Published: Wednesday 15 October 2003

Pick of the post bag

Passing the buck?
Apropos 'The other side of the fence' (Down To Earth, Vol 12, No 7, August 31, 2003), I thank the authors for recognising the fact that "politicians are ever ready to break the law"; but I do not think that tribals and other forest dwellers "do not have political leverage". Since independence, a substantial proportion of seats in the state assemblies and the Parliament, have been reserved for tribal representatives. Government jobs and educational institutes are similarly earmarked. A colossal sum of public money is allocated for "tribal development". It is a pity that in spite of state patronage and largesse, tribals continue to languish in poverty; the reasons are the subject of another story.

When forest laws were passed in independent India, tribal legislators were present and participated in the voting. I shudder to think what would have been the state of our remaining forests if Indira Gandhi, with her remarkable foresight, had not promulgated the Forest Conservation Act, 1980. Ironically, the very success of this act may lead to its scrapping. I wonder how far we will be able to keep at bay the howls of protest and strident opposition to the act.

The authors also trace the history of deforestation and the role of the forest bureaucracy, politicians and timber merchants. While I do not dispute these opinions, I think it would be extremely naive and unjustified to grant tribals the right to cut forests just because the British have done it before. Let us learn from history and not repeat the follies of the past. The authors are also under the impression that only tribals (not the forest department) can save forests. I do not think this will work. How can a tribal protect when hunger gnaws at his/her stomach and life is a daily struggle for existence?

The laws have to recognise the fact that forests belong to everyone in the country, whether they stay inside them or stay far away. Anyone who causes damage has to be stopped. It is unfortunate that the laws, policies and action plans of the government still hold sacrosanct the mistaken belief that "a tribal can do no harm".

I fully agree with the view that tribals are a reservoir of priceless skills and knowledge regarding medicinal plants, animal behaviour, agro practices, pest control, dance and music. We have a lot to learn from them. It may sound strange, but just like any other citizen of this vast country, a tribal can do something (whether ignorantly or otherwise), which can harm the forests. For instance, shifting cultivation on fragile hill slopes with little soil cover leads to washing away of valuable topsoil and silting up of rivers. The obvious alternative is to practice settled agriculture in the valleys. This suggestion may be disputed by arguing that this was a traditional practice and the tribals have a right to do so. I do not dispute their tradition. It used to be sustainable when adequate land was available for meagre populations.

It is also true that there are many areas in India where the illiterate tribal settler does not have a scrap of paper to prove that he/she along with his/her past generations were in possession of the impugned lands prior to 1980. Given India's profound diversity of cultures and communities, these issues will vary from state to state and even from district to district. There are enough government records available to ascertain whether they were in possession of such lands prior to 1980, and if it is so, then the state government can make a plea for limited regularisation of such areas.

Secretary, Wildlife Society of Orissa...

Time-tested truths

The article 'Neem?' (Down To Earth, Vol 12, No 7, August 31, 2003) shows how traditional knowledge is a time-tested truth. It indicates that our scientists should be alert about traditional knowledge. In the late 1940s, when I was daily using a neem stick for brushing teeth, my father dissuaded me. Soon, an elderly villager told me that the habit decreases fertility. In July 1998, the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment organised a national conference on health and environment. During the conference, Kamala Gopalkrishnan of the Institute for Research in Reproduction gave a lecture on the impact of environmental toxins on sperm count decline in India; after the lecture, I told her about my childhood experience. Her response was negative. Now the truth is surfacing.

Mumbai, Maharashtra...

Feeling pestered...

The charts about pesticides banned or restricted in some nations are misguiding 'Trendsetter' (Down To Earth, Vol 11, No 18, February 15, 2003); ('Leaky norms', Down To Earth, Vol 11, No 20, March 15, 2003). In India, ddt is banned for agricultural use; it is only used for malaria control. Moreover, ddt is making a comeback in many countries, as the old stories and articles on ddt have proved incorrect.

Experiments were done to reduce pigeon population by giving them ddt mixed in grains; but healthy eggs were hatched and healthy chicks were born!

The us, which is supposed to be very strict as far as environment laws are concerned, is using malathion. Its price in the us is twice of what it is in India and yet the farmers find it economical

Monocrotophos, methyl parathion, dimethoate and endosulfan are not banned in the us, but because of the availability of alternatives, their use is more or less stopped. India is exporting large quantities of zinc phosphide and aluminium phosphide to the us and the rest of the world; and to the best of our knowledge, no country has banned aluminium phosphide.

Phorate is a toxic product, which is used in the us and India. But terbufos (same family), which is more toxic, is made in India and exported to the us.

We hope that Down To Earth will be more careful about these facts. There are allegations against the magazine of scaring people and giving incomplete information. The endosulfan story has turned out to be a hoax and scientific authorities do not appear to have faith in Down To Earth.

Executive director,
Pesticide Association of India,
New Delhi

DOWN TO EARTH REPLIES: The Pesticide Association of India (PAI) is selectively presenting facts to suit its needs. By quoting anonymous studies, PAI wants to project DDT as safe. It is the first, and one of the most harmful, persistent organic pesticide known to humans. Many studies show that DDT has threatened the existence of Arctic inhabitants. It travels thousands of kilometres before bioaccumulating. As for DDT making a comeback, a debate has been raging in Kenya about reintroducing the pesticide for vector control.

PAI completely misses the point by constantly referring to the US. Malathion was, a couple of years back, reviewed by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). According to a US non-governmental organisation, EPA toxicologist Brian Dementi has disclosed that the EPA never looked at the 600 pathological slides of tissues of rats got during a 24-month long carcinogenic study. According to him, "there is clear evidence that malathion is a likely human carcinogen", while the EPA concludes otherwise. Dementi exposed the gross irregularities in the dealings between the EPA and a chemical company, which manufactures malathion. The other organophosphates mentioned -- monocrotophos, dimethoate and terbu FOS -- have all been, or are currently being, reviewed by the EPA.

Furthermore, the association claims that "no country has banned aluminium phosphide". But certain formulations of the fumigant are banned in India itself. As per the gazette notifications of the Union ministry of agriculture "the use of aluminium tube packs containing 10 and 20 tablets<>

Nature's buzz

The letter 'Your attention, please!' (Down To Earth, Vol 12, No 1, May 31, 2003) corroborates a recent observation of the World Health Organization (who), according to which the active ingredients -- synthetic pyrethroids -- used in mosquito coils or in liquid mosquito repellents are not effective. In many countries, including India, several species of mosquitoes have developed resistance to synthetic pyrethroids. Moreover, fumes of the chemicals seem to affect humans, especially children, by inhibiting the activity of acetyl cholinesterase, an enzyme that plays a vital role in the transmission of impulse between nerve cells.

Following are some effective natural remedies to control mosquitoes:

William Quarles of Bio-Integral Resource Centre in Berkeley, usa, has established that neem oil provides long-lasting and effective protection.

Oil extracted from citronella grass acts as an active repellent when used in combination with extracts from plants such as rosemary and peppermint.

Even application of three to five millilitres of extract from the seeds of mahogany on face, arms, and other body parts can provide protection.

Kolkata, West Bengal...

What's troubling the cities?

Hills affect our life in many ways. Apart from their mineral, forests, agricultural and recreational resource value, they exert a significant influence on the climate and determine the course of economic or historical trends. Cities like Pune were known for their good climate and vast greenery and surrounding hills; but due to increasing urbanisation, industrialisation and population, this is no longer the case.

The municipal corporation of Pune recently made a proposal in its development plan, which stated that hills would be included in the development zone; this allows construction of buildings and roads in the hilly regions. The proposal is facing protests and objections from all sections of the society, including environmentalists. Many youth organisations have conducted signature campaigns to protest against such short-sighted policies. But the authorities will somehow manage to execute their proposal. It is distressing to note that politicians and promoters, under the influence of money, will make such a move.


Vicious circle of life

The article 'In Search of the Missing' (Down To Earth, Vol 12, No 7, August 31, 2003) is heart-rending. The plight of the tribal people is projected well. The photographs make it amply clear that these people lead very dejected lives. They have paid a very heavy price for being "cut-off".


Don't waste

The editorial 'Waste, by any other name...' (Down To Earth, Vol 12, No 2, June 15, 2003) is thought provoking and timely. Historically, for disposal of human excreta, the dry disposal system was used. Every village earmarked a certain area for this purpose. When villages were expanding, this system could not cope up with the change, and a group was created to undertake the task of carrying excreta to a disposable site.

In the 20th century, wet disposal system was taken up. It is a water-intensive and highly expensive method involving construction of sewer lines and the establishment of sewage treatment plants (stps). Unfortunately, a country like India cannot meet the water requirement for such a system. Hardly any significant quantity of sewage is treated in the cities. The stps are not functioning properly or are lying idle. It is not surprising that the Ganga Action Plan simply could not clean the river water because of failure of the stp technology. Under these circumstances, the following should be considered seriously:

Human excreta is a resource rather than a waste

Dry disposal of excreta is a must

Urine contains urea -- a natural fertiliser. Technology to synthesise urea from urine should be evolved

Composting should be encouraged

Human excreta can be used for generation of gobar gas

These steps will not only solve sewage disposal problem, but even prevent freshwater from getting contaminated. It will also generate wealth from waste. But why is this not happening? It is because of the attitude towards waste. Hope some one in the Planning Commission is reading this!


Endless hurdles

The Union ministry of rural development's decision to stop funds for the Sector Reform Pilot Project (srpp) has shattered the dreams of villagers who wanted to have their own communitymanaged water sources in the district of 24 Parganas (West Bengal). The former rural development minister, Shanta Kumar, took the decision, when complaints of misappropriation of funds in several district proved correct. Villagers from 22 blocks of the districts are still groping in the dark about the future of the project. To draw a lesson from the present situation, people would be reluctant to pay and participate in future government projects.

srpp was launched in 1999-2000, with a view to provide safe drinking water in rural areas. There was an attempt to transform the traditional supply approach to a demand-driven one, wherein the beneficiaries are empowered to participate in the decision-making and maintenance process. Community participation is abundantly clear from the money deposited in the account of the village water and sanitation committee (vwsc). The beneficiaries had to bear 10 per cent capital cost for the construction of water sources.

Many discrepancies cropped up during the course of the project. I was directly engaged in the project as an activist, and would like to share some experiences. To begin with, the district authorities failed to provide concrete guidelines to non-governmental organisations (ngos). There were differences between what the district authorities said and what the ngos disseminated. What's more, the district authorities showed a proverbial delay in taking any decision regarding any disputes related to handpump installations. Because of all this, the credibility of the ngos is bound to suffer a setback


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