Published: Sunday 15 June 2003

Pick of the post bag

Hard facts

Contrary to popular belief, groundwater is more vulnerable to contamination than water on the surface. As opposed to the surface water, which is flushed out into the sea by the constant addition of fresh water, pollutants in aquifers get accumulated. Enclosed in a closed system, they remain unchanged for a long time.

Though it is widely held that leaching out of arsenic from rocks in groundwater is being facilitated by the oxidation of arsenic minerals, the explanation seems to be inadequate. Scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (mit) have identified a class of bacterium, mit-13, as the agent causing abnormally high concentration of arsenic in lakes and streams in eastern Massachusetts. We should explore the possibility of such bacterial functions. The Geological Survey of India (gsi) has recently established that microbes found in arsenic bearing rocks can leach arsenic from the rocks and allow it to contaminate underground water.

Low protein diets or ones deficient in methionine, cysteine, choline, folate and vitamin b12 hampers arsenic methylation (which fights arsenic poisoning). These physiological facts corroborate the epidemiological evidence that malnutritioned people are the worst victims of arsenic poisoning. We hold a blinkered attitude to this vital revelation. I believe dietary management can be thought of as a preventive measure.

Medical history too provides an important clue to the management of arsenic poisoning. In the early part of the 20th century, syphilis was successfully controlled by injecting arsenic compounds. In some cases, arsenic compounds broke down and caused sores, rashes and cancer. To counter these side effects the patients were given vitamin c injections. We can take a cue from this fact.

For countering fluorosis, vitamin c, vitamin e, calcium, magnesium and aluminium salts supplementation, and diets rich in antioxidants and proteins have been found to be very effective. Experimental studies have shown that tamarind reduces the retention of fluoride in the body and also increases urinary excretion of fluoride.

Salt Lake, Kolkata...

In dissent of Bush, the bully

The cover story 'Coercion of the unwilling' (Down To Earth, Vol 11, No 23, April 30, 2003) was very interesting. I wish someone at the White House would read it; they will not approve of it. Sharing resources is becoming increasingly difficult. It is important to stress that the fight over resources is not just for natural resources but also encompasses intellectual resources.

In the us, there is a widening gap for access to good education at all levels. The current tuition fee of top private schools in Washington dc is around us $20,000 annually. There are many public schools worldover, which provide excellent education, but majority of the world's population does not have access to knowledge. The internet is a useful tool to provide a voice to the unprivileged. But the question is how can these small voices find a place among the few who are ruling the world?


This is with reference to the cover story 'Coercion of the unwilling' (April 30, 2003). I have never heard fascism/ colonialism described so beautifully. Listed below is a story we featured recently, related to the cover story:

The story is titled, 'Why ecocide is 'good news' for the GOP!!!'. In 2002, the second hottest year on record, scientists saw Arctic Ocean ice coverage shrink by more than at any time since satellite measurements were first made a quarter century ago. And, they say, the continued melting could leave the Arctic nearly ice-free by summer 2050.

The President is also attacking the Clean Air Act of 1970, another cornerstone of environmental law. Bush's proposed "Clear Skies" Initiative also undermines air quality. Bush's "Healthy Forests" initiative likewise suffers from Orwellian doublespeak, felling Western forests to save them.

Greenpeace activist Jeremy Leggett candidly asked Ford Motor Company executive John Schiller how opponents of the pact (Kyoto agreement) could believe there is no problem with "a world of a billion cars intent on burning all the oil and gas available on the planet?" The executive asserted first that scientists get it wrong when they say fossil fuels have been sequestered underground for eons. The earth, he said, is just 10,000, not 4.5 billion years old, the age widely accepted by scientists.

Then Schiller told Leggett, the Book of Daniel predicts that increased earthly devastation will mark the "End Time" and return of Christ. Paradoxically, Leggett notes, many fundamentalists see dying coral reefs, melting ice caps and other environmental destruction not as an urgent call to action, but as God's will. In the religious right worldview, the wreck of the earth can be seen as Good News!

The complete story can be read at http://www.alternet.org/story.html?StoryID=15814.

Skyscraper Editor

After reading the cover story 'Coercion of the unwilling' (April 30, 2003) on your website, I took a printout of the article to pass it among my friends. The story was an excellent description of the situation the world today finds itself in. I especially liked the 'middle of the road' tone of the piece, which didn't, in my view, run down neither the current us initiatives nor the concerns of those who are not part of the 'coalition of the willing'.

The article is well-balanced and points out both the advantages and pitfalls of this policy.


Ills of urbanisation

Is urbanisation or rather commercialisation so important that the topography of an area is never studied before any kind of construction and the after effects never considered? For the past three years, there has been much hue and cry about the dwindling water levels of the famous Bhopal lake. But one wonders whether it is really due to scant rainfall or are there other reasons. In a bid to beautify the lake, a road has been constructed several feet above the original embankment. This has sealed off all the springs, which brought water into it.

Similarly, the natural hillocks and ravines in many areas of Delhi have been levelled off. This is also the true for most tourist spots -- Mussorie, Nainital -- to name a few.


Where are the experts?

I read the article 'Desperately seeking experts' (Down To Earth, Vol 11, No 24, May 15, 2003) on the paucity of experts, who can deal with and tackle several intricate programmes in the field of environment in our country. The main reason for this paucity is the dearth of trained personnel in such areas and also due to the shift in the general awareness of the public about the subject.

It will take time to specialise and produce qualified personnel. Our present knowledge in the area of environmental biology is limited.

No 15, Mission Compound

No water privatisation

I am against privatisation of water resources. Water is a gift of nature and it belongs to all living creatures including all human beings. I feel we need to control the tapping of groundwater. Recharging of aquifers must be made mandatory for those who wish to tap groundwater.

The rainwater harvesting project launched by your organisation is commendable, but it should reach the rural areas than the metros.


Water wisdom

In the first part of the letter 'Answers please' (February 15, 2003), Chetan Pandit asked for a quantitative estimate of the ultimate potential of rainwater harvesting. Chetan Pandit and his colleagues in the water ministry are requested to visit Khandwa district in Madhya Pradesh to view the full potential of rainwater harvesting and to understand the quantum of groundwater increase in the undulating basaltic terrain. The jila panchayat (rural development department) of this area has completed the task of rainwater harvesting in nearly 200 villages. They have adopted the concept of total water management (revised watershed strategy) to harvest rainfall. The rainwater harvested is nearly 17 per cent of the average precipitation (88 centimetres).

The ratio of stored water in the surface and subsurface structures range between 1:50 to 1:100. The average cost of total water management is less than Rs 6,000 per hectare. All villages covered under the scheme are free from drinking water problems and drought even if there is only 50 per cent of rainfall.

Chetan Pandit should visit these areas to witness the real outcome of rainwater harvesting and artificial recharge. Technocrats in the water resource ministries, who obfuscate the relevance of rainwater harvesting and artificial recharge of groundwater, neither appreciate nor understand groundwater issues. They should remember that dams can't provide water in every nook and corner of the country. Due to technological limitations (appropriate topography and availability of command), dams can serve water to only 30 to 35 per cent of agriculture land. The water ministry should accept this reality and involve hydro-geologists to serve the people's cause.


Kudos to young researchers

The study conducted by second year chemical engineering students of Sardar Vallabhai National Institute of Technology, Surat, Gujarat on waste management of the Indian Railways 'Poor track record' (Down To Earth, Vol 11, No 24, May 15, 2003) is commendable.

The study is definitely an eye-opener for the Indian Railways. It proves that students can successfully conduct useful and practical studies. This can reduce project funding too. There are numerous issues on which students can conduct research. They just need to be encouraged to develop interdisciplinary collaborations within themselves.


Save those trees

The article 'All in your name Mr PM' (Down To Earth, Vol 11, No 23, April 30, 2003) was apt. What happened at the National Highway 8 linking Jaipur to Ajmer on to Mumbai and beyond has also been taking place elsewhere. The Prime Minister's (pm) secretariat has been building four-lane highways.

I have seen it happen at the Grand Trunk road, especially at the Bihar sector. The highway department has cut down at least 1 lakh trees in the name of widening the road. While a number of these trees were very old, majority of them were planted 20-30 years ago, which means they were in the prime of their life. As the road under construction was required to be at least 100 feet wide, the department found it easier to axe them on both sides.

The local villagers were jubilant and were helping the contractors to cut down the trees. They got fuel on concessional rates. Our protests were met with derision and apathy from the highway department. I would like to point out here that in countries such as China, while constructing highways, contractors take all the trouble to steer away from the existing rows of trees.


Perils on the highway

This is with reference to the article 'Riding roughshod' (Down To Earth, Vol 11, No 19, February 28, 2003) and D B N Murthy's letter 'The highway threat' (April 15, 2003).

I have just returned from a month's tour of Orissa where I had the opportunity to travel along a long stretch of the coastal highway, the National Highway-5, where the Prime Minister's highway project was in full swing. I saw long stretches of coastal land being paved and filled with rich fertile soil dug up from adjacent fields or brought from nearby land. Extensive construction work on these highways is conducted with the help of monstrous tractors, bulldozers and dumpers in sharp contrast to the ill-developed agricultural lands lying barren on either side. The fillings could have been done with fly ash brought from power plants nearby. This would have helped relieve thermal plants from ash accumulation and saved the valuable topsoil. The highway runs at right angle to the natural drainage system of the region.

I read a press notice in one of the local newspapers that agricultural fields, gardens, dwellings, wells, trees etc falling on the land demarcated for the highway project will be automatically acquired. The following day's newspaper stated specific dates on which the owners will be given compensation. For each category only two days were given. One can understand the fate of the poor rural people, victims of this unexpected aggression of land acquirement, to go to the collectorate and collect the compensation from the hands of the "official sharks" whose basic activity is known to keep a major share.

Consumption of alcohol is strictly prohibited for those driving. But liquor shops and bars with advertisements have sprung along the highways. No wonder, over turned trucks and shards of glass on the road is a common sight on the highways.

Professor (Rtd)
Indian Institute of Technology

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