Published: Saturday 15 November 2003

Pick of the post bag

Will the solidarity of South survive?
The summer of 1989 signified the end of the solidarity of the South. It was the great 'Geneva surrender'. But the autumn of 2003 witnessed the re-emergence of the unity. All the great capitalist asuras (devils) of the modern era were in for a rude shock at Cancun, with issue-based coalitions cutting across the reality of the North-South divide. These asuras are the ones who always wish away the existence of the South; these include some intellectuals and also a few governments of the South, including our own!

Now, it is important to maintain the unity, else the asuras will swallow us very soon. Looking at the annals of history, one realises that mid-term ministerial meetings have always been a flop show. Cancun was one such mid-term meet. But the failure does not signify the breakdown of the Doha Round. Past events are a proof of this. Another such mid-term ministerial meet was held at Montreal in 1988. It also failed, as there was no agreement on issues related to agriculture, trips, textiles and safeguards. The resistance was essentially put up by India and Brazil. But later on the Indian government succumbed to bilateral pressures, mainly from the us. That was the great breakdown of solidarity in April 1989. It gave way to the emergence of the World Trade Organization (wto) system in 1995.

It would be good for all of us to look back and not allow history to repeat itself. For the emerging solidarity to survive and become stronger, it is obvious that countries like India, Brazil, China and South Africa should come out with common strategies as soon as possible.

For India it is important to further strengthen the stand on agriculture and services. As an aftermath of Cancun, it is the opening of our market for imports of agricultural products that is being sought by the European Union and the us; this will sound the death knell for the majority of our people, especially the farming community. I always wonder if our farmers believe in the institution called wto. It was not so long ago when the advocates and apologists of wto created illusions about the enormous prospects for agricultural exports. The so-called economic reforms over the last one-and-half-a-decade or so have left no doubt whatsoever in the minds of the farming community that there is nothing for them to gain from the wto regime. To date, the government fails to acknowledge the distress experienced by the agricultural community.

Now again the wait is on till December 15, 2003 -- the day the meeting of the general council of the wto will be convened. The official statement from the wto says: "We will bring with us all the valuable work done at the Cancun conference. In those areas wherein highest level of convergence was there, we undertake to maintain it." What most of us fail to understand is where is this high level of convergence? Is there something that has been going on behind the scenes on issues related to service sector and other arenas of disagreement? If so, then what are those agreements?

Will the Pandora's Box open? If so, when? Will there be a break of solidarity again? It is a puzzle that we will have to piece together in the next few months.


The views expressed in 'Don't make the world dysfunctional' (Down To Earth, Vol 12, No 8, September 15, 2003) are worth appreciating. It is pertinently observed: "As we go to Cancun, we need to make it clear that for us development and environment go hand in hand. But we want less free trade rh.

What's a scientist?

Apropos 'Meet Deben Bora' (Down To Earth, Vol 12, No 7, August 31, 2003), Nitin Sethi has given recognition to Deben Bora, a wildlife lover who resides in the comparatively unknown Gibbon Wildlife Sanctuary of Assam. But his admiration for Bora is at the cost of somebody who can be considered as the pioneer of conservation efforts in the sanctuary. Sethi should have at least requested the state forest department to do something for Bora, rather than criticise Dilip Chhetri. As part of the sanctuary's bird checklist preparation (undertaken by the Jorhat-based Holongapar Natures' Society), I used to visit the area regularly and, therefore, know both Chhetri and Bora since 1997. On many occasions, I have witnessed Chhetri teaching Bora the scientific ways of data collection.

I strongly condemn Sethi's description of Chhetri as "a doctor of nothing". As far as I know, Delhi-based Sethi has visited the sanctuary only as a tourist. Without knowing the full story (or knowing it!) he has destroyed the reputation of a dedicated wildlife worker. This will definitely affect the on-going conservation efforts of the sanctuary.

Jorhat, Assam

DOWN TO EARTH REPLIES: Two facts are clearly stated in the article: firstly, Deben Bora has never been awarded or appreciated for his knowledge; secondly, Dilip Chhetri has taught Bora to look at the simians 'scientifically'. A comparison between the two is inevitable. Chhetri, the academic, is always lucky to be in a position to 'help'. Bora, the quintessential prodigious guide, is always 'helped'. The article does not blame Chhetri for Bora's plight but uses Bora as a counterpoint to question why a Bora in India can't become a Chhetri -- why native wisdom is considered inferior to acquired scientific rationale even though scientists almost invariably use native resources to enrich their knowledge. There are albeit a few wildlife biologists and field researchers who ensure that field guides get mentioned as co-authors in published research. It is a token of respect. It is certainly better than the patronising passing reference at the end of a paper.

The 'field guides' can work like an infantry to conserve wildlife. But for that, our scientific community will have to realise that conservation is not about churning out academic papers. Over years, hundreds of wildlife projects have created dozens of Boras across the country -- orphans of 'new science'. The article merely highlights one such orphan's plight. Chhetri and his work was only incidentally mentioned. And, the subtitle 'a doctor of nothing' was reserved for Bora; you were mistaken in reading malice in it....

Harvesting rainwater is not enough

I want to raise an important question. Is it not prudent to contemplate improvement of sanitary conditions and water conservation in an integrated fashion? Rainwater harvesting (rwh) can be put into effective use only when it rains. One can maximise its utility by integrating it with the concept of treated water harvesting (twh).

There is too much publicity and sensational news on rwh; this has resulted in a flourishing growth of rain centres across Delhi. Though rwh is a good concept to protect groundwater resources, it aptly fits the bill to improve conditions in catchment areas; it cannot be visualised as the only means to adequately manage urban water resources. rwh can be an answer to some of our water problems that too, if open areas are available adequately. Whereas if one integrates on-site sanitation improvement with the twh concept, it will help meet both water demand as well as result in more hygienic conditions. If one looks at the quantum of water consumed and wasted in any urban conglomeration, people will not talk about rwh, but would give stress on twh.

rwh can be of use only if it rains, whereas twh can be helpful everyday. rwh does not necessarily mean sanitation. It is time that experts and policy-makers give more focus on twh rather than rwh. Sanitation is an ignored field in the arena of total water management. If the 'construction community' is enlightened about the importance of twh, then service providers like the municipal corporation can manage the sanitation mess effectively. No city in India can think of overnight sanitation improvement, but proper planning, keeping in mind twh and the 'polluter pays' principle, can hasten the process. For this, like-minded people should constantly remind our planners about twh. Nature does not know the difference between rwh and twh. As 'nature protectors', we should play a vital role and preserve our waterbodies.


The seaweed dilemma

In the article on Kappaphycus ('Stop gatecrashing', Down To Earth, Vol 12, No 10, October 15, 2003), reference has been made to a publication of Bhavnagar-based Central Salt and Marine Chemicals Research Institute (csmcri), whereby it has been stated that Eucheuma is exotic to India. When the paper was prepared, csmcri researchers were unaware of the work of Umamaheshwara Rao, who found Eucheuma in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. This will be evident since his work is not part of the references of the csmcri paper. Moreover, Eucheuma was termed exotic because the particular variety csmcri researchers were working with was introduced from Japan.

To the best of our knowledge, nobody has been able to grow Eucheuma from spores, as the viability of the method has been found unsatisfactory. Vegetative propagation remains the only method to cultivate the seaweed. A good example in this context is Laminaria japonica, which was introduced in China in the late 1920s from Hokkaido, Japan. Although commercial production of kelp harvested from L japonica's natural habitat has been carried out in Japan for over a century, benefits of large-scale cultivation of the algae were realised only in China in the 1950s. The success of the kelp cultivation industry has mainly depended on the adaptation of three important techniques: the floating raft method of cultivation in which young sporophytes are attached to culture ropes, which are fastened to long floating rafts in suitable coastal waters; low temperature cultivation of seedlings whereby sporelings of L japonica are cultivated during summer months in water with temperature below 10c; and application of nitrogen fertiliser in the open sea. The techniques of raft culture and seedling rearing used for L japonica production may also be used to cultivate various other species of seaweeds such as Undaria, Gelidium and Eucheuma.

Director, Central Salt and Marine Chemicals Research Institute,
Bhavnagar, Gujarat

Is the technology new?

The article 'Plasma treatment' (Down To Earth, Vol 12, No 9, September 30, 2003) is rather intriguing. The application of plasma energy for treatment of biomedical waste is neither a new concept nor a significant development, as apparently indicated in the article. Those who attended a seminar on biomedical waste management at Jaipur in April 1998 would recollect that literature regarding plasma torch technology was circulated by a German firm, which has manufactured a plasma machine for biomedical waste management. To operate, the machine was capable of reaching temperature more than 10,000 degrees centigrade within seconds. However, due to very high cost, it did not attract interest. The price of one machine is around Rs 7-8 crore!

An article regarding plasma pyrolysis of medical waste was also published in Current Science (Vol 83, No 3, August 10, 2002) by S K Neema and K S Gareshprasad. The authors stated that the operating cost of the system would be Rs 13 per kilogramme (kg), and the energy recovered would cost Rs 8 per kg; thus the net cost would be Rs 7 per kg. This is rather high for biomedical waste disposal. Moreover, the system is nothing but an incinerator essentially, where the energy source is plasma instead of the conventionally used fossil fuel.

Even in the system developed by the Facilitation Centre for Industrial Plasma Technologies (which has been reported in Down To Earth), plasma as a source of energy would only escalate the cost of treatment without any added advantage. It is also intriguing that the article recommends burning of biomedical waste along with biodegradable and plastic waste. The need of the day is to curb and finally eliminate burn technology for waste disposal, rather than promote such systems.


DOWN TO EARTH REPLIES: The article not only endeavours to inform the readers about the plasma pyrolysis system, but also discusses the viability of the technique. It is a must, as the technology may soon be introduced in India by the government agencies -- an unknown fact. Unlike research papers published elsewhere, the article discusses how a potentially harmful technology has been taken casually by the officials....

What distresses the farmers

After taking loans, farmers who commit suicide do so because they cannot stand the harassment by creditors or moneylenders. To prevent such incidences, the government needs to work out a coherent agricultural policy in consultation with farmers; the policy should give appropriate consideration to food crops, cash crops and traditional crops that yield even in near-drought conditions.



I reuse mineral water bottles very often. Recently, I received a message, which is as follows: Reusing mineral water bottles is not a good. The plastic (called polyethylene terephthalate or PET) used in these bottles contains a potentially carcinogenic element (diethylhydroxylamine or DEHA). Repeated washing and rinsing can cause the plastic to break down and the carcinogen can leach into the water. The bottles are safe for one-time use; at the maximum, they can be used for a week (only if they are kept away from any source of heat).

I am curious to know if this information is true or not. It would be of immense help if someone can validate it.


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