Published: Thursday 15 May 2003

Pick of the post bag

This letter was addressed to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Down To Earth received a copy of the same.

Arsenic threat

Respected Vajpayeeji

With reference to news reports published in 'The Indian Express' dated February 17, 2003, some points are listed below:

New arsenic poisoning cases in the Ganga basin suggest that the region's 449 million residents could be exposed to dangerous levels of the element in their drinking water.

Surveys estimate that around 36 million people in the Bengal delta are drinking contaminated water, and 150 million are at risk of contamination.

The situation in Bihar is 'alarmingly similar' to that of villages in West Bengal.

Arsenic-rich deposits could cover much of the basin, stretching across the foot of the Himalayas from New Delhi to the Bay of Bengal.

Countless villages, with hand-pump wells could be affected.

Half of the wells surveyed in Bihar contain five times the accepted safe limit of arsenic.

Villagers are suffering from skin lesions and neurological problems associated with arsenic poisoning.

Mothers who consumed water from the contaminated wells have high rates of miscarriage and premature delivery.

What is emerging is that the correct geological conditions for arsenic release into groundwater occur widely in delta areas.

Such situations endanger the lives of crores of citizens -- in spite of Article 51 a (g) of the Indian constitution -- due to the total neglect of ecology in pursuit of commercial interests.

Unless priorities of development change, conditions are going to worsen. And all apparent development would not only be nullified, but people would be faced with diseases, disabilities and deaths. Who then would be responsible for such a catastrophe?

Former Union minister of state
(animal husbandry and dairying/food)

Stillborn devolution

In the article 'Toothless at 10' (Down To Earth, Vol 11, No 16, January 15, 2003), the author has successfully highlighted the fact about panchayats and urban local bodies in India lacking teeth. Both the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments were historic and were expected to make our administration more accountable and responsive to the needs of the people.

Ten years on, we still see these bodies being weakened by the agents of the Union and state authorities, multilateral donors and aid agencies. Even now panchayats and urban local bodies, such as municipalities and mahanagar palikas in big and small towns, are made to function as subservient entities to carry out orders. They are not engaged in developing socio-economic plans in their areas as required by the 73rd and 74th amendments. Since these local bodies are not really involved in the decision-making process, their areas have to bear the brunt.

The past 10 years have witnessed a few dangerous trends that have made panchayats and urban local bodies helpless agents of the government.

First and foremost, the tendency to postpone elections. Although many states have conducted panchayat elections quite regularly, there are several others which -- on some pretext -- postpone the polls. This is more typical of urban local bodies.

Secondly, to weaken these local organisations the states have set up parallel bodies. A classic example is the Bangalore Agenda Task Force, which has the power to bypass ward committees and focus on local governance. Such ad hoc task forces weaken the constitutionally elected wards. Though these bodies have to work under the ambit of the locally elected structures, in practice they don't. Schemes such as 'Janma Bhoomi Yojna' in Andhra Pradesh and 'Jal Savardhan Yojana' in Karnataka are classic cases of parallel governance without the involvement of panchayats.

There is also lack of legislative will on the part of the Union and state governments in carrying out concurrent amendments to empower the local bodies under several laws. For example, in Karnataka, under the minor irrigation act, local engineers are authorised to take steps for water regulation, but not panchayats.

Because of the so-called corruption in these bodies, our ministries maintain that they do not deserve to be encouraged. There is corruption from the panchayat to parliament. And we can argue -- though without condoning corruption at any level -- that if a sarpanch (panchayat head) takes bribe, he would at best spend it on his house or buy a tractor. The money remains in the village. On the other hand if a minister takes money, it goes to Swiss banks. Corruption is a stark reality and local bodies alone are not responsible for the ills of the nation. So why blame only them?

India is too vast to be managed by our ministers and bureaucrats sitting in the national and state capitals. Decentralised governance is necessary and inevitable, whether our politicians like it or not. The sooner we strengthen these bodies, the better it would be for our democracy.

hopeaids@satyam.net ...

Petrol in Kerala wells

This is to draw attention to a recent find in Kanoothumchal village of Kannur district in Kerala which sent shock waves in the region. Residents of this area found petrol in the water of their wells on February 25, 2003.

P J Thomas, an irrigation officer, was the first person to find refined petrol in his well water. It had such high quantities of petrol that a bucket of water caught fire easily. Panicky, yet curious residents collected nearly 150-200 litres of petrol from their wells on the first few days. The high quantity of petrol in the wells rendered the water unfit for any usage. Residents were nauseated and complained of headache due to smell of petrol in the atmosphere. While the local people alleged that petrol had leaked from the two petrol pumps located nearby, the petrol pump authorities denied this. The picture became clearer in a few days with more wells being found contaminated with petrol. Also, wells on one vertical slope were more affected than those which were further away. So far nearly eight wells have been contaminated with petrol. Since the water from the wells could not be used for any domestic purposes, the residents were supplied water as per an emergency order from the district collector.

An inquiry was ordered by the district collector. The Kerala State Pollution Control Board was directed to conduct a study. Further, a joint petition was filed by the residents in the district court against the petrol pump authorities. On March 6, 2003, the tehsildar (a district official in-charge of revenues and taxation) of the area passed an order to either close the pumps or to empty the fuel tanks. The order was passed in light of the chances of fire breakout in the region due to the presence of inflammable petrol.

The pollution control board's study report pointed out that the aquifer was contaminated due to leakages in the petrol pumps. Yet another study by a six-member team of Kannur's ground water authority confirmed this notion. Both these reports have been submitted to the district collector.

Meanwhile, Bharat Petroleum Corporation Limited dug the two underground petrol storage tanks and pumped out some amount of petrol from the wells. The petrol is also being removed with the help of a charcoal absorption method from the wells. However, petrol pump authorities continue to deny claims about leakages.

But these short-term solutions are unviable in the long run. More crucial is to devise a permanent solution to prevent such incidents, which often occur near petrol retail units. Most of them do not come to light, thanks to the resourceful petrol industry, reluctant citizens and lack of support from authorities responsible to keep a tab on such agencies.

The concerned authorities should conduct an intense and in-depth probe into the matter since this incident is very crucial from two dimensions. Firstly, the resultant pollution, if such contamination continues. Secondly, what precautions and safety norms need to be adopted by petrol pumps to ensure that such incidents do not occur in future.


On the boil

A stronger scientific consensus is emerging on global warming. With rising global temperatures, seven of the 10 warmest years in the 20th century occurred in the 1990s. In the past 10 years, it is important to note that India has incurred losses worth billions of dollars because of damage to the environment and natural habitat.

If these climatic trends persist, global warming will threaten our health, cities, farms, forests, beaches and also wetlands. But can we do something about it?

Fortunately, experts opine that the entire process of global warming can be slowed down. To reduce the emission of heat-trapping greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxides, we should curb our consumption of fossil fuels. Instead, technologies that reduce the amount of emissions should be employed wherever possible.

The use of renewables such as wind and solar energy can help cut down carbon dioxide emissions. India is best suited for the use of alternative energy sources. The Indian youth can make a huge difference. They can help generate awareness and persuade the government to accord greater priority to environmental issues. Clearly, global warming and mass extinction of species is a huge problem. It will require a concerted effort by everyone -- governments, industries, communities and individuals -- to make a real difference.


Handling medical waste

This is with reference to the article 'Tidying up' (Down To Earth, Vol 11, No 21, March 31, 2003). It is heartening to know that the authorities have decided to streamline the parameters for centralised medical waste management facilities. At present there are hardly any checks on the kind of waste being treated. I hope there will be a medical expert on the panel to finalise the draft.

Despite a central facility, proper handling of waste from nursing homes, laboratories, blood banks and dispensaries remains a distant dream. Big hospitals, which have opted for centralised facilities, do not care where the waste is taken, or what is going to be treated. As per rules, it is their responsibility to ensure safe disposal.

Biomedical waste management is not an end in itself, but a method to prevent the spread of infection. Therefore, if it does not check hospital-acquired infection, the entire process would be a complete waste of money. To achieve this, biomedical waste has to be treated within a time limit. Storing the waste is permitted up to 48 hours, which is unsuitable for India. In fact, considering the country's warm climate, it should not be stored for more than 24 hours.

In a recent media report, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India stated that waste was lifted from segregation points in three to 58 days instead of the prescribed 48 hours in hospitals in Delhi. By this time, the infected waste would have not only proliferated, but become a part of the ambient air by desiccation. Hence, the intended result is not achieved.

The present implementation strategies appear to be flawed. The concept of common area facility suffers from many shortcomings. The only gainers are the operators.

So far as the point regarding proliferation of bacterial flora is concerned, it is not appreciated by non-medical people and hardly any care has been taken to address it. It is well known that the cycle of regeneration of bacteria is 20-40 minutes long (the difference is species-specific, and dependent on the climatic conditions).

Any system that is developed, therefore, has to be problem-oriented, workable, must take into account the local conditions and should be designed to achieve the objective for which it has been put in place.


Let's share water

The idea of declaring 2003 as the 'International Year of Freshwater' is a welcome move. People who are responsible for water pollution can be made aware through environmental education programmes about the declining quality of river water.

The issue of uniform distribution of water among various sections of society is as important as that of river pollution. It's quite obvious that there is a lot of discrimination in the functioning of the water distribution system.

Equitable distribution of water to the underdeveloped society, particularly those living below the poverty line, should be given serious thought. In March 2003, I got to know of a similar water distribution conflict between Sumari and Thapla -- two villages of Uttaranchal. In spite of the fact that there is scarcity of drinking water in Sumari, residents of Thapla village do not allow them to take water from their village. While walking through Thapla, I noticed water flowing wastefully. This shows that, besides a specific Water Protocol, there is an urgent need for co-operation within society on such sensitive issues.


Only one option

In the letter, 'Local administrators don't know' (Down To Earth, March 15, 2003), D Chandrasekharam recommends defluorination of water. But at what cost?

The only viable solution is rainwater harvesting and it seems nobody is bothered about it. States such as Rajasthan have achieved considerable success in solving their drinking water scarcity problems by implementing effective rainwater harvesting techniques.

Meanwhile, it is sad to know that water in certain Karnataka villages has contained fluorides for more than 50 years. Every year new villages are added to the fluorosis map.


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