Published: Tuesday 31 August 2004


Recently, I was in Goa where sanitation is a major issue. In Kisoro, Uganda, where a similar problem prevails, I helped build several dry toilets (compost and dehydration). We also built short sewers for the town centre and treated the sewage in an advanced constructed wetland. But when we began work in 1998, this ecological approach to sanitation was not very well received as it went against the cultural traditions of the inhabitants.


Showing the way

Thanks to the story '2 little innovations' (Down To Earth, Vol 12, No 14, December 15, 2003) one was apprised of R K Palhan's innovative methods for controlling water use in flushing cisterns and lpg use in cooking. Drawing upon Palhan's design for cisterns, those with an even smaller capacity can be developed. The thing to do is simply insert a block of brick into the cistern, thereby reducing the volume of water within. Where the sona -- the device to save lpg by 30 per cent -- is concerned, the final findings of the Indian Oil Corporation and the ministry of petroleum and national gas should be published in the interest of the society. If the sona is not a patented item, then the design of the same should be given more publicity and modifications should be welcomed.


Little knowledge of dangerous things

So far as safe dosage of radiation is concerned, there are several conflicting reports. Radioactive emissions can harm the spinal cord, a major nerve centre, though the side effects are neither immediate nor obvious. In recent times, the medical fraternity finds itself faced with a plethora of hitherto unknown diseases, which could possibly be attributed to radioactive emissions. A detailed study on the threat these emissions pose would be welcome.


The natural way

This is with reference to the cover story 'Inevitable tragedy' (Down To Earth, Vol 13, No 4, July 15, 2004). Village Punukula's experiments in managing crop yields without pesticides made for interesting reading. Artificial chemical fertilisers trigger a vicious cycle. They have a drugging effect on plants, which leads to a loss of natural resistance, which makes them susceptible to pests and diseases, which in turn necessitates further use of expensive chemical fertilisers. Punukula's efforts to replace these artificial pesticides with those of natural origin are a step in the right direction. Use of cow dung, compost, green manure and bacterial cultures are healthier options. In other words, organic farming might be just what farmers in Andhra Pradesh need to rid them of their heavy debts.


Well being

The editorial 'Water Riddles' (Down To Earth, Vol 13, No 4, July 15, 2004) raises some pertinent questions about the dugwells of Kerala and the need for greater attention to sanitation. The sunk costs (literally) in private wells are so huge that it is not an investment any government or related agency can afford to gloss over in a scheme to provide potable water. However, one thing which in my opinion deserves attention is -- the practice of boiling water before drinking. This practice -- diffused largely through a socio-religious movement -- has ensured that, even if the water is contaminated, it is made relatively safe by this process. As a result, one becomes aware of bad water standards much later in comparison to other states with similar levels of contamination.

Along with promoting wells, it is also necessary to look out for technologies that will prevent well water from contamination. Perhaps, there are filtering systems or materials that can be used in the outer portion of the rings often sunk into the earth to make a well, once a water source is discovered. Also, if the transformation efficiency between sound water use and good sanitation on the one hand, and beneficial health outputs on the other, are to be high, then hygiene education must be accompanied by conservation awareness.



Apropos the editorial 'Give us today our daily threat' (Down To Earth, Vol 13, No 5, July 31, 2004), had I the means, I would have ensured a copy (of the editorial) reached every petrol pump in the city, as well as every taxi and auto rickshaw driver of Kolkata.

However, it would be unwise to repose too much faith in what seems to be an ecological endeavour (Twisha Lahiri's study) involving a study of pollution levels and a comparison of lung function tests. A series of studies carried out over a period of time would have been able to grasp the ill-effects of air pollution better.

The editorial makes no reference to traffic speed. In Kolkata, the average traffic speed is around 8-10 km per hour, one of the slowest in the world. The condition of the roads is easily the worst in the world, possibly second only to Kabul. What does that translate into human health and air pollution? Slow speed leads to congestion and as traffic comes to a standstill the level of emissions from poorly burnt fuels increase. Then again, as most taxi drivers slow down when idling along the streets little do they realize that their diesel jalopies are emitting deadly toxins. The solution possibly lies in driver education.

As you rightly pointed out, ridiculous pollution control norms and improper town planning has made the situation worse. Instead of controlling the number of cars or increasing road spaces or even creating alternate speedways, more flyovers are being added. And yet flyovers do not in any way alleviate the threat of pollution. On the contrary, more flyovers mean more cars and consequently, greater concentration of emission sources which in turn spell soaring pollution levels.

The editorial suggests "...it (Kolkata) must check malevolent explosion (of cars) through vigorous investment in public transport." Well, yes and no. Yes, because this is the most pragmatic approach. And no because increasing public vehicles can be worse. The emission problems two-stroke engines (cheap two wheelers and auto rickshaws) invite are worse compared to the new Maruti 800. Add to that the problems of slow traffic and poor maintenance of public vehicles, and the situation might actually worsen.

And yet we cannot do away with cars, as they are a growing necessity. In that case, it would be better if there were more environment-friendly cars, maybe electrically driven. It is time we paid heed to Twisha Lahiri's findings.


Pick of the post bag

Leopard's lament
I am a resident of Borivili (east) where the government has allotted land to our community along with some others. The government has specifically prohibited any form of construction work or 'development' on this land. These legal provisions, however, are being flouted with impunity, and large portions of the land are being encroached upon by slums on the one hand, and high-rises on the other. This has led to a severe shortage of space for us.

No political party has taken up our cause and it is natural because we have no voting rights, and can therefore not form part of any vote-bank. We are doomed to be silent spectators of our own doom. After all, though born in this great country, we are not its citizens, and will never be recognised thus. But fact is that we are an integral part of this land and have been here for generations, even longer than our closest neighbours, the adivasi s. To those who did not recognise my name, Panthera pardus is the scientific name for the leopard.

We were the caretakers of a vast tract of unspoilt forest that nurtured millions of creatures for eons, and even today provides water and oxygen to the choked city of Mumbai. But in the last few decades, this beautiful green lung of the city caught the attention of land developers. Land belonging to the forest department was de-reserved and released for human inhabitation. A systematic mayhem began. Today, we live in a truncated vestige of our original habitat, wondering whether man's onslaught on nature will decimate us in the days to come. We hear angry human voices, demanding more land, more resources for the human population. Sadly, even eminent judges proclaim that human interest transcends all other concerns.

Innocent humans, too, are paying the price for the greed of land grabbers and their political masters. The intervention of the media worsens things, even as mediapersons sensationalise the man-animal conflict, almost invariably showing the animal in poor light. All this may well be a prelude to pushing the forest further behind, ostensibly to protect human lives, but actually for amassing more land.

As told to P V Subramaniam,

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