Published: Thursday 31 October 2002

Pick of the post bag

Pest vs pesticides
The march of civilisation has played havoc with nature, and has caused some irrevocable changes detrimental to humankind. Essentially, human beings are trapped by their own ambitions. But there is a flipside to this, as a study in a village in eastern Bihar reminds us.

Bahadurpur is situated three kilometres from Bhagalpur district in Bihar. The agricultural practices of this village were studied in the month October-November, 2000. The lands are irrigated by well water, electric pumps and canals. The study was performed through the participatory rural appraisal (pra) technique, where cultivators' responses are given prime importance. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (icar) had adopted the village in 1974 to make it a model village with respect to agriculture. Since then, the village practices cooperative farming, although it is rare in this region.

The survey revealed that farmers were suffering great losses due to severe pest attacks. The loss was going up to 90-100 per cent in the case of brinjal, chilly etc. Certain varieties of paddy were also attacked by stem borers, but the impact was not as high.

Brinjal is the major cash crop in the village. It is a long duration crop (seven to nine months), cultivated from June to February. There are many landless farmers, who take land on lease for the cultivation of brinjal. The loss of this crop pretty much knocks the wind out of them. Without scientific knowledge about appropriate pesticides, farmers are spraying pesticides at random. This has led to increased resistance in pests to these pesticides. There is even more horrifying news, though. A farmer sprayed pesticides daily in the evening and harvested it the next morning to send to the market. One can imagine the health hazards of consuming that brinjal.

Another effect of this indiscriminate spraying of pesticides is that it causes poor soil health by killing useful microorganisms, which release necessary macro and micronutrients. The impact of pesticide pollution in the village can also be observed in Jersey cows, whose natural fertility is totally disturbed. They conceive after long gaps, causing less yield of milk. Diseases like diarrhoea are also common in cattle.

On the other hand, water levels in the area have increased in the past few years. This has led to an increase in soil moisture content, thereby helping pests to flourish. Agronomical data collected from Sabour Agricultural College reveals that annual rainfall has more than doubled in last 10 years from 1990 to 2000 (800 mm in 1990 to 1800 mm in 2000). The decrease of forest cover in Bihar, as well as in neighbouring southern states like Madhya Pradesh and Orissa, and the simultaneous increase of temperature and rate of eveporation, is the most likely reason for this phenomenon.

It is surprising, though, that the water does not go to River Ganga through soil solution leaching. The village is situated only one kilometre from the river. Two possible reasons could be the creation of a hard pan due to unscientific surface ploughing of land with tractors, and heavy siltation of the river because of the Farakka barrage. The change in water-levels has not only worsened the pest problem that the village was faced with, but also forced villagers to go in for a complete change in cultivation patterns.

It is important that corrective measures are initiated at the earliest. Encouragement of organic farming is the first step in this regard.


Invisible rights

It is a matter of great pride that self-rule has made headway in so many villages across India 'The Second Independence' (Down To Earth; Vol 11, No 7; August 31, 2002).

Unfortunately, in the Dangs district of Gujarat, a notified tribal district that falls under the fifth schedule, this movement has taken off in only five villages so far. The first gram sabha was established only last year in Moti Dabhas village of the Dangs.

The Centre for Social Justice (csj), with which I am associated, is a socio-legal agency working with social justice and human rights perspectives. Spread across six districts in Gujarat, its target groups are women, tribals and Dalits. csj has a district outreach in the Dangs.

In October 2002, we carried out an exhaustive campaign propagating self-rule in villages falling under the fifth schedule. The objective was to make people aware about the 73rd amendment to the Indian Constitution and the recommendations of the Bhuria Committee giving absolute power to the gram sabha. After the campaign, four of the 300 villages that we visited invited our Dang team to help them set up a gram sabha. This year many more villages have approached us.

We found that the villagers were totally unaware about the gram sabha's powers. The powers are at present vested in the gram panchayat, which consists of at least five villages. When a panchayat meeting is called, it may not be possible for people from all villages falling under the group to attend. The reasons for their absence vary from plain ignorance to late or no information about the date of the meeting. Many villagers do not attend it because they see no meaning in it. They are sure that most benefits will accrue to the village to which the sarpanch belongs.

On the other hand, the stronghold of the forest department over forestland and forest produce means that villagers have no rights over it. The fact is that villagers do have rights over minor forest produce, like gum, herbs and timru leaves. However, if they are caught taking such minor forest produce, they are chased out by forest officials. On one occasion, the forest officials did not even hand over the dead body of a man who was killed in the forest by a tiger. On investigation, we found that they had retained the dead body as a bait to capture the tiger.

Occasionally, when our Dang team has tried talking to relevant government officials about the 73rd amendment and vesting absolute powers in gram sabhas, officials laughed it off saying that no such law exists. Some other officials view this law as 'good' for the people, but have made no moves to take an initiative in this regard. In fact, the officials who are there for the purpose of development are actually working against it, and are also trying to hamper initiatives being taken.


Not dangerous

This is with reference to the cover story on the chlor-alkali sector (Down To Earth, Vol 11, No 8; September 15, 2002) where various harmful facets of this industry during procurement, use, production and disposal have been analytically examined. However on page 21, hydrogen has been dubbed as a 'dangerous chemical', referring particularly to its inflammability. This creates a wrong impression in the minds of readers, which I would like to put in proper perspective. Extensive research and studies about all aspects of hydrogen have been carried out during the last decade, because hydrogen is considered the 'cleanest source of energy'. Safety aspects, in particular, have been critically analysed. A United Nations Development Programme (undp) report, after analysing all aspects of handling, storage, transportation and utilisation of hydrogen, concludes that hydrogen as a source of energy is as safe as, if not better, than any other fuel today. In fact, any industry that produces hydrogen as a by-product could easily bottle and sell it. It would also be possible in the near future to produce power using fuel cells, which is a highly efficient and clean method of generating electrical power. This uses hydrogen as an input and results in the production of pure water as a by-product.


Forests, not people

I write in reaction to the editor's page (Down To Earth, Vol 11, No 5; July 31, 2002). The principles of management of forests in our country are based on scientific studies ,and are similar to those in use elsewhere. There is nothing wrong with the principles and objectives of management of forests.

The fact is that poverty is the root cause for destruction of forests. The heavy pressure of rural poor on forests is responsible for their deterioration. Grazing of cattle, cutting trees for fuel and selling firewood in nearby towns are the main causes for the destruction of forests. Unless this process is checked, the damage cannot be controlled. It is not true that wood sold to industry is causing damage to forests. Forest Policy 1988 has taken into consideration the needs of the people. The government and locals now jointly manage forests.

The notion that forests are the habitat of certain people and their animals will lead us nowhere. Although it is true that a large number of tribal people are dependent on forests to this day, the management of forests must necessarily keep larger national interests in focus. Intervention might be necessary to safeguard national interests. Where human population is not settled within forests, and have their home close to forests, it is possible to manage forests, keeping the interests of locals in mind.

The problem with non-governmental organisations is that they think forests are for forest dwellers and locals dependent on these forests. Forests are national assets and must be protected for keeping the environment healthy, and for ensuring regular supply of water in our river systems. Today, forest area is shrinking due to population pressures. The Centre for Science and Environment could do a great job in figuring out how millions of poor people engaged in tree-felling can be diverted to other activities. Blaming the national forest policy and the Indian forest service is not going to resolve the issue.

Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh...

Wrong fact

I am surprised to see the information published in the 'Factsheet' (Down To Earth, Vol 11, No 8; September 15, 2002) wherein it was mentioned that the expenditure on training spent during the eighth plan by Karnataka is '0'. In this regard, I would like to draw your kind attention to the fact that the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board (kspcb) has established an Environmental Training Institute (eti) in 1994 as an institute dedicated to environmental training with technical and financial support from danida, Denmark. eti provides high quality environmental training to kspcb officers, industries, local bodies, non-governmental organisations and other government organisations. Till date, more than 4,000 participants (20 per cent of which are kspcb officers) representing different target groups have undergone training. kspcb has also spent a considerable amount on establishment and management of the institute.

Environmental Management & Policy Research Institute
Bangalore, Karnataka

The factsheet was based on a report of the Planning Commission, as referenced on the page. The data used in the factsheet is from page 16, chapter 5 of the report.

-- Editor...

Egalitarian access

In the light of the recent debate on private participation in the urban water sector, and the editorial (Down To Earth, Vol 11, No 8, September 15, 2002), I wish to put down my views on the subject.

Firstly, most of the problems in the water sector can be traced to the way water is planned, regulated, managed and financed. Urban local bodies and other government agencies responsible for the delivery of urban services, such as water, inherit ways of western thinking that originate from Descarte's conceptions in the seventeenth century. Management systems have been built on the principles of sectorisation and fragmentation. This results in a complex domain of multiple objectives, which are not always consistent with each other.

The traditional sectoral and fragmented approach to water resource management has often led to urban local bodies representing conflicting interests. This also means that policy objectives have been set without consideration of the implications for other water users, and without consultation across sectoral and institutional boundaries.

Secondly, water pricing is a thorny problem in India. Water charges do not even sufficiently cover operating cost. The cost of water services needs to be reasonable enough, and linked to the amount of water consumed to encourage consumption. However, selection of a set of prices and pricing mechanisms seems somewhat difficult.

This is because of the fact that water is an economic good, as well as a universal social obligation. Access to water is viewed as a basic human right, a financial obligation, a social necessity and a critical environmental resource. While appropriate pricing policies are absolutely necessary, they are not sufficient for improving water allocation and water use efficiency.

Water pricing works best when combined with supportive regulatory measures, economic incentives and other non-market instruments, such as water licensing and educational programmes. The existing institutions may find it tough to evolve such an approach because of political compulsions and weak governance.

These equity issues are not unique to water. The real challenge is to minimise the undesirable social effects of water charges. This can be done through explicit means, and is best addressed as part of a comprehensive package of social policy responses, including tax rebates, rates relief and benefits.

Without putting a tariff regularising body in place, India cannot expect reforms in the water sector. Full privatisation of water services seems difficult at present. Unbundling the overall system -- treatment, distribution, tariff collection -- towards electricity reform can be tried where a part of the system can be contracted out to an interestedprivate party.

India supports over 35 cities with populations that add up to more than one million. It was recently suggested that India needs to spend us $65 billion on water and sewerage infrastructure in the next decade. However, only 10 per cent of this amount will be available through planned government spending. The private sector has the ability to raise the balance, but only if the risks in doing so are apportioned fairly between the parties, and the private sector is able to generate a fair profit for its efforts in the long run.

New Delhi...

Weather worries

There is increasing evidence of climate change throughout the world. While scientists may differ on the reasons that cause these changes, there is no controversy about the existence of these changes. The unprecedented heat wave in districts of North Bengal in August and the first week of September has evoked wonder among the residents here. North Bengal is accustomed to heavy downpour during this period, and there is growing concern regarding climate change in the area.

In the first week of September this year, temperatures hovered around 35 degree Celsius, with no rainfall from the third week of August to the first week of September. In August 2000, the rainfall was 912 millimetres (mm) (which is excessive rainfall); in 2001, the rainfall was 565 mm; and it fell further in 2002 to 310 mm, which is practically half of the previous years' rainfall. According to the meteorological office, the highest and lowest temperatures rose by one degree Celsius this year. The average temperatures in the preceding years stood around 34 degree Celsius and 26.5 degree Celsius respectively.

Farmers are at the receiving end of climate playing truant. With rains coming down at the wrong time and due to insufficient or too much rainfall, farmers stand to lose a substantial portion of their crops.

Malda, West Bengal...


Sir, i cordily want to subscribe for your magazine DOWN TO EARTH so please kindly send me the address and mode of the payment . and other reqire details of the above subject. thanking you, puneet ...


Water Scarcity-Rivers

Dear Sunita Your editorial addresses the issue well. the same problem is not specific to India but to other countries as well. Unless we plant more trees instead of building houses, our rivers will not have enough water. Before recycling sewage water, we have to learn to store water in tanks, underground or above ground but not by dams.will there be political will for a sugarane water levy or rice water levy at the central or state or panchayat level? When are we, Indians, going to make our speeches into actions? alphonse...

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