Published: Tuesday 30 November 2004

Unjustified discrimination

Apropos 'Disconnect' (Down To Earth, Vol 13, No 11, October 31, 2004), the history of Indian farm mechanisation is interesting. Agriculture sustains the Indian economy. Yet, farm machinery -- mainly tractors -- is given stepmotherly treatment. For instance, the interest charged on the loan for purchase of a tractor is almost double than that taken on loans for luxurious items.


A small mistake

The article 'Perfect substitute' (Down To Earth, Vol 13, No 9, September 30, 2004) can make any non-resident Keralite homesick. However, unlike what's mentioned in the article, tapioca was introduced and popularised in Kerala by one of the kings of the erstwhile Travancore dynasty. Moreover, Thiruvanathapuram-based Central Tuber Crops Research Institute has extracted a biodegradable polymer from tapioca; the article mentions the Indian Tuber Crop Research Institute.


The rights and wrongs of CITES

Apropos 'Lucky 13' (Down To Earth, Vol 13, No 10, October 15, 2004), one fundamental issue has always been sidelined and downgraded -- what does the Convention of Trade in Endangered Species (cites) say about the right of indigenous people to live on their ancestral lands as per their traditional ways? Today most people cannot differentiate between the right of indigenous people to live and harvest their resources and the menace of poachers, who are either hostile settlers or raiders interested in commercial exploitation. Conservation regulations of many countries overlook this important issue.

Without the support of the indigenous communities, cites will never work. One cannot expect an urban college graduate or a policymaker to take decisions about lands they know nothing about. After all, they will only depend on the international protocols. We certainly cannot win the war on illegal trade through paperwork. The scare of commercial exploitation by poachers has pushed many officials to clamp down on the wrong ends of the problem. People living around sanctuaries or protected areas for centuries are now bearing the wrath of the international protocols.


The arsenic crisis

Apropos 'More arsenic' (Down To Earth, Vol 13, No 8, September 15, 2004), the revision of the guideline for arsenic in potable water from 50 parts per billion (ppb) to 10 ppb is a debatable issue. In principle, the recommended level should be lower for India than that for developed countries -- in India there is more water ingestion and its rural population is more vulnerable to the adverse affects of arsenic due to undernourishment. However, the infrastructure available to test and monitor arsenic levels in water in the range of 10-50 ppb is grossly inadequate. We should accept the enormity of the problem, but tackle it in two stages. Hence, the permissible limit should be kept at 50 ppb for the time being (see also: Are some humans more equal?).

The remark "Nobody has an answer for arsenic pollution in Chhattisgarh" is inappropriate. In this area, the 'country rocks' are locally enriched in arsenic; the element was used here as a tool for exploration of gold. The mobilisation of arsenic into the groundwater is a complex process and its understanding is not of academic interest alone. It is needed for planning effective remedial actions rather than taking ad hoc positions and measures.

The arsenic contamination in the middle-lower Ganga plain is found to be restricted to aquifers in the newer (Holocene) alluvium that occurs in narrow entrenched channels in the floodplain. Proximity to the river Ganga is often not the controlling parameter. In this area, the 'older alluvium' is often either exposed or occurs at shallow level (as is the case in parts of Chapra and Vaishali districts of Bihar, which are largely free of arsenic pollution although many areas there are close to the Ganga river).

The arsenic distribution map in the article also provides a skewed view. Only one block each in Bardhman, Hoogly and Howrah districts of West Bengal are affected, but all three districts are projected as contaminated. Furthermore, only isolated areas in one block of Rajnandgaon district in Chhattisgarh are affected, but the entire district is painted red.

"Groundwater is an unwitting conduit of arsenic, on which people have become dependent for drinking water," the article states, adding: "The good way out is to utilise water from rivers, lakes and ponds." I have strong reservation against this view. Groundwater is a very important resource -- water is filtered by nature and brought to our doorstep. We have often overexploited it and neglected its quality. But why blacklist this important gift of nature?

It is surprising that there is no mention about the utility of dugwells in the article. The polluted nature of our rivers, lakes and ponds is well-known. Dugwell water is free of arsenic even in severely contaminated area. Dugwell water is oxygenated and thus arsenic remains locked (or settles) in the bottom of the waterbody. Our study revealed omnipresence of well-constructed dugwells in Bhojpur, Buxar, Ballia and Chapra districts. But these wells are not used at present for drinking purposes.


The map is not indicative of the distribution of arsenic contamination in a particular district, but a projection of districts susceptible to the menace of arsenic. Moreover, the concentration of arsenic differs from place to place. While one handpump in a locality may be safe, the other may have high arsenic levels. Similarly, a handpump that is safe today may show arsenic contamination in the future. Only comprehensive research, during which each handpump of a locality is examined, can show how many blocks are affected in each district. Unfortunately there is a dearth of such research in India.

Furthermore, we agree that groundw.

Pick of the post bag

Ecoeducation is a must
With environmental degradation generating grave concern worldwide during the last few decades, many organisations have started exploring effective and meaningful ways to impart ecoeducation to the masses, especially the younger generation. A fallout of this is a Supreme Court intervention in December 2003, directing all state governments to include environmental studies as a compulsory subject in the university curriculum.

The University Grants Commission (ugc) -- the key regulatory body for higher education -- is also involved in the process. The organisation has evolved a six-month-long mandatory core module course for all the universities and colleges under its jurisdiction. Provision has been made to combine theoretical knowledge and fieldwork in a balanced manner. The course will have eight units, covering a wide array of issues (like linkages between social issues and the environment). The priority areas are as follows: create awareness and sensitivity about environment and allied issues; enhance knowledge and understanding about environmental issues and challenges; imbibe an attitude for environment; and motivate students to maintain or improve the quality of environment.

Following the ugc dictum, the Gauhati University -- the oldest Alma Mater of the northeastern region -- has introduced the subject in its undergraduate courses. It has even started orientation-cum-training programmes for the teachers.

We hope the message percolates down to every member of the society and brings in the desired feedback. India has already paid a hefty price for not making environmental awareness a compulsory part of the curriculum. It is time we move ahead in the right direction.

Lecturer, department of communication
and journalism, Gauhati University,

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