Published: Friday 31 May 2002

Green the cities

We have been trying to get adivasi encroachers of forestland to plant trees and carry out other elementary soil and water conservation on the hills of Satpudas, bordering Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, they inhabit. In these efforts, the forest department has been showing interest. On reading 'Green government' (DTE, March 31, Vol 10, No 21), it occurred to us that while it is almost obligatory for poor forest encroachers to work for environmental reservation, no similar obligations are asked of big farmers and urban developers. Is it not time that big farmers too set aside part of their fields for forestry? That urban builders be obliged to provide a tree cover proportionate to the volume of built-up space and human inhabitants they cater to? Forests need not be confined to the hills. They must come closer. After all, towns, cities and so-called revenue fields were once grabbed out of virgin forests. Rejuvenate denuded forests, no doubt, but have the same determination legally to get the rest of the country to green its deserts. The Pune revolution to green must intensify. And legislation is the key to such a revolution. One only hopes that more cities will work towards the Pune model. ...

Watertight compartments

While discussing water policy (DTE, April 30, Vol 10, No 23), you discuss the role of some persons, including the prime minister. In discussions of this sort, it is common to ignore the role of the bureaucracy in (mis)handling of the issue. The common tendency is to put the prime minister first, followed by a few persons of eminence. More than once Ihave wondered how those persons are related to the matter in question.

Water is not the only natural resource that is dealt with by the nation centrally. There is a logical (bureaucratic) trend in the handling of these issues. The foremost consideration is economics, and hence water, like coal or steel or timber, is an economic commodity. However, it is only through de-linking water from its economic functions that one can develop an understanding of water in the background of its changed environment. You are not wrong to emphasise that water is a community asset, but are there defined ways to bring about community entitlements on water? Again, you talk about a public debate with participation of all stakeholders. What will be its modality? Who is going to check the credentials of the participants, and who is going to ensure representation?

The truth in this country is that it is rigidly compartmentalised, and everything is weighed by economics. So the question is: are we talking about a water policy formulated by another eminent person (or institution), having only some sectoral knowledge on water? ...

No good in charity

I wish to congratulate Sunita Narain for her paper on trees. Yes, let us grow our own trees. But let us also refrain from growing trees for others. Export markets for wood are a danger because they lead to overexploitation of the land. Like with food, we need to grow just what we need. Let others find a way of making a living out of their land, without becoming dependent on others for satisfying their basic needs. ...

Tourists beware

Summer is here, and the hill-station of choice is the beautiful Kodaikanal. However, once tourists arrive here, they find that every sort of enticement is offered for a cheap stay at one of Kodaikanal's unregistered hotels. The nightmare does not end there. Tourists are woken up each morning with blaring music. Non-stop noise and exorbitant rates all summer ensure that visitors never return. But fresh faces add to the charm of every new season!...

Action first

So many readers bashing our bureaucrats in your February 15 issue. However justified that might be, what can we achieve by criticising them? We are all part of this corrupt and decaying system. We cannot deny the fact that the economic divide in India is horrific. However, there is much we can do to lessen the existing disparities. To start with, all of us can begin by paying our domestic workers a living wage, and doing something for the workers in the unorganised sector. ...

An inspiration forever

There have been few better exponents in the use of science and human welfare than Anil Agarwal. His vociferous attacks on the misuse of science and technologies, whether of Western or Eastern origin, have often been misunderstood as being anti-science. In fact, he was not only a well-trained and well-informed scientist, but also one of the foremost exponents of science in almost all fields of human endeavour. His mettle lay not only in exposing the dogmas of science, but also those who use it as a tool for exploitation and aggrandisement for personal or corporate gain, regardless of the consequences to the rest of society or nature. In this, he was a David who fought with admirable perseverance, and with considerable success, the many Goliaths ranged against him. Anil Agarwal will remain an inspiration to generations of young men and women, who will continue to struggle in this battle against great odds, with firm conviction arising from a depth of knowledge combined with an indomitable social awareness and conscience. ...

Genes in peril

Soil, water, and genetic resources constitute the foundation upon which agriculture and world food security are based. Of these, the least understood and most undervalued are plant genetic resources.
They are also the resource most dependent upon our care, as also perhaps the most threatened. Plant genetic resources for food and agriculture consist of the diversity of genetic material contained in traditional and modern varieties grown by farmers, as well as wild relatives and other wild plant species that can be used for food, feed for domestic animals, fibre, clothing, shelter, wood, timber, energy, etc.

Recent losses of diversity have been large, and the process of 'erosion' continues. Of major concern is the irreversible loss of genes, the basic functional unit of inheritance and the primary source of variation in the appearance, characteristics and behaviour among plants. Gene complexes and species can also be lost and, in effect, become extinct. Plant varieties can also disappear. The chief contemporary cause of the loss of genetic diversity has been the spread of modern, commercial agriculture. The largely unintended consequence of the introduction of new varieties of crops has been the replacement -- and loss -- of traditional, highly variable farmer varieties.

This process was the cause of the much-talked about genetic erosion. For example, of the 7,098 apple varieties documented as having been in use between 1804 and 1904, approximately 86 per cent have been lost. Similarly 95 per cent of cabbage, 91 per cent of field maize, 94 per cent of pea, and 81 per cent of tomato varieties apparently no longer exit.

The processes of modernisation and varietal replacement, well-documented in the US, have now occurred in many other countries, and have surely led to substantial losses of unique genetic materials. In Africa, the degradation and destruction of forests and bush lands is cited as a main cause of the genetic erosion. Most countries in Latin America report major genetic erosion of forest species that hold considerable economic importance.

Executive chairperson of the Bangladesh Agricultural Research Council Zahurul Karim said, "The area that constitutes Bangladesh had some 8,500 cultivars of rice. Current estimates are that only a few dozen rice cultivars can be found in farmers' fields today. The erosion of genetic resources imperils future development of plants that are used for food, fibre, fuel and industries through the loss of sources of useful genes."

The loss of genetic diversity in agriculture reduces the genetic material available for use by present and future generations. Developmental and evolutionary options for various species may, therefore, be shut off in the process. The concomitant increase in uniformity may also lead to greater risk and uncertainty. ...

Goodbye to flush toilet

The big bitter pill is that we have to say goodbye to the flush toilet.

People that have them use a lot of water and pollute a lot of water. They need to meet the cost of cleaning it up. One way is to pay this cost in their water bills. If this is done, it helps create a market environment where alternatives that do not use and pollute all this water become attractive to the consumer.

In the current urban situation, ecological toilet systems appear to be more expensive than water-flush toilets. This is, of course, a distortion caused by the fact that wet systems (water-flush) simply do not pay the cost of carrying away (in a sewer) and cleaning the water afterwards, i.e. the sewer installation, maintenance, or (where it exists at all) treatment. Neither do they pay the costs of damage to the environment nor the costs of healthcare and lost workdays due to ill health, or even death, from waterborne diseases.

Ecological sanitation, using dry toilet systems, sanitise the dangerous faecal matter, use minimal amounts of water and recycle excreta as useful fertiliser and soil humus. When urban taps run dry and there is no water to flush the toilet, only then will it dawn on people that we need a different system. I have designed, and have operating here in India, dry toilets in middle-income homes, in bathrooms that open directly to the bedroom. They do not smell, they do not need any sewers, they do not need water flushing, they do not pollute rivers, aquifers or water bodies, and they protect health.

This is a major part of the answer that India needs to avert ever-increasing rivers of sewage, and ever more critical urban domestic water stress. However, as long as people can 'flush and not pay', the situation will simply get worse. There will then inevitably be epidemics of sewage-related diseases of increasing magnitude aggravated by serious urban water shortages.

We need to educate and influence government, so that policy dictates that dry ecological systems are an economic as well as an environmental choice. We also need to influence policy such that dry ecological sanitation systems are not branded as a return to scavenger technology.

Not least, we need to educate the general population, especially the young, through schools, of both the beauty and commonsense of ecological sanitation -- dry sanitation that is odourless, saves water, protects water and life, nourishes and rebuilds the soil. Without clean water and healthy soil there is no future or food.


Not long ago I had the pleasure of meeting Anil Agarwal at the EcoSan conference in Germany, where we discussed various issues raised in the article 'Flushed' (Down To Earth, February 28, Vol 10, No 19). I read the article with great interest and without interruption. It is a very brave and comprehensive description of the problems we face.

Last December, I had the chance to visit several cities in Rajasthan. I come to India almost every year, and am still shocked by the changes that have taken place, especially in Pali and Jaisalmer. To me, India has become the country where you can see today what lies ahead: how pollution can destroy the base for human life.

My eyes have got trained to spot pollution, and in India I can't help but see it everywhere, even in the five-star environment. I have decided not to travel in India, unless it cannot be avoided. The only place I like to stay in is Auroville, and at most, in restricted areas of Pondicherry.

The way I see it, the main problem facing India is: where do you get clean water for one billion people. In fact, where do you get clean water even for the rich. The ground water and the rivers, the air, the sea, everything is polluted. The solid waste lit.


Respected Sir/Madam I am a regular reader of of your web site.I like it most,since it covers a lot of useful information.Thanks.I am a Field service officer for a Govt.of Mah project on 'Saline Land Reclaimation'for coast of Ratnagiri dist.My role is to aware people of Mangrove Ecosystem,motivate them to plant & increase it's density.Can you help by giving any inputs on this ecosystem?Thank You....

Project Help

Dear Sunita, I am a student of Maneckji Cooper Education Trust School. I am a subscriber of the Down To Earth . Being a subscriber has been very beneficial to me as I have a subject called Environmenatal Science.Thus the topics of the environment discussed in your magazine of immense use to me. Sunita we have been given a project on " Environment today - who is to blame ?-the North or the South". In this project we have cover issues like industrialisation, population sustainable development, how every indiviual can contribute to the environment, & thus preserve it. I would like you to help me by giving me the sources of finding such information. Names of books, that I could purchase from you would also be of immense use to me. I have to submit this project by the 15th of June hence an immediate response from you would be appreciated. Thank You, Aparna Sunder P.S. For your reference the subscription is in the name of my father Mr. K.S.K. Sunder ...

How to run cities?

Dear Editor What is needed is a social consciousness of the leaders and employers at various levels of government and private enterprise. May be a course in value development and incentives to follow it through in a practical level.Is there anything like that in India? Will the constitution allow such an implementation? We have to go back to our roots before anything of renaissance in Indian culture and development of India could take place.I know it is vague but there could not be any band aid approach. i am sure Indian children grows up with these human values, so that the next generation will be better than the previous. Job creation and fiding te money to pay well all those fully/partly employed will be a good start, but for that the business community should give an helping hand along with the governemnt. Alphonse...

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