of clean fireworks.

Noise pollution by vehicles, particularly buses, is bad enough. According to one important union leader of transporters, the bus drivers claim pedestrians and other vehicles do not heed an approaching bus unless the horns are loud enough. Only a short period on a busy road is enough to see that the horns are used to terrorize other road users and make way for themselves in their chase for lucre.

As if this is not bad enough, I have noticed sounds in picture halls where the normal volume seems to be in the vicinity of 100db. In Indian films, the moment there is a song and dance sequence, the volume level goes up considerably. It is important that authorities address this aspect as well. Unfortunately, many equipment manufacturers flaunt their audio products by referring to their output wattage. Many youngsters seem to think playing music on such systems at full volume is the purpose of such equipment, without realizing that the quality of sound at normal levels improve with higher output ratings. This education needs to be provided to protect hapless citizens from this ever-increasing menace.


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