Published: Thursday 15 July 2004

Problem on wheels

Cars cause more harm than good. They kill thousands, maim millions and leak toxic substances onto roads and parking lots which contribute to water pollution from runoff. They also contaminate the air. The us should learn from Europe and develop a non-polluting, efficient and safe mass public transport.


The long and the short

A long-term, cost-effective and least polluting energy source is the solution to India's problems. Biomass gasification plants have already contributed significantly and villages in Maharashtra are a testimony to this. More and more village panchayats should be encouraged in this endeavour. In fact, a portion of the funds allotted to the panchayats should mandatorily set aside for implementation of this scheme. State governments promise free electricity to farmers when they should be offering free biomass gasification plants by way of long-term solutions to farmers. Short-term, stop-gap arrangements of free electricity reluctantly given and quickly withdrawn are of no help.


Hats off

Apropos the editorial 'Corporation for sustainable development' (Down To Earth, Vol 13, No 1, May 31, 2004) I would like to draw attention to the efforts of the Amtes in Anandwan, in Maharashtra. Baba Amte and his family worked miracles in these inhospitable locales that are cursed with scant rainfall and rocky soil. The fact that the effort involved rehabilitation and education of the leprosy-afflicted and other handicapped is another story altogether. So far as the various sustainable measures are concerned, the most impressive ones have been the continuous supply of clean drinking water for all (by water harvesting and increasing groundwater levels), and an efficient sanitation system in the township. The toilets are scientifically planned with in-house measures to recycle and reuse human waste for agricultural purposes.


Checks and balances

This is with reference to the article 'Fat chance' (Down To Earth, Vol 12, No 24, May 15, 2004). It would be far too simplistic to attribute a complex problem such as obesity and related diseases to any single cause. Increasing prosperity, lack of exercise due to a preponderance of automobiles and mounting work pressure are some of the many factors aggravating the problem. A successful strategy will look beyond simple solutions, focus on equity, diminish emphasis on materialism and try and create a just society. Only then will the pressures of modern life find a suitable outlet in things other than food. Education, voluntary work and meditation are some alternatives.


Ground truths

The article 'In a pickle' (Down To Earth, Vol 12, No 24, May 15, 2004) drew attention to the withering of mango trees. The problem was ascribed to a dry spell when it should have been attributed to the overexploitation of groundwater, leading to a dip in water tables. Consequently, despite their deep roots, mango trees face difficulty in accessing water. Recharge is slow and because of protracted and reckless groundwater exploitation, the shallow-rooted coconut and areca are also sure to die. Sinking borewells will only aggravate the problem and should be stopped immediately. In spite of repeated warnings, the concerned authorities have taken no action. Banning of commercial exploitation of groundwater is another much-needed measure. The consequences of not taking these steps are only too obvious. Kerala, the wettest and most verdant state of the country, is now reeling under drought spells. Paddy fields have turned into concrete jungles, rivers and rivulets are choked with silt and weed, and summer flow in major rivers is greatly reduced.


Troubling waters

Water is a major concern in Bangladesh. While on the one hand there is the question of floods, on the other, there is the issue of water scarcity. There are other worries such as arsenic contamination of water, declining water tables, changed flood levels and increasing salinity. Without depending on the government/donors can something be done?


Thought for food

'Food terrorism' is defined as: the intentional contamination of food or water supply through harmful chemical, biological or radionuclear agents. The resulting contamination of food at any one place can have global repercussions on public health. According to the World Head Organization (who), this is a real and current threat.

Large farms, food-processing plants with widespread distribution networks, public eating places, schools and hospitals are all vulnerable targets. In addition, in developing as well as under developed nations, street vended foods could be reason for particular concern. Potential weapons can range from bio-engineered pathogens to other agents that are part of the natural environment, such as toxins and food-borne bacterial pathogens. These agents may be introduced at any point along the supply chain from farm-to-fork or into the final product. Disruption of food distribution systems or damage to the agricultural economy by introducing devastating crop pathogens or exotic animal diseases are alternative strategies of attack.

The solution lies in developing a preventive strategy for a terrorist attack similar to the elements of a Hazard Analysis Critical Control point (haccp) plan. This identifies critical points along the food production and processing chain, where contamination is most likely to occur. Food inspection agencies must also, jointly establish a food and agriculture emergency response system. The purpose of such a mechanism would lie in mobilising all agri-food sector resources to ease the effects of emergencies on the sector, and to ensure continuity, adequacy and safety. Crisis management for such issues must include law enforcement, intelligence gathering, surveillance, negotiation and investigation. With a vast agri-food system and lack of adequate scientific studies and rules for ensuring food safety, the risk of food terrorism in India is high and needs urgent upgradation of existing food safety standards.


Pick of the post bag

Two of a kind
The cover story 'Water woes in wet Kerala' (Down To Earth, Vol 13, No 1, May 31, 2004) brings to the fore the issue of water mismanagement and the consequence of the attempt to replace participation and empowerment with capital-intensive technology. Kerala's water woes actually owe themselves to the low value attributed to this precious natural commodity by its people.

Sourcing of capital was dependent solely on indigenous institutions till the 1990s and, thereafter, on international financial institutions. Huge water subsidies are also paid from the exchequer (Rs 1 crore per day). But dependency has fostered a lethargy preventing expansion of the water network. It is in this context that water supply projects such as the Jalanidhi and the Olavanna assume significance. While Jalanidhi has an International Development Association (ida) credit line arranged by the Union government supporting its capital requirement, the Olavanna panchayat is a decentralised participatory model depending on community participation for its running.

Jalanidhi sought to experiment this model in 100 more gram panchayats (gps). It alone ensures sanitation, groundwater recharge, empowerment of women and panchayti raj. It offers the cheapest household connections at Rs 2,250 per year. The operation and maintenance expenses are borne by user groups. What is more Jalanidhi charges only Rs 3.38 per unit from the users and the latter do not have to pay implicit subsidies that are transferred as institutional costs. Jalanidhi also allows tribals to participate at 2 per cent cash contribution.

However, it is Olavanna alone that is hailed as the ideal project. This is unfair when both projects are quite similar and Jalanidhi a lot easier on users (only 15 per cent of the capital is raised as user contribution). If Olavanna is indeed the answer to the water crisis, what prevents panchayats with adequate grants (ranging from Rs 50 lakh to Rs 1 crore per gp) from adopting the model in more places? The champions of Olavanna also need to know that it is keen to join a multi-crore Japan Bank-assisted project.


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.