Published: Saturday 15 May 2004

Pick of the post bag

Last year, while working on the story on Bhopal Gas Victims on the 20th anniversary of the accident, Down To Earth had sent a set of questions to ICMR on certain clarifications. We welcome their response, which reached us now. We just wish that it hadn't reached 5 months late! -- Editor

With reference to your fax (November 11, 2003) and the article 'Nurturing Bhopal' (Down To Earth, Vol 12, No 14, December 15, 2003), I have been directed to clarify the questions raised on the health status of Bhopal gas victims.

Most studies had revealed that the exposure had adverse effects on health. How have these been used to provide better healthcare for victims?
The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) had released two working manuals stating guidelines to local health authorities on managing victims in methyl isocyanate (MIC) exposed areas. Further details regarding the present position can be sourced from the Madhya Pradesh (MP) Rehabilitation Dept, Bhopal.

Sodium thiosulphate (NATS) had been found effective in reducing the toxicity of the chemicals and ICMR had recommended its use. Why was it still not administered to the patients? Did ICMR try to pressurise the government?
For two years (1985-87), in over 300 cases, it was seen that where NATS was used, sodium thiocynate levels in male and female categories fell significantly. In those unexposed to it however, the levels remained unaltered. The ICMR gradually terminated the use of NATS, as there was no further need. This issue was brought before the Supreme Court through a committee in which ICMR was fully represented. Ever since, there has been no logic in continuing the use of the NATS therapy.

Why was the research terminated? According to an ICMR document, a review committee had recommended the closure of projects. Who were the people in this committee and what was the rationale behind this decision?
Over 20 ICMR research projects were supported between 1985-1994. Once the situation was stable according to epidemiological studies, it was agreed that these would be handed over to the MP Gas Rehabilitation Department who would gather more information. Each project had a Project Advisory Committee to review its progress annually and assess its efficacy. These were further reviewed by the Scientific Advisory Committee of ICMR's coordinating body -- Bhopal Gas Disaster Research Centre (BGDRC).

Why haven't the results of the studies been published even 19 years after the disaster? Why is the preparation of the report taking so long considering that the ICMR centre in Bhopal published a report every year?
The results could not be published when the case was pending. But when the ministry of chemicals and fertilizers relaxed the ban on publication, ICMR released a special issue in 1987 on the Bhopal MIC exposure. Several scientists published their findings in international and national journals and participated in international conferences. Down To Earth was provided with copies of these. The late Anil Agarwal, former editor of the magazine, used the information in subsequent publications.

ICMR had planned to publish reports on the epidemiological, toxicological and clinical aspects based on the annual reports of the BGDRC. One report is on its way to getting published, while two others are to be finalised soon. The main cause of delay is the demise of many of the key investigators.

The Bhopal cancer registry was to compare the cancer rates between the exposed and non-exposed people. But the registry report does not distinguish between these. Justify. Will remedial steps be taken? What is the status of cancer incidence in exposed people?
To calculate the incidence rates in cancer registry the numerator (number of c.

No absolutes in corruption

The editorial 'Sounds of self-interested silence' (Down To Earth, Vol 12, No 21, March 31, 2004) makes an important point about the misuse of science. But this is in the light of attacking photography for dirty pictures, literature for pornography and nuclear power for bombs (I distinguish this from the unique American philosophy that guns don't kill people, people kill people, everything is corruptible). The editorial rightly says that science can guide policy, but decision making rests finally on societal values. As it says, uncertainty cannot harm science. Sound science does not eliminate uncertainty, but embraces it. Unfortunately, biologists (being by definition poor mathematicians) are not very good at this. Though I accept that we must find better ways of integrating science and policy, we cannot use the Bush administration as an available example. Except perhaps to demonstrate how anything can be corrupted to meet its self-serving ends.

Fellow, Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment

I have a story to tell of oil, not of popular diesel and petrol but edible oil. After the Second World War, when the American army withdrew from the South Seas Islands base, they showed their appreciation by importing coconut oil, according to a government policy. But this was something the soyabean oil lobby didn't favour. So, they got a university-sponsored scientist to release a study on the ill effects of coconut oil. Soon the 'sound scientist' theorized that coconut oil could create adverse cardiac conditions. This was doggedly presented through 'sound scientific' presentations in conferences till it metamorphosed into public opinion condemning the same. Even a villager had heard of the harm coconut oil could do! Then from around 1970, the surgeon general of the US arranged for other studies on coconut oil. By 1992, a statement was issued which declared coconut oil as an easily digestible, metabolizing oil, that had no adverse effect on the heart. We see a similar rework with the Central Food Technological Research Institute research on ghee. Their findings (not published) claim that molten ghee used in food is not dangerous. So much for 'sound science'!


Refuge in refugia

Apropos 'A pest overrides Bt' (Down To Earth, Vol 12, No 22, April 15, 2004) what G T Gujar reports of his artificial experiments is merely a repeat of a well-known scientific fact. When you force an insect to feed on varying concentrations of Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) under artificial conditions, it will naturally develop resistance. In the fields, out of labs, the situation is different. Insect resistance is slower in the fields. That's why entomologists and plant breeders have been developing refugia to delay insect resistance to insecticides and make the crop last longer. If a Bt crop variety can survive 7-10 years with proper pest resistance management practices, then it is commendable. Other varieties have a life span no more than five years.

For successful management of Bt crops under field conditions, regulatory scientists must strictly enforce the mandated refugia and monitor insect resistance. Other options for insect resistance management include a utilitarian module of Integrated Pest Management for farmers.

Any temptation to ban Bt crops just because some farmers do not implement mandated refugia must be curbed. Only about 70-80 per cent of farmers in the world comply with refugia. But in India, there is a natural heterologous refugia of other crops on which the cotton bollworm feeds. Monitoring is the only solution to the problem. Hope the industry and authorities will think about this.

Biologistics International
Ellicott City, MD, USA

Organically yours

I have not been able to identify retail shops in India that sell organic food. Could Down To Earth run a column identifying vendors of organic produce?

In the us, many organic farms offer a certain percentage of their output for a fixed price each year. This way the buyer shares in the bounty of the farm in good times and losses when the harvest is poor. The buyer gets a good deal on the organic produce and the farmers are guaranteed a minimum return for their work. India could use similar means to encourage organic farming.


Save the Indian outback

It is distressing to see that when the harmful effects of diesel have come to light, in Dibrugarh, Assam, the local administration has been giving road permits to diesel-driven three wheelers. Dibrugarh is Assam's second biggest town. Here, there is an obvious monopoly of three wheelers, which have put the city buses out of business and are the sole means of public transport.

The Assam Pollution Control Board does not have the requisite infrastructure to monitor pollution levels in the town. More alarmingly, unemployed youth driving these three wheelers have to shell out bribes upto Rs 30,000 to the District Transport Authority Officer and to members of the local Regional Transport Authority for a road permit. One assumes these allegations are true since they went undisputed in many local dailies.

So what can be done about public health? Maybe public interest litigation in the Supreme Court might help. Are there other alternatives? Or is the rest of the country deemed to suffer while New Delhi alone prospers as a model city?


Apathetic machinery

'Phoney Pitch' (Down To Earth, Vol 12, No 20, March 15, 2004) deserves to be praised. The political motive behind the Union ministry of environment and forests' (moef) circular of February 5, 2004 has been rightly stayed by the Supreme Court.

As to how the deadline has been shifted to December 31, 1993 (from the original 1980), despite the Supreme Court's stay in 2001, remains to be explained. It is also beyond comprehension why the order has apparent benefits for tribals only, when the forests are inhibited by both tribals as well as the non-tribals.

So far as the rights of the tribals are concerned, it is known that they have the right to secure patta, ie the ownership deeds, individually or as a group. In the absence of patta, one will be regarded as an encroacher. Conferring heritable but alien rights does not solve the problem of ownership.

The investment in land becomes futile if the tribals are not permitted to sell the same and settle elsewhere. Also, how can a bank lend money unless the land is mortgaged and restrictive selling is permitted, as per the government of Madhya Pradesh's forest department circular of February 4, 1977.

Transfer of land to the revenue department is not needed for allotting patta. The terms and conditions of the patta under the 1977 circular was better than the terms and conditions of the lease deed of the revenue department. The callousness of the moef is obvious in that very little of encroachment land prior to 1990 has been regularised.

Vote catching by political parties encouraged encroachments which prompted Indira Gandhi to formulate the Forest Conservation Act. In absence of legal rights on land, intensive cultivation gives way to extensive cultivation. In other words, encroachments galore.

Former chief secretary to government of Madhya Pradesh

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