Published: Tuesday 15 April 2003

Pick of the post bag

Misguided and misinformed
The article titled 'Bureaucratic coup' (Down To Earth, Vol 11, No 16, January 15, 2003) appears to be misinformed, motivated and misguided by some officers in the Union ministry of environment and forests (moef). According to the author Indian Forest Service (ifs) officers are controlling the functioning aof scientists in the ministry. Though ifs officers can handle environment-related issues because of their training and educational background equally well -- if not better -- than 'scientists', their entry into environment departments has always been opposed.

Currently, ifs officers are primarily dealing with forests and wildlife issues in which they are well trained. The work carried out by 'scientists' in moef, New Delhi is not the sort of scientific work carried out in laboratories, but it definitely requires scientific background, scientific temper, analytical ability, logical thinking and initiative to deal with such subjects. For scientific input and expertise, there are various committees and institutions of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, Botanical Survey of India, Zoological Survey of India or Central Pollution Control Board whose services are being utilised by the moef.

Few officers besides V Rajagopalan, who possesses a doctorate in Air Pollution Modelling for example, are better equipped than many of the 'scientists' to deal with environment-related issues. We should not forget officers, who are not 'scientists' by designation, but are adept in environmental management and planning. The designation is not a criterion for being competent as far as the scientific field is concerned. At the same time it is also true that most of the 'scientists' in the environment wing are qualified in subjects such as botany and zoology. Therefore, they find it difficult to deal with subjects related to chemical industries, or hazardous waste management.

The rational approach would be that more officers with a scientific bent of mind, and not 'scientists' by designation alone, are inducted into the ministry. Suitable selection criteria based on educational background, experience and interest should be followed, instead of creating a divide between administrative officials or bureaucrats, scientists and officers of the ifs.

I agree that certain officials take advantage of visiting foreign countries for attending seminars or workshops, but such activities need to be corrected by the head of the department. Further, moef has a lesser say as far as international treaties on environment are concerned, which are mostly guided by issues such as commerce, external affairs, international co-operation. In the article, therefore, the author should have taken a more balanced approach, instead of scandalising the issue.

Arera colony, Bhopal...

Why link rivers at all?

Interlinking of river basins, the brainchild of prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee will be detrimental for the national integration of our country. The process of linking rivers will delink people of the states covered in the scheme. If sharing the waters of one river -- the Cauvery -- can raise such a huge conflict, imagine the consequences that will arise while linking several river basins. Riots will become the order of the day.

People habitually misuse water and electricity publicly. As soon as water starts flowing in the link canals, people will begin drawing from it illegally. They will hook the power lines to run pumps, puncture the canal and put pipes below or breach the canals recklessly. Equitable distribution will be hampered and the regions will not be in a position to get their allotted quota.

Linking of river basins is not an easy proposition. It is a large complex programme of water management. It involves technological, environmental and legal issues. River water sharing, therefore, has to be monitored by the Union government with the help of the army. But the vastness of the canals will make it practically impossible to monitor the passage of water.

The economics of river linking also is enormous. It would involve roughly around us $104 million to us $125 million. We do not have resources to this extent. Banks will hesitate to advance financial help as recovery of loans from the beneficiaries will be difficult .

The routing of the canals will also eventually run into rough weather, as there will be no consensus about the course of the canals among the states and people. The other contention is pollution of the rivers. Ganga is one of the most polluted rivers in the world. Interlinking all the rivers will transport polluted water from the Ganga to other moderately clean rivers.

In the present context, considering all the loopholes in the river linking scheme, it is impossible to come to a settlement on sharing of water. The project will unnecessarily be delayed. Instead if we opt for watershed development projects, we can effectively harvest rain water. India receives moderate to good rains (about 800 to 1000 millimetre every year). If we undertake watershed development instead of linking rivers, we can comfortably survive with a minimum of one crop and adequate drinking water in the lean periods also.

Watershed development has the following advantages:

For watershed works, the cost per hectare (ha) of irrigated land is around Rs 10,000 as against Rs 75,000 per ha in the river linking scheme

While watershed schemes can be completed in five years, linking of rivers will take up to 15-20 years to complete

Millions of labourers in India will get employment in watershed projects for the next five to six years. But as canal work involves heavy machinery or equipment, it is not a labour intensive job.

We have to, therefore, give up the false notion of linking rivers and save money and time by adopting the simple, and most effective, method of watershed development.


More on bottled water

I wish to congratulate Down To Earth for the sensational expose' of bottled water brands. The nation has at last taken note of what it is drinking.

Reading the story brought back memories of my tour of 14 European countries two years back. In the early seventies when I had visited Holland, drinking water in hotels was considered unsafe, but during my last visit, I noticed that it was perfectly safe to drink water from any tap all over Europe. The European scenario is uncomparable to the one in India.

Thank you for making us aware of the facts and possibly saving our money. I recall that in 1999-2000 the World Wide Fund for Nature had found that the municipal tap water was safer to drink than many bottled water brands available in the market. This story is also an appropriate tribute to Anil Agarwal on his first death anniversary.

A R Maslekar

For a safe habitat

Following a chance reading of the shocking story about pesticides in bottled water (Down To Earth, Vol 11, No 18 February 15, 2003), I happened to read the editorial titled 'Stop the cycle of poison' (Down To Earth, Vol 11, No 19 February 28, 2003). It is just right to supplement the safe drinking water plan afoot currently with proper debate. What have we done in the name of development of agriculture and boosting our farm production so far? What has been the extent of damage to water in rivers, ponds and sub-soil water reserves? Year after year we have added tonnes of poison. These studies will perhaps result in startling disclosures. Planners, sociologists, developers and those forcing economic reforms in the global context need to address the compulsions to save mother Earth and to sustain it as a safe habitat for the future. The editorial 'Stop the cycle of poison' has stirred a desire in me to join your organisation in this great cause of creating a strong public opinion for social and governmental awakening to put in reverse gear the damage that we are knowingly causing us as well as our future generations.


Bureau of sham

The cover story 'Gulp' (Down To Earth, Vol 11, No 18 February 15, 2003) has busted the integrity and credibility of the Bureau of Indian Standards (bis). The story also showed that what is marketed with the seal of a government organisation is not always safe. As an obvious reaction to the story, bis has tightened the standards for the maximum limits of pesticide residues in packaged water in line with the European norms. The government has also notified, in the Gazette of India, similar amendments to the Prevention of Food Adulteration Act (1954) (pfa) rules with respect to pesticide residues, and invited objections and suggestions from the public.

What is interesting is that the knee-jerk reaction to your findings has, in fact, intensified the ambiguity about standards of food articles. pfa limits for certain pesticides in milk, fruit, eggs and vegetables remain several times higher than the proposed norms for pesticides in packaged water. There is an urgent need to formulate effective food safety rules in the country.

The drinking water problem is very deep-seated. Just a few months ago, a study conducted by the physiology department of Kolkata University had revealed that mineral water contained microbial impurities and was, at times, even worse than the cheap fruit juices sold at roadsides. Bacteria such as Escherichia coli were found in samples of bottled water marketed in Kolkata by well-known companies. In some cases, the microbial level was 60 times higher than the prescribed safety limit. The quality of water that we drink is so poor that in the recently published World Water Development Report of the United Nations, India has been ranked a lowly 12 among 122 countries listed for their water quality. Kudos to your efforts. Gullible Indian consumers like me look forward to your service.

Salt lake, Kolkata...

The highway threat

The article 'Riding roughshod' (Down To Earth, Vol 11, No 19, February 28, 2003) shows how, in a rush to connect cities and towns, environmental factors have been put on the backburner. For example, while widening roads, trees are uprooted, but they are rarely replanted. In the haste to connect cities and villages, highways have been built even inside wildlife sanctuaries. This disturbs the flora and fauna in these sanctuaries. The famous Keoladeo National Park in Bharatpur is surrounded by noisy highways, which is one of the prime causes for the diminishing number of migratory birds every year. Its time to re-route these highways to provide a safe and natural habitat for these animals.

There appears to be a haphazard planning as far as the transport system in the country is concerned. Take, for example, the project to build a four-lane superhighway between Bangalore and Mysore. Besides displacing the villages on the route, the project is also environmentally unviable. It will destroy farmlands and trees on the route. The authorities seem to have overlooked the other proposition to double the existing broad gauge rail tract between the cities, which would have caused less damage to the environment and negligible displacement of people. This shows our scant regard for environmental issues, while executing such projects.


Focus on northeast

I have been reading Down To Earth for the past five years. I would like to highlight the fact that the magazine lacks articles from the northeastern part of India, especially from states such as Manipur, which are the hotspots of Indian biodiversity. Can you publish articles on endangered species such as Sanghai (Cervus eldi eldi) and on endangered flora -- sirohi lili (Lilium Mackliniae) -- that are found only in Manipur.


What's the truth?

I was shocked to see a letter titled 'Easy testing' in Down To Earth, Vol 11, No 17 January 31, 2003 mentioning my name and e-mail. Though the e-mail address given in the let ter is mine, I want to make it clear that I have neither sent such an article nor do I have any knowledge about it. I was appalled to see the letter in your magazine on Fredrick Institute of Plant Protection (fippat) with which I am closely associated. fippat is committed to academic and research activities. Several scientists like me, who were associated with fippat are, at present, working in several prestigious institutions in India and other countries.

California Pacific Medical Research Institute
San Francisco, USA


Editor's response
The organisation received a letter with your e-mail address. It was then routed to the magazine, perhaps inadvertently. Originally the e-mail did not have a name; Chandra Raman -- the name given -- was guesswork on the part of the copy desk. We are sorry for that....

Your attention, please!

I am a member of the Rotary Club, Jaipur. Our club wants to set up water deflouridation plants at different villages. We would like some information on the technologies available and the sources of equipment supplies. If you can help us in this, we would be very grateful.


It is well known that poisonous insecticides are used in our country's big-fodder bins and grain storage godowns. The use of poisonous insecticides leaves a residue on the stored grains.

I want information (with diagrams) about the traditional methods of storing grain and fodder; the size and material used for construction of storage bins; vegetative products (their local and scientific names) used for preservation and the time and date (if any specifically known) for closing and opening the bins.

Bhimtal, Uttaranchal

We hope readers will write in with answers and suggestions for Basantt Khaitan and P N Shivpuri. We also encourage readers to send such queries for us to put up in the public domain...

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