Published: Monday 15 September 2003

Pick of the post bag

Bang on the point
I had earlier written to you on the soft drink controversy lamenting that Down To Earth was not drawing enough attention to the smoking gun -- the poisonous agricultural practices such as the use of chemical fertilisers. It was a pleasant surprise to read your latest editorial 'The pesticide is the point' (Down To Earth, Vol 12, No 6, August 15, 2003) in which you almost belled the cat! You make the point that the soft drink industry is a Rs 6,000 crore industry but what about our agrochemical industry -- the skeleton and the cupboard are a whole lot bigger!

For this to change, a paradigm shift is required and only the European Union has tried to address the knotty issue. It involves global finance that is now outside the domain of human decision-making. Sadly Indian agriculture is caught in a toxic trap and it will require all the energy at our disposal to make the public (read: consumers) aware about the gravity of the situation. The problem is as large as India and it is not so simple to just call for regulations related to 'safe' pesticides. According to a conservative estimate, spurious pesticides account for 65 per cent of the market. Who is going to regulate these?

The real solution lies in a concerted campaign to make people aware of the toxic nature of the conventional agricultural sector and simultaneously bring forward sound organic agricultural practices both at the management and production level. Europe is moving towards this shift, why must India always follow the leader? Indian farmers have the knowledge and inclination to make the shift but it requires support at all levels, especially the market.

Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu

We thank all our readers for the support they have extended regarding the report on pesticides in soft drinks. We have got 360 letters so far. We hope that our readers will continue to help us in our endeavour....

Menace of tubewells

The views about community efforts for conserving rainwater and the resulting water availability during drought are enlightening 'A lesson not learnt' (Down To Earth, Vol 12, No 1, May 31, 2003). Such miracles are not possible mainly because of tubewells. Near Jodhpur, rainwater harvesting is the main source of water for a big pond. During monsoons, the pond brims over, but within two months it dries out thanks to hundreds of tubewells dug all around it. It is a must to adopt ecofriendly technology along with conserving rainwater. Tubewells have led to the collapse of several traditional water systems and there is no hope of their revival unless the tubewells are discarded. The linkages between the problem and the root cause of it have to be understood properly before finding solutions.

Jodhpur, Rajasthan...

Stop being coy

The letter from A N Prasad, secretary general, ifs association, New Delhi (Down To Earth, Vol 12, No 4, July 15, 2003) is disappointing. From the use of coy language it appears that the sole purpose of the letter is to curry favour with the 'honourable' minister T R Baalu (by lavishing on him sycophantic praises). It would have been better if very concrete and verifiable achievements of the Union ministry of environment and forests had been listed out in his defence. In the Capital, the 'darbar' mentality seems to be very much live and kicking.

Powai, Mumbai...

Lake side tragedy

In a letter 'Ills of urbanisation' (Down To Earth, Vol 12, No 2, June 15, 2003) Kaushal Kumar has claimed that the water levels of the Bhopal lake have gone down due to a road constructed around it for beautification. During a recent tour to Bhopal, curiosity compelled me to check out the degradation. I found no evidence of any natural springs being blocked, as was mentioned in the letter. However, the streams going into the lake from the chief minister's residence and the other streams were prima facie evidence of pollution. The lake was highly eutrophicated and had a foul smell. If the polluted water is treated before it is mixed into the lake water, it can cut down the annual cost of cleaning the waterbody.


Troubled by aid

The article 'Emasculated' (Down To Earth, Vol 12, No 4, July 15, 2003), daringly exhumes the not always told facts that are buried deep under the burden of international funding. With an increase in funding, the menace of aids has also augmented. No sincere efforts have been made to put an end to the pandemic. There are no corresponding results for the amount of money spent to check the spread of the disease.

Anti-aids campaigns are neither user-friendly nor culture specific. Most of the funding comes along with a set of mandatory strategies. Born in the west, the virus mostly gets western funding. Many of the strategies like condom promotion are totally unacceptable to a large number of agencies and personnel of the health sector. But their spirit and values have been weakened, with their finances slashed down. Those who can impressively talk about condoms have now become experts and consultants, and have bagged huge consultation fees at the cost of antiretroviral therapy.

The endless multimillion projects do not attempt to try out different ways to control the menace. All of them blindly follow the strategies of the funding agencies. When the agencies say rehabilitation of sex workers is not practical (as proved in the us) or abstinence is not feasible, India repeats the same without having firsthand experience of the same. Any alternative to condoms is not considered, as it is not supported by the donor agencies. In Kerala, at least two state-level workshops on rethinking aids campaign strategies were aborted in the planning stage, thanks to the sudden withdrawal of financial support. The government seems to be satisfied by establishing free testing centres and appointing counsellors. My friend has been working in a district hospital as a std/aids counsellor under the state aids cell for two years. But nobody has supervised him to date and not even a single suggestion forwarded by him has been considered. He could not offer any support (other than verbal) to the 40 hiv-infected people he came across in the hospital. "Our strategies are different and infected people are not among our target groups," the authorities say.

Similar is the irony of std (sexually transmitted diseases) clinics and camps. In the std detection camps, the government agencies prepare reports about the number of people tested positive for std/hiv by just calculating the number of all the attendees of the clinics. Only one percentage of the attendees are victims of stds. Such actions prove the inefficacy of the government machinery and how poorly the international donations are utilised.

No more are the sex workers and homosexuals and other specified groups considered as the junctions of distributing hiv. It is on the doorstep -- in the form of gentlemen and housewives. The concept of targeted intervention cannot help to cover the entire gamut of hiv transmission. The agencies need to rethink. The big question is about the most effective methodology and how can we influence people to think positively. The heterogeneity of our nation demands a mix of ideas and proven applications. It seems rather easy to eradicate aids than to pluck out the web of experts and projects on hiv/aids.

Payyanur, Kerala...

Solution as transparent as glass

It is indeed heartening to note that the government of Haryana has also decided to use glass syringes in place of plastic syringes 'Prickly issue' (Down To Earth, Vol 12, No 3, July 31, 2003). Plastic syringes were introduced to reduce nosocomical infection. However, as per the World Health Organisation (who), plastic syringes have helped curb the infection in the developed world but they have failed to do so in the developing nations. Reason -- the used syringes are not disinfected; they are simply washed and then resold.

Collection of used syringes for disposal is never 100 per cent. In most of the developing countries it is around 15-60 per cent. Then their disposal itself is problematic. Most of the developing nations resort to open or controlled burning, which leads to the emissions of dioxins and particulate matter, which are linked with respiratory diseases.

Disposal of plastic syringes is also costly. Assuming that 100 per cent used syringes are collected (which will be commendable if achieved) there will be 48 million additional syringes per year to be disposed of (on the introduction of universal immunisation for hepatitis b). Assuming India decides to opt for small-scale incinerators (ssis), their installation would cost around Rs one billion.

India has 25,000 primary healthcare centres (phcs) and each ssi costs around us $1,000. If the number of ssis to be installed is reduced by installing them at nodal points or only at community healthcare centres (chcs), then the cost of collection and transportation will turn out to be Rs one billion (as mentioned earlier). Added to this there will be additional recurring expenditure on breakdowns, maintenance and periodic checks. Therefore, the prime question is whether such a large expenditure is required to dispose of the waste of a product for which an alternative is available. If glass syringes were to be used, then for one phc the requirement would be either a modified pressure cooker or an autoclave (used for sterilising the needles). This would roughly cost Rs three to five thousand. The expenditure would be much less, and the gain by way of environmental protection will be enormous. Each phc can be provided with an autoclave and sufficient number of needles. No one will be required to carry any heavy equipment.

Furthermore, doubts regarding proper sterilisation of glass syringes are presumptive. There is hardly any comparative study available about difference in the incidence of nosocomical infection when glass or plastic syringes were used. The world has moved decades beyond the time when even the who reused syringes by just changing the needle. With the help of proper monitoring and awareness raising programmes, sterilisation of glass syringes can always be ensured.


Water: a serious issue

In 2050, when the population of India will be 164 crore, per capita water availability from rain and snow will be 1,600 cubic metres (cum). The norms set up by the World Health Organisation are:

water scarce: less than 1,000 cum per capita

water stressed: 1,000-1,700 per capita

water sufficiency: more than 1,700 cum per capita

Evidently, small natural hazards will shift India from the stressed to scarce status, which in turn will affect our economic, social and political stability. The question of equity as focussed in 'The true cost of water' (Down To Earth, Vol 11, No 22, April 15, 2003), is undoubtedly a matter of serious concern. But it will be wise to focus on two issues first: optimisation, waste reduction and loss reduction of water; multiple uses of the same volume, extraction from sea and the environment.

The first issue is linked with the practices of the agricultural sector, industry and the households. One would have considered this as a technological problem. But in the Indian context this is related to the responsibilities of the citizens and the agenda of political policies, as optimisation will have an impact on the size and location of the habitats, which will influence money and political power. It will require citizens' conscious participation and improvement of services.

The second issue is a challenge to science and technology. With about 200 well equipped laboratories, this is a manageable challenge provided that there is a strong back up of political will. As in the fields of nuclear energy and space technology, milestones need to be set up and adequate support should be provided.

One of the most important considerations in multiple uses of water is the water loss at each stage of transaction. In thermodynamics, every energy transfer is associated with a calculable energy loss based on temperature and other parameters. In a mass transfer process like that of water, the loss is determined by the use. Use of water for cooking, agricultural practices, gardening and industrial purposes leads to different types of water losses. Hence multiple uses will require a holistic and integrated water budgeting system. Fortunately, in India we have accessible experimental fields like steel cities and private industrial townships. Excellent integrated models can be built by broadening the zones of the water municipalities of these towns to encompass defined agriculture areas.

On the issue of multinational corporations (mncs) and water, I would advocate a 'hasten slowly' process. For quite sometime to come, three models have to be encouraged simultaneously: government and water, community and water, and mncs (including Indian industries) and water. Since everyone needs water, the three sectors -- state, business and civil society -- should have equal opportunity to build the models.

The problem of water as discussed in 'The true cost of water' has emerged because equity as a principle has not been used in policy issues. This is true not only for water, but for all the sectors. For example, a farmer producing surplus grains in Punjab or Haryana gets a minimum support price. However, a marginal tribal farmer in Jharkhand producing grains sufficient only for six months and selling 50 per cent of them to meet the needs of the family is not eligible for getting the support price. Crop insurance cover larger land holdings and not smaller ones. Computerisation at district and town level does not reach the block development officer or the rural banks. We have to wait for many years before equity, as a representation of highest human value be.

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