Published: Friday 28 February 2003

Prevention is better...

Read your editorial 'How cities (don't) run'; (Down To Earth, Vol 11, No 15; December 31, 2002). I have given some thought to the issue of unauthorised constructions in Delhi. I have heard that at the time of construction, the unholy nexus between developers and the corporation ensures that the construction is completed even in violation of laws. Subsequently, these constructions might be demolished on paper several times over.

However, once the developer sells the building, and the market value of the full property is paid by the (perhaps unsuspecting) buyer, is it correct to insist on demolition? Is there another way out? If demolition is ruled out, it might be better to authorise these constructions after the imposition of some penalty. Of course, the ideal situation would be to prevent these structures from coming up in the first place. In short, make officials responsible. There should be severe penalty for non-performance of official functions.


I must thank you for the eye opening editorial 'How cities (don't) run'. It is candid and reflects the illegal aspects of legal activities. I enjoy reading Down To Earth. It kindles a ray of hope in my mind. It says: "Hey come on! The battle is far from lost."


Damaging faith

While going through the special report 'Faith in spate' (Down To Earth, Vol 11, No 16; January 15, 2003), one wonders about the extent of ecological damage caused in the name of faith. Believers argue that the rituals devised by organised religions often protect the environment and natural resources, even if such protection is entirely unintentional.

As such, environmentalists have approved of various religious practices in the hope that they might be successful where all other attempts failed. This might have been true in the past when human greed was somewhat more controlled than it is today. But the special report reveals a different story. The damage caused by overzealous devotees far exceeds their insignificant contribution towards protecting nature. The main reason appears to be the lack of rational thinking. Rationality, in fact, is at stake today.

On the one hand, saints and religious scripts advocate that god is omnipotent and omnipresent. On the other hand, followers of self-proclaimed religious leaders, babas and devis seek the blessings of god at a particular place and at a particular hour. Naturally, god-seekers crowd in millions at religious places at auspicious hours or days. At the same time, there are those who are trading in god, and exploiting believers to make a fast buck. They are not worried about environmental damage.

The huge crowd of devotees puts an enormous pressure on the civic administration. In turn, the administration demands huge funds for slip-shod measures. These measures are not adequate; funds vanish into the pockets of officials and contractors, leaving devotees to suffer and in turn cause damage to their environment.

It is learnt that the Maharashtra government is spending crores of rupees on organising the forthcoming Kumbh Mela, to be held at Nasik. It is expected that several million devotees will visit the banks of the Godavari. The river and its surroundings will choke with every conceivable form of solid waste: human excreta, leftover eatables, plastic bags and bottles. Let us hope rationality will prevail over faith, and both the believers and the government will rethink their values at the Kumbh Mela.


Travel together

Mass transit is the need of the day, but we appear to be concentrating on building flyovers, producing cars and two-wheelers and engaging in various debates. It is undeniable that all these concerns have an important role in discussions on reducing pollution. However, the first target should be to induce more private vehicle owners to start using the mass transport systems, such as metro rail, pollution-free compressed natural gas buses, electrical trolley buses or battery operated vehicles.

The island nation of Singapore is a good example of how mass transit works by offering cheaper and quicker rides to citizens. There is less incentive to own a car, in view of heavy taxes and high parking fees.

Sooner or later we have to wake up to the fact that non-renewable energy sources are scarce, and that there is a need to conserve these. Cities like Mangalore and Madurai have good public buses, which means the commuter does not have to use her/his vehicle. The escalating fuel prices are another disincentive. Where possible, especially in big cities, metro rail -- surface, underground, or elevated -- could be the answer to saving fuel, reducing pollution and avoiding accidents.

Bangalore, Karnataka...

Double standards

I had gone through your article on pollution in Ahmedabad. I request you to also take up the issue of automobile pollution in Mumbai. Pollution in Mumbai is worse than it has ever been before. Recently, to my horror, I found brand new autorickshaws with 2 stroke engines and no catalytic converters running in the city, emitting clouds of smoke. For about a year now, at least the new autorickshaws were 4 stroke vehicles fitted with catalytic converters, and emitting no visible smoke.

So why have the old polluting rickshaws been reintroduced? Where we are talking in terms of compulsorily introducing Euro 3 or 4 standards for private vehicles, and fining them Rs 1,000 for minor increases in pollution readings, why are these rickshaws on the road? Also, most trucks contracted by the municipality, and school buses on contract, spew clouds of black smoke. Nobody catches them. They get away with this act only because they can strike and hold up the traffic.


No more 'public servants'

Every legislation is passed by both houses of parliament. Once they have passed a legislation as a collective, they must implement it in letter and spirit. This is especially true for legislators who get ministerial berths. T R Baalu, for instance, may not have direct control of the pollution control boards, but the chairperson of the Central Pollution Control Board is well under his control. The minister is therefore entirely responsible for the actions of the pollution control boards. The common person has neither the power nor responsibility, neither time nor money to ensure implementation of pollution control laws. It is true that public spirited persons have been trying to bring in a modicum of accountability through public interest litigations, but this is easier said than done.

The concept that the government and its officials are 'public servants' is completely outdated today. They rule the day now. And implementing agencies in the country know that only too well. Stricter the rules, the better chances there are to mint money. All Acts and rules related to pollution control have met with the same fate. Government rules target the public as the ultimate beneficiary. But it is the public that pays through its nose. Members of the government and implementing agencies are the ultimate beneficiaries of any rule or legislation. As far as the chairpersons of state pollution control boards are concerned, the government appoints only retired persons to these posts. Naturally, they are grateful for the appointment, and know that they are at the mercy of their political bosses. Those who stay within the line are ensured of longer tenures.

The relevant legislation provides for only one nomination (for a three year term), and not more than two re-nominations, limiting the tenure of any member, including the chairperson, to a maximum of nine years. To quote an example, the chairperson of the present Central Pollution Control Board has been allowed to continue even after his 12-year tenure. He retired two years back. Re-appointment or continuance of a retired person requires special consideration. What are these special considerations? Who permitted him to continue, and why? These are questions that need asking.


Think again

I wish to express my dissent on the choice of bharmkamal (Saussurea ovalata) as the state flower of Uttaranchal. The species is on the verge of extinction, and 90 per cent of the people in Uttaranchal are not familiar with this flower. I think the appropriate choice would have been buransh (Rhododendron arboreum). This is a sacred flower, firmly established in Uttaranchal culture. There are many conservation methods. Perhaps the government should reconsider its choice of bharmkamal as the state flower in an attempt to conserve the species.

National Botanical Research Institute
Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh


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