Published: Monday 31 March 2003

Pick of the post bag

True devolution

Richard Mahapatra's article 'Toothless at 10' (Down To Earth, Vol 11, No 16; January 15, 2003) highlights a serious challenge that India is faced with today. Evidently, we need to rethink the very essence of our decentralisation process. Decentralisation is intended as an empowering process, which visualises a substantive democracy rather than a nominal democracy. This process involves three things: de-concentration, delegation and devolution. Unfortunately, we haven't seen the decentralisation process materialise. Instead, we witness an absolute lack of political will when it comes to delegation of powers. Even elections to the panchayati raj institutions (pris) are not held regularly. In short, these institutions are ironically surviving merely because they are at the absolute mercy of bureaucrats and political leaders.

It is extremely important to understand that decentralisation is not a development strategy. It is a value system. Mere handing down of power from top to the bottom will not help the process. The process must start from the very bottom of the power ladder.

But this is a lot to expect in a situation where the people at the bottom of the ladder are also severely economically disempowered. Financial autonomy, undoubtedly, is the key to independent functioning of pris. This apart, district level autonomous bodies should be formed to ensure regular elections. These bodies could also impart training and other necessary skills to the elected representatives, and play an important role in empowering women, scheduled castes and scheduled tribe representatives.

National Centre for Advocacy Studies
Pune, Maharashtra

Water for all

It is both surprising and horrifying that in all the outrage about pesticides in bottled drinking water, neither the media nor the government has bothered to talk about the common person's right to safe drinking water. The entire drinking water issue has taken on a different light altogether. The point is: Bottled water is a luxury that only a few can afford. It forms only a fraction of the entire right to water issue in India.

Our concern for safe drinking water must not confined to those who have the purchasing power to afford bottled water. Also, are we going to hold corporates responsible, while allowing the government to go scot-free? For the past many years, the common people in towns and villages have been the victims of polluted drinking water. Local governments are irresponsible. There is no proper water policy, and certainly no implementation of whatever few regulations do exist.

For example, in a metropolis like Kolhapur (Maharashtra), the municipal corporation has completely abandoned all responsibility towards providing safe drinking water. People are falling prey to diseases like jaundice and gastro-enteritis on a large scale. The corporation pleads inability to do anything due to a so-called 'paucity of funds'. Of course, this paucity has no effect on the vulgar display of money that typifies any festival or celebration by these corporations.

This holds true for every village and town in the country. One hopes that media and government functionaries will show the kind of alacrity they did in bringing corporates to book. If they do, crores of people will be saved from diseases and death. The only crime of these common people is that they depend on the government and local bodies to function properly. And they do not have the purchasing power to afford bottled drinking water!

Ironically, the prime minister of India and the United Nations have declared the year 2003 as the 'Year for Fresh Water'. We may not be wrong in presuming that the right to safe drinking water is not confined to those who can afford to pay for it. While corporates must bear their share of the burden, the government is also responsible for discharge of its duties. Every year brings with it the dread of drought. And droughts bring with them the fear of epidemics. The media and government must not provide corporate powers the opportunity to hijack the entire nation on the issue of water, and make it a privatised and commercialised concern and discourse.

National Alliance of People's Movements
Mumbai, Maharashtra

Last hope

The courts have good reason to suo motu intervene in the Union government's decision to regularise encroachments in Delhi Development Authority (dda) flats. The government's action is evidently with an eye on the forthcoming assembly elections in Delhi. Such political gimmicks of authenticating corruption to appease law-breakers can prove dangerous to the public. dda flats lack quality and strength, and most of these are already quite old. Allowing additional construction on the roof can prove troublesome, especially because Delhi is in an earthquake-prone zone. It must also be considered that such additions could further congest India's capital city, at a time when it is already bursting at the seams.

Our legislators have lost all will power to make public life easier. Vote-bank politics ensure that they are left with no choice but to patronise encroachers and law-breakers. The executive is also busy cashing in on the illegal deeds of such persons. Under these circumstances, it falls on the judiciary to ensure withdrawal of the Union government's decision to allow any additional construction in dda flats. While at it, the Court should also order immediate removal of all encroachments from public land, including roads and footpaths. Then there will be hope that this city will become liveable for law-abiding citizens.


A long wait

I am a freelance writer and photographer. Until recently, I was editing an experimental, upcoming magazine published from Noida. In one of my editorials, I had posed a question that was on my mind quite often those days: will Indians one day have a Green Party, like that in Germany? I imagine that the general political awareness and concern of the Germans must have been the impetus for formation of such a party. Are Indian citizens aware enough to encourage the formation of a green party? Are we, as citizens of India, aware enough to demand the formation of such a party? Perhaps not in the near future. Today, environmental concerns, and those who uphold such concerns, have no role in the Indian political scenario. It seems unlikely that this situation will change soon. But one cannot help but hope.


Tricky blend

This letter refers to the fencing off of the Yamuna bridge in Delhi. The idea behind this move is to prevent pollution of the river through puja offerings thrown into it as part of religious rituals. While the intention is noble, it is possible to arrive at a less confrontationist solution. Perhaps the Delhi government could motivate people, through a mass information campaign, to submit their puja offerings to specially set-up collection centres or temples. The temple authorities could then ensure that all polythene packs are removed from any such offering. The government could arrange to collect these offerings from the temples, and in accordance with the religious sentiments of the people carry it to the Yamuna. The offerings could be sprinkled with Yamuna water, and then turned into manure at a site set up on the banks of the holy river.

Further, in the fight against river pollution, the government should work towards popularisation of electric cremation. This could be arranged within conventional cremation grounds. I believe that one major hindrance in the popularisation of electric crematoria is the fact that they are not in or near convention cremation grounds.

Continuing this 'environment and religion' train of thoughts, it is a pity indeed that cows, revered by Hindus, are searching for food in waste dumps. Perhaps we should go back to the practice where households would collect their vegetable waste and offer them to cows as food. This waste could also be sent to dairies that are near our houses. The government should also set up cow-shelters, especially in view of the large number of cows seen desolately roaming Delhi streets.

Dariba, Delhi...

Water, not wells

I write in response to R V Singh's article on the Swajaldhara scheme (Down To Earth, Vol 11, No 17; January 31, 2003). The scheme aims at empowering village panchayats, so they are in a position to independently resolve the drinking water problem in their villages. Even before the introduction of this scheme, various states have been sensitive to the issue of water supply in rural areas. Considerable amounts have been spent on digging borewells and tubewells. However, over-exploitation of groundwater has caused these sources to remain dry. The real problem is decline of the water table in non-monsoon months.

The proposed scheme provides financial support, implementing power and ownership of the asset to the panchayat. What it does not do is safeguard these structures from the problem of declining water table in non-monsoon months. Unless there is focussed attention on this issue, no effort towards rural water supply will be sustainable. If 20 to 25 per cent of rainwater in each micro-basin or village is harvested, the problem can be solved. Alwar (Rajasthan) and Khandwa (Madhya Pradesh) are examples of the success of this method. The results in these areas prove that technological options are available. What the government must do now is recognise the import of these options and apply them to suit local conditions.


Quick note

I read Down To Earth (dte) regularly. I have been wondering whether we use recycled paper for our magazine. If the answer is in the affirmative, that's great. If not, would you please consider it?

I also wish to inform readers about neem-coated urea. I came across an article that explained why it is better than conventional urea. Although this product has been in the market for a number of years, farmers are not aware of its benefits. The idea has not clicked at all.

Nanded, Maharashtra

The editor responds:
dte has considered the option of using recycled paper very seriously. Unfortunately, the recycled paper available in India is not of printable quality. This is especially true for 2 or 4 colour printing.

Very high quality imported recycled paper is available. But this paper is very expensive, and the economics of publishing a magazine that reaches out to a vast readership does not permit the use of exceptionally expensive paper.

There is another interesting point, often lost in talk about recycled paper. White recycled paper available in India is most often bleached with chlorine. This paper is not, therefore, very environment friendly! Those looking for recycled paper would need to look for two certifications: that it is recycled, and that it is chlorine-free. Chlorine-free white recycled paper is very expensive.

We are, therefore, forced to put off the use of recycled paper until it is feasible for us to access it at a reasonable price....

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