Published: Friday 31 January 2003

Pick of the post bag

Recycle and reuse

This refers to the letter by Prabha Panth in (Down To Earth, Vol 11, No 15; December 31, 2002), commenting on vehicular pollution control. The suggestion regarding phasing out of 10 to 15-year-old vehicles appears, at a first glance, fairly logical. But, when a comprehensive view is taken, as done by Panth, the picture looks rather different. Instead of succumbing to the 'throwaway culture' of the West, we need to look at the things in the Indian perspective. If we get down to basics, the aspects that need to be looked at are: environmental fitness, safety aspects, maintenance costs and economical use of fuel.

The last two aspects, at the least, will concern the user because it strains his/her resources directly. The user will, therefore, directly address these aspects. As regards environmental fitness, steps like conversion to liquefied petroleum gas or compressed natural gas, fitting of catalytic converters etc, could be resorted to. With respect to the safety aspects, there could be mandatory tests specified for vehicles that come for inspection to the Road Transport Office after the completion of a specified number of years.

The best course would be to come out with a comprehensive checklist prepared by experts in the fields of automobile engineering, environment and safety. Testing centres accredited to the transport department should scrupulously follow this checklist. This would also meet the basic tenets of the 'environment management system' (iso 14000 certification): recycle, reuse, recover and reduce. The vehicles passing muster could be permitted to ply for a specified period, at the end of which they need to be subjected to the test again.


A towering inspiration

On the 2nd of January last year, India lost one of her greatest personalities in public affairs. To call Anil Agarwal an 'activist,' or an 'environmentalist' would be to belittle him. Anil was always ready to talk about issues of air, water and land degradation to our politicians and bureaucrats. He persuasively explained to them that people in India have lived through centuries, each generation adding more knowledge and techniques for tackling problems. As experience shows, they do listen.

Anil was always ready with a word of appreciation and understood that a small 'shabash' at the right time enthuses the worker and frees him from fears and doubts. He must have been a hard taskmaster, which still reflects in the outstanding quality of the Centre for Science and Environment's " Down To Earth " magazine.

When Anil visited Nagaland in 1987, I had left the state on a deputation to the government of India. The village development boards there were in political trouble and the captains of the campaign for village self determination were demoralised. After meeting with Anil, the dispirited captains were looking peppy and ready to go once more. They later told me what had happened.

"Focus on people," Anil had advised them. "When you talk to your political masters, talk of public good. When they believe that you have no personal agenda, they will listen. Also tell them that what you call vdb (Village Development Board), embodies a lot of your peoples' age-old wisdom and can become a model for the country."

I remember a chat with Anil on the topic of genetically modified plants. This was around the end of 2001, when the case of BtCotton was before the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee, of which I am chairman. I told him that as an amateur botanist, I was apprehensive of the whole " gm business." Anil advised me, "You have a difficult decision to make. But remember that once a technology is born, no matter what you do, it will spread. People will not listen to any one when their incomes are likely to take a quantum jump upwards. You as chairman of the committee must be open, fair and honest, and not look like some one who is pushing a particular technology. You must be technology-neutral."

Last but not the least, my wife Savita is today busy understanding rainwater harvesting and has been touring various locations. Her inspiration comes from Anil. She has read his book on India's traditional water harvesting systems from cover to cover. Savita is today an ardent crusader. Undoubtedly, Anil has created a large number of crusaders.

With this, I and Savita promise that we will do our best to keep the fire alive, in ourselves and in whoever we see it.

Achyut Gokhale
Additional secretary
Ministry of environment and forests

Guards not thieves

The conditions under which hapless headloaders, who carry firewood to towns and villages, operate are indeed pitiable (Down To Earth, Vol 11, No 14; December 15, 2002). I was travelling from Rayagada to Sambalpur in Orissa when several women headloaders boarded the train at wayside stations. The group of headloaders, about 10 women, divided themselves into smaller groups and boarded the train.

They had a 'head' -- a man who kept an eye on the women, and also kept a lookout for the travelling ticket examiner (tte). When the tte approached the women, they pointed to their 'boss', who was busy chewing tobacco in a corner. Money changed hands, and the women were left alone. Evidently, they do not have the money to buy a regular ticket, and so pay regular hafta (bribe) to the ttes and other rail officials to continue their ticketless saga as part of the daily chore that keeps the wolf from their door.

These headloaders mostly pick up fallen branches, and do not cut any branch that is still green. It is ridiculous to penalise them. If anything, they are doing a doing a good job of clearing the forest of deadwood. Unlike the timber mafia, these headloaders protect the forests. As such, the state government should safeguard the interest of these headloaders, who are doing a service to forest conservation efforts.

Bangalore, Karnataka...

No more fuelwood

I went through your cover story on headloaders. It is an irony that the major users of fuelwood are small towns and cities, while the poor fuelwood collector is issued kerosene. There is a need to relook policies. Although there have been efforts to reach liquefied petroleum gas to the common person, a large majority of the populace in villages cannot afford it yet.

The government is spending crores of rupees in oil exploration. Why not release a small part of this towards research in technology for solar cookers. Although the concept of solar cooker was promoted in a big way at one time, it lacked the right momentum and thus crashed. Even those who own solar cookers are disposing them off at cheaper rates. There have been no efforts made by any sector to improve the model. States like Gujarat, with bright sunlight throughout the year, should go in for solar cookers. This would also reduce pressure on the forests.

Vadodara, Gujarat...

Easy testing

I was closely associated with the Fredrick Institute of Plant Protection and Toxicology (fippat) for a short time before I left for the us. This is one of the most fraudulent scientific testing facilities I have ever known.

They will go to any extent in order to give a report favourable to sponsors (here the pesticide company) who pay them. They do not even have to see the sample. Just tell them the name of the compound, and the report will be ready in a week's time, whether it is carcinogenicity evaluation or neurotoxicity study. Most of these chronic studies need longer periods; some need at least two years.

This kind of corruption is prevalent not only at fippat but also in many other testing facilities in various parts of India. These people are in hand-in-glove with the government of India pesticide regulatory board members. I don't know when this will stop, and the people of India will be able to lead a peaceful life.


Great stuff

Rustam Vania's regular cartoons in 'Comment' are very good. They carry a certain punch, and mediate to the reader a new perspective on thorny issues. The cartoon in the December 15, 2002 issue (Vol 11, No 14) was particularly powerful. Very hard-hitting.


Coping with corruption

I came across dte recently. The articles and approach were most thought-provoking. I feel moral degradation and corruption is one of the important elements of environmental degradation in India today. I do not doubt the fact that corruption is directly responsible for a great part of the environmental degradation that India is faced with today. People responsible for prevention of pollution look the other way when it pertains to influential people. A prime example of this: money meant for cleaning operations is misappropriated. And while this corruption is not news to the common person, there is little that he or she can do about it.

In Bhopal, we find that the local authorities are not bothered about the unhygienic conditions prevailing in some colonies e.g. Gautam Nagar or Rachna Nagar. Sewage from houses is openly discharged in the nullah (storm drain) flowing between the two colonies, causing the area to stink. Pigs freely roam around, and jhuggi dwellers sit openly for their morning bowel movements by the roadside and nullahs.


An alternative?

I read the article 'Toxicitea tangle' (Down To Earth, Vol 10, No 22; April 15, 2002) on the Web. I am very wary about the use of chemicals. Biological measures are not used widely yet. There has not been enough research to explore biological measures. In fact, it is quite likely that biological measures will provide sustainable solutions. I have developed a 'pheromone trap' to prevent pest-related damage to tea gardens. Details on:


Democratic Process in Jeopardy

I do wish DTE had published where people could send their protests. Most people do not complain because firstly they do not know where to make the protest and then they feel that nothing happens even if one complains. I am sure the readership of DTE thinks otherwise. I am pasting the mail I had circulated for the benefit of readers of DTE who in turn could make their protests too. Please visit the website which gives the details: http://worldcrossing.com/WebX?14@133.iWDveoeDWVQ.2@.ef48b51/3...

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