Published: Tuesday 30 April 2002

Responsive laws?

Thank you for sending me a copy of Down To Earth discussing the implications of the growing Naxalite presence in our forest areas. The Centre for Science and Environment should be complimented for highlighting this growing conflict, on which public opinion needs to be mobilised. We need a Forest Conservation Act that is sensitive to the livelihood concerns of the poor, and which use people creatively for the regeneration of forests. We thank your organisation for the pioneering advocacy it is doing in this direction.

Chief minister, Madhya Pradesh...

Pesticidal spices

On my way to village Binamau in March, I met Ramdas Pal, a kisan mitra. I was amazed at what greeted me there. People I took to be ignorant villagers discussed science with me. They were quite clued into environmental issues, and were aware that chemical pesticides may harm their crops. Pal told me about this experiment that had tried out. They mixed two kg ground red chillies and one kg salt in 25 litres of water. This mixture, he claimed, worked as well as any chemical fertiliser. While I cannot vouch for the veracity of this claim, I was struck by the fact that Indian villages are experimenting with new concepts today.


Cycle of corruption

The editorial 'Intelligent adulteration' and the leader 'Illegally yours' (Down To Earth, Vol 10, No 21, March 31) in the context of adulteration of fuel and the Supreme Court's remarks on lawlessness in Delhi, respectively, have both caused me to think about the state of affairs in India. As someone who has been battling corruption, both professionally and in my private life, for over five decades now, this is a matter that I have given much thought to. Nehru in the idealism of youth had declared war on black-marketeers, but on assuming power, openly defended corrupt persons like V K Krishna Menon and K D Malviya. Indira Gandhi went even further in her defence of corruption, calling it a 'worldwide phenomenon'. Given the open nexus between politicians, bureaucrats and criminals, ordinary measures to punish the corrupt will not help. The expensive electoral system, where only the corrupt can contest and win an election, is another factor. Maybe the only way out is a public revolution, along the lines of the French Revolution in the 18th century.

New Delhi...

Animal concerns

Devinder Sharma and Rajiv Vora are clouding the issue by trying to make the abuse of animals in India a battle between industrialised and 'developing' nations ('peta's Pet,' Down To Earth, Vol 10, No 20, March 15).

Had they contacted People for Ethical Treatment of Animals (peta) or looked at our Website (www.peta.org), they would know that we have campaigns to stop cruelty all over the world. India cannot expect to be excused from its responsibilities in a global community.

As an Indian who is affected by the pollution caused by our leather industry, I am offended by the assumption that only Westerners are trying to encourage consumers to do away with leather. Just last month, a protest was held at the India International Leather Fair by Indian citizens, Indian environmental and animal protection groups, farmers, and some government officials because over one lakh acres of agricultural land has been poisoned in the area around the Palar river in Tamil Nadu by leather tannery waste. People who work in and live near leather tanneries are suffering from cancer, nervous disorders, respiratory infections, fever, eye-inflammation, asthma, sterility and premature death. I encourage anyone interested in learning the truth about what peta does to help encourage a healthy and cruelty-free lifestyle to visit our India Website at www.petaindia.com.

Chief functionary, peta India

Misplaced history

The write-up on the company bahadur (Down To Earth, Vol 10, No 20, March 15) was very good. But as a friend and regular reader of dte since its inception, I wonder why a journal concerned with science and environment -- with emphasis on the latter -- would publish a purely historical piece, however well-written it may be. If quality alone be the criterion for publication in dte , then articles on political science, philosophy, aesthetics etc could make an entry at the cost of those on environment.


Water's drying up

Kudos to your magazine for its awareness campaign on wastewater recycling. Recently, the Ground Water Board claimed that water levels have fallen drastically for all areas in Delhi. South Delhi, where the ground water table is currently below 30 metres as compared to five to 20 metres in 1960, is worst hit. In Vasant Kunj, the water problem is so severe that anyone who bathes for three consecutive days feels more than a pang of guilt about wasting precious water. With an indifferent government and irresponsible authorities, I see no immediate solution, such as wastewater harvesting, in sight.


Breathe easy

There is more to your 'Bloody disclosure' (Down To Earth, Vol 10, No 20, March 15) than meets the eye. Tiny dust particles get into the bloodstream due to the damage caused by pollutants to the membrane barrier between the lung and blood vessels. The permeability of this barrier can be measured easily and quite accurately using radioactive aerosols and imaging techniques. The lung retention time thus measured is a reliable indicator of the permeability of the membrane. Shorter retention times show increased permeation through the membrane, indicating onset of damage. It might interest readers to know that the most inexpensive, yet efficient, aerosol generator useful in such studies has been indigenously developed by the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (barc), Mumbai, and at least 25 countries are at present using the model for various clinical applications in leading hospitals. An International Atomic Energy Agency study of 268 normal, healthy, non-smoking adult residents of 10 cities from as many nations, found that where the pollution was more, the lung retention time was less, indicating damage to the membrane. The fact that there is an easy technique available now to get at this bio-indicator of an air pollution assault means that there is an immense possibility of arriving at more meaningful estimates in defining air quality standards.


Toilet training

The focus of your analysis of sewerage systems and sanitation is urban areas. You have missed the issue of ruralsanitation, which is one of the worst public health hazards today: defecation in the open, open drainage and open disposal of solid waste. Even if people followed the principle of putting mud on open excreta, half our rural sanitation problems would be solved. Padmashri Ishwarbhai Patel of Safai Vidyalaya in Ahmedabad and Bindeshwar Pathak of Sulabh Sauchalaya have done pioneering work in composite rural sanitation. unicef, Safai Vidyalaya, the World Bank and other donor agencies have been popularising leach pit holes, which do not consume huge amounts of precious water, for decades. A two-pit leaching toilet costs only about Rs 2,000, and dispenses with the need for head-loaders carrying human excreta. Unfortunately, our planners decided that housing and toilets in rural India could be separated, and people could just ease themselves in the open. The Indira Awas Yojana is a standing tribute to such lack of foresight and imagination. As long as we do not involve families in the construction, toilets will remain ' sarkari toilets', built with subsidies and used as storage bins. This was the case with the Nirmala Yojana in Karnataka, where less than 10 per cent of the toilets built were used. We need a mass movement for sanitising India. It is essential that our whole culture of defecating, urinating and spitting wherever we please must change.


Reality check

While I agree that the Mashelkar Committee recommendations could work if it is followed up with rigorous implementation, and linked to air quality, it is important to realise that the report is not quite grounded in reality. The point I wish to make is that since it is difficult to keep all in-use vehicles, particularly the older ones at acceptable emission levels, it would be advisable to opt for a technology that has a lower chance of going unacceptably bad during use.

The recommendations would work in a situation where rigorous emission auditing of in-use vehicles is implemented, and vehicles that fail emission durability are recalled by manufacturers. No such provision exists as of now. Even if such a law were to be enacted, our experience with in-use vehicle emission inspection is proof that implementation of the provision would be rather doubtful.

After the heavy investment in cng fuelling infrastructure, and especially at a time when the cng programme was finally beginning to take off, the report should have taken a more realistic view of the situation. The common person would say that only emission levels matter, but should not a considered opinion take implementation issues into account? To conclude, some hotspots need drastic measures, such as cng, to combat an existing situation. The Mashelkar Committee approach can be used in other areas, where cng cannot be readily made available. However, this should be coupled with close air quality monitoring, lest other cities are also converted into hotspots.


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