Published: Sunday 30 November 2003

Pick of the post bag

Prevention better than cure: WHO
Water safety plans (wsp) of the World Health Organization (who) today incorporate the concept of hazard analysis and critical control points (haccp). It has been included to support the provision of safe drinking water. haccp is a highly scientific methodology to control hazards in the production process by applying a two-part technique: first, an analysis that identifies hazards, their severity and the likelihood of their occurrence (risk assessment); second, identification of critical control points (ccp) and their monitoring that will reduce, prevent or eliminate the identified hazards (risk management). wsp is a multi-barrier approach that intends to monitor water quality from the "catchment to the consumer" continuum, rather than the end-point quality assessment concept currently in use. haccp is a tested methodology and has provided the framework for food safety all over the world.

The major hindrance for production of safe drinking water is contamination by microbiological and chemical agents. The first critical control point is the protection of source water, namely surface water and groundwater. According to the who guidelines, it may often be more efficient to invest in preventive processes within the catchment area than spending money on water treatment. A regular monitoring of source water and steps required to maintain its quality are, therefore, imperative to the production of safe drinking water. The initiatives of the government of India to clean/protect surface water, like the Ganga Action Plan (gap) in the past, are in tune with wsp; it is a different matter that the objectives achieved under such programmes have always been under a shadow. wsp requires a more comprehensive plan for management of source waters. In many instances, it requires close cooperation and coordination among agencies such as the planning authorities, catchment boards, regulators of environmental resources and road authorities.

The water purification and disinfection facility is also a critical point to produce safe drinking water. It is imperative the standards for water quality at each step of purification should be determined indigenously. Such standards, unlike that of 'finished drinking water', cannot be imported. For, some countries used excess chlorine when high doses were not required to purify water. As a result, they faced the emergence of chlorine-resistant pathogens; this has given a new dimension to the practice. India, however, has no information about this emerging and dangerous threat and uses the chemical as per the age-old way.

The importance of maintaining and protecting water storage and distribution facilities (another critical point) cannot be under-emphasised. It is common knowledge that any breach in the process at this juncture can offset all the effects of rigorous management of source water quality, and the monitoring of the purification and disinfection procedures.

Besides risk assessment and risk management, wsp accords equal importance to validation of any plan that incorporates principles of haccp, regular training of the staff entrusted with the responsibilities of monitoring, a rigorous documentation of water quality monitoring data at each step, external audit of the plan and finally feedback in terms of consumer satisfaction and alleviation of public health. wsp also states that unforeseen problems and emergencies as well as contingent plans required thereof be defined clearly.

A number of countries around the world.

The plight of the Gangotri glacier

Millions of people living in the planes of northern India depend on the river Ganga and its tributaries for their existence. Yet, as the article 'White wash' (Down To Earth, Vol 12, No 9, September 30, 2003) clearly indicates, there seems to be no concern among the officials about the rapidly retreating glaciers of the Himalaya.

In 1979, I visited the Pindari glacier in Uttaranchal for the first time; then the snout of the glacier was in the lower parts of the valley. Twenty years later, accompanying a group of young students from Lakshmi Ashram, I was shocked to observe that the glacier had receded by hundreds of metres, and from the 'zero point' it appeared that its snout was hanging on the side of the valley.

Though the retreating Himalayan glaciers may not be adversely affecting the flow of the rivers at present, their rapid meltdown should be a subject of deep anxiety. If the glaciers continue to retreat at the present rates, then in the near future a critical point will be reached when the river flow will begin to decline, threatening the very existence of the nation. Action should be taken to seek an understanding of the present situation and the long-term consequences of what is obviously a manifestation of global warming.


The article 'White Wash' (Down To Earth, September 30, 2003) is interesting and informative. There are, however, some historical facts about the Gangotri glacier that are not mentioned in the article. At the end of the 16th century, king Akbar had sent a team to locate the source of the river Ganga. Based on the data collected by the team, Monserrate, a courtier during Akbar's regime, accurately described the Himalaya and lake Mansarovar. During 1624, father Andrade (in the garb of a Hindu pilgrim) tried to locate the source of Ganga; he mistook Mansarovar as the source. In 1783, James Rennel in his book Memoir of a Map of Hindoostan stated that the emergence of Ganga from a cow's head is a figment of imagination of fanatic Hindus. In 1808, the East India Company sent a team to survey Ganga from Haridwar to Gaumukh. The team was unable to reach Gaumukh and declared that Ganga emerges from a spot beyond human reach. James Bailey Fraser was the first Britisher who reached Gangotri on July 20, 1815. He also missed Gaumukh. Captain Hodgson finally reached Gaumukh on May 31, 1817. He gave a vivid description of the snout of Gangotri. Thereafter in 1891, Griesbach, a geologist of the Geological Survey of India (gsi), made the first sketch of the snout. The credit for mapping Gaumukh and its surrounding areas goes to J B Auden of gsi, who also produced data on glacial retreat in 1935. B S Jangpangi of gsi again mapped the snout and the glacier in 1956. A P Tewari, another scientist from gsi, refined Jangpangi's work in 1967.

Other than these historical facts, I would like to mention that it is wrong of H C Nainwal to allege that gsi does not have a team of dedicated geologists, and that they do not go beyond the Tapoban. Since 1974, a team of gsi glaciologists has been continuously surveying Gangotri glacier and submitting their reports to the government. Nainwal should know that the gsi geologists study every part of the huge country -- a feat beyond the comprehension of a university-based armchair geologist. It would have been good if he had given a better 'academic' suggestion about how to check the glacial retreat, rather than blaming others.

Former director, Geological Surve.

Tea cultivation: bane for environs?

The analysis 'Clipped' (Down To Earth, Vol 12, No 10, October 15, 2003) is interesting. First planted on an experimental basis in 1835 in the Ketti valley of Ootacamund, Nilgiris tea now accounts for approximately 120 million kilogrammes (kgs) of the total tea produced in the country per annum. The Nilgiris district boasts of good quality soil and an evenly distributed rainfall pattern, both of which are conducive to the growth of the cash crop. The number of small tea gardeners in the region has increased dramatically; as per current estimates there are 30,000 smallholders (owning up to 10 hectares of land). The reason for the expansion of a formerly ailing sector is a rapid increase in tea prices, which has made growing tea more profitable than cultivation of other crops. Slopes and gradients less than 32 degrees have also been used for tea plantation. As a result of such practices (resulting in monoculture plantations across the district), the environmental balance has been disturbed.

In the World Trade Organization regime, there is very little hope that the situation will improve. Some of the tea planters should cultivate other crops. I also do not agree with the views of M Madhu, a senior scientist of the Central Soil and Water Conservation Research and Training Institute, Ootacamund. He opines that tea estates have saved the soil of the Nilgiris from being destroyed by the Bhavanisagar dam. The reality is quite different -- it is only after tea cultivation started in the Nilgiris that the area has suffered due to numerous landslides and soil erosion. If allowed to fully grow, the tea tree can become a good soil binder; but as a bush (as is often the case in tea gardens) it is unable to bind soil. Fertilisers used in the tea gardens make the soil even more porous, thus increasing the risk of landslides and more loss of topsoil. Tea cultivators have also trespassed on most of the grasslands in the Nilgiris. These grasslands are the only source of water in south India. The farmers should protect the remaining grasslands at any cost.


Unlimited dangers of pesticides

Apropos 'Feeling pestered...' (Down To Earth, Vol 12, No 10, October 15, 2003), one fact has been completely ignored -- aluminium phosphide is a forensically proven cause for hundreds of people dying each year. The number of its victims is much more than the body count of the Bhopal disaster. Twenty per cent of the victims are children less than 10 years old. If the Delhi-based executive director of the Pesticide Association of India wants to personally verify these facts, he should contact doctors in the All India Institute of Medical Sciences and the Escorts hospital; they alone will be able to provide him with one dead body per week!

The manufacturers are given licenses on the condition that the chemical will be supplied only to storage agencies such as the Food and Ware House Corporation. It must not be made available as a fumigant pesticide. The manufacturers are liable to face charges if the poison is found in the markets. The deaths are an apt indicator of the fact that the law is being violated, that too quite openly. Will the Pesticide Association of India take up some responsibility and prevent this "excellent" chemical from functioning as the biggest pesticide-killer?

Jaipur, Rajasthan...

Other side of the fence

The interlinking of Indian rivers is a mammoth project. The task includes diverting 'surplus' waters of the rivers Ganga and Brahmaputra to central and peninsular India. Our country is continuously ignoring objections raised by Bangladesh (as a lower riparian state) against the project.

China has conducted feasibility studies regarding damming the Yarlung Tsangpo river in Tibet to generate hydropower, and also to divert water towards its mainland. In this case, India is the lower riparian state. Is our government aware about the development? Why did it not figure in the prime minister's visit to China? India's silence on the issue might be mistaken for "no objection". What if China treats India like the way we deal with Bangladesh?


Sourcing is important!

Many articles in Down To Earth are written with the help of information in scientific journals. Therefore, the source of the information should be given for every relevant item. In some meetings or seminars, a few speakers, particularly those having vested interests, present the situation in such a manner as if Down To Earth is the culprit for reporting all odd things. If the source is mentioned, it will not only enhance the image of the magazine, but will also help readers to get additional information.

Senior scientist (microbiology)
International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, Andhra Pradesh


The article 'The Garden of Malabar' (Down To Earth, Vol 12, No 9, September 30, 2003) is impressive. I request the author to provide details of the records/research papers on which the article is based so that I can further enrich my knowledge about the interesting subject.

Thiruvananathapuram, Kerala

DOWN TO EARTH REPLIES: The article is based on Kerala University's translation of the Latin version of the Hortus Malabaricus. The translation itself will give you a lot of information on the making of the text. In addition, J Heniger in his biography of governor Van Rheed (Hendrik Adrien Van Rheede tot Derakenstein and Hortus Malabricus: A Contribution to Dutch Colonial Botany, Kruger Press, 1986) describes the influential role of the Dutch renaissance in the making of the Hortus.

Unfortunately most of Itti Achuden's papers are lost, but there is a very informative article on his role in the making of the Hortus. The article -- Indigenous Knowledge and the Significance of South-West India for Portuguese and Dutch Constructions of Tropical Nature -- has been written by Richard Grove and published as a part of the book Nature and the Orient (Oxford University Press, 1998). It is hoped that the information proves useful....

Is vermicomposting feasible?

Apropos the letter 'Vermitoilet is the best' (Down To Earth, Vol 12, No 7, August 31, 2003), I fail to understand some facts. Generally vermicomposting is done in aerobic conditions. In the latrine system, usually anaerobic conditions prevail -- with the help of anaerobic bacteria, human excreta is decomposed and methane gas is released. But the anaerobic conditions are not favourable for the growth of earthworms. Then how is it feasible to vermicompost human excreta in a latrine system, as has been suggested in the letter? Is there any facility to provide aerobic oxygen artificially? Is a specific model adapted?

In Kolkata, within the Golf Green urban complex, vermicomposting is being done. Three kinds of earthworms are used -- Perionyx excavatus, Eudrilus euginae and Eisenia foetida. Waste from the garden, kitchen, temple side and some from the market is decomposed in particular, and the vermicompost is used as a fertiliser.

Kolkata, West Bengal...

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