Published: Wednesday 30 June 2004

No method, only madness

The editorial 'Why liquidate our future?' (Down To Earth, Vol 12, No 20, March 15, 2004) sounded a much-awaited note of caution to states negligent of their water wealth.

Take Himachal Pradesh -- ostensibly the 'water front' of north India --currently on the verge of a drought. Schools, hotels and even villages rely on water tankers for water. Towns get water only on alternate days.

Meanwhile sandmining, detrimental to water reserves, continues unabated. Reckless felling of trees adversely affects groundwater recharge while aggravating erosion and flash floods. The state government, however, continues to sanction bigger and more unsustainable projects.


Intensive Care

Apropos 'It was always measly: Post-liberalisation, public funding in health care has reached a nadir' (Down To Earth, Vol 12, No 24, May 15, 2004), the author says, "It is estimated that the private healthcare industry -- including drugs, diagnostics, private consultations, and hospitalisation -- has a turnover of approximately Rs 1,00,000 crore." The sale value of pharmaceutical products alone (though not private only) at the factory level is Rs 30,000 crore. By the time these reach the consumers, courtesy distributors and retailers, they cost about Rs 50,000 crore. And this is true only for allo-pathic prescription drugs and does not include non-prescription drugs, be it Ayurvedic, Homeopathic or Unani.

The other segments of the 'healthcare industry' include: the medical equipment, device and appliance industry, care delivery industry (hospitals, diagnostics), Fiscal interme-diaries (insurance) and ngos dealing with diseases.

The author, while rightly and forcefully drawing attention to corporatisation and technological invasion of the medical care "industry", does not take into consideration the cost of them to the patient. The equipment and device industry's burden on patients now happens to be much larger than that of the pharmaceutical industry. The Rs 1,00,000 crore estimate (at patient level) of the author is, therefore, a gross underestimation.

The worse scenario is in the private sector. Here, corporate managers have converted treatment into an 'assembly line' with various activity based charges which claim to add 'value'.

The author demands more public funding for healthcare. But it must be remembered that as per Parota's law, 80 per cent of the budgetary provision to public healthcare facilities is abrogated by 20 per cent of the influential and affluent patients. Greater funding with inequitable distribution will only worsen the situation.

To leave unregulated the highly capital-intensive, high-tech, almost monopolistic healthcare sector to market forces could spell disaster for India.


Good earth

It is good to note that vermicompost is gaining popularity 'Worm Wonder' (Down To Earth, Vol 13, No 1, May 31, 2004). In a recent trip to Gadag I visited the zoo. Here, upon direction from the deputy conservator of forest, Vijay Mohan Raj, a vermicompost pit is maintained. Sale of compost to farmers at subsidised rates helps earn revenues for the department. It also aids disposal of the organic waste generated in the zoo premises.

Raj has also initiated a nursery under the Bhishma lake restoration project. The nursery apparently uses the compost prepared in the zoo. A cost-effective as well as an efficient arrangement!


Sounding the system

Green education in West Bengal is facing a crisis. As per ugc norms, all undergraduate programmes are to include a compulsory paper on Environmental Science. Of the allotted 100 marks, 25 are set aside for objective questions and there is also the option of fieldwork. But save for Visvabharati University no other institution in the state seems to be following the ugc dictum. In most places Environmental Science carries 50 marks, of which 80 per cent comprises objective questions.

What is more, the subject is taught mostly by teachers with scant knowledge of Environmental Science. The matter demands timely intervention by the state government.


Solution to pollution

The editorial 'Corporation for Sustainable Development' (Down To Earth, Vol 13, No 1, May 31, 2004) raised the question "how technology costs of water distribution and sewage disposal can be reduced". The solution to this problem lies in the problem itself.

The modern Thermophilic Anaerobic Digester technology, for instance, has immense potential. In addition to basic sanitation and improvement of water quality, it also helps process human, animal and organic plant waste to produce clean energy. The processed waste yields pure methane (ch4). The pasteurised solids serve as excellent biofertiliser. This methane can be further processed into hydrogen; yet another clean fuel option. Coupled with a distributed generation approach, with its various revenue streams or return on investment (roi), the system works even better.

The biofuel -- methane or hydrogen -- has a third fuel and revenue stream. The biofertiliser (a secondary product) can be further used to grow soybeans and other oil-bearing plants. These can be crushed to yield oil, the third biofuel. The soybean can serve as food and, alternately, be fed back into the system to produce more methane or biofertiliser. The processed water in its turn may be electrolysed for more hydrogen which has a very high heat content. For every one pound of hydrogen burned, nine pounds of water is produced. Like I said at the beginning, the solution lies in the problem itself.


Pick of the post bag

Killer on the prowl
This is with reference to the article 'Lies, Damn Lies and Endosulfan' (Down To Earth, Vol 12, No 22, April 15, 2004). Efficacy coupled with low cost, witnessed the soaring popularity of endosulfan in the Indian agricultural scenario in the past four decades.

Technically, endosulfan consists of alpha and beta endosulfan in the ratio of 6:4 or 7:3. When applied to the soil or on crops, the alpha isomer converts into the beta isomer and then both change into endosulfan sulphate. Each of these three are toxic in nature, beta endosulfan being the most persistent and endosulfan sulphate the least. It is, therefore, incorrect to say that sulphate is the only endosulfan residue.

As proven by the All India Coordinated Research Project (pesticide residues) in the 1990s, endosulfan residues are the most widespread, next only to hch and ddt. Studies conducted at the Haryana Agricultural University, Hisar, showed that traces of beta endosulfan persisted for as long as 238 days after a single application of endosulfan on cotton soil. It is then not surprising that endosulfan residues in the cashew plantation region of Kerala should be much more, given that the chemical was, and continues to be, sprayed continuously twice a year in the last 30 years.

Recently, traces of endosulfan have been discovered in the blood and adipose tissue of the populace of Haryana. The calculated endosulfan residues are 11 and 14 parts per billion respectively, showing, thereby, accumulation of this xenobiotic in human tissues. Protracted exposure to residues of endosulfan through air, water and food is the explanation for the toxic residues found in the blood of Padre villagers. It is surprising that the expert committee on endosulfan and industry only considered intake of endosulfan through water, when residue intake is possible through consumption of all contaminated food items, fruits, vegetables, milk and so on.

It is time to either ban or restrict the use of this pesticide before it is too late and its residues become a permanent part of our environment like hch and ddt.

Senior Pesticide Chemist (Retd)

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.