Published: Friday 15 November 2002

Pick of the post bag

Deeds not words
We are students of environmental science in Rishi Valley School. A while ago, we had taken the initiative to write to Britannia Industries to request them to lessen the use of plastics in their packaging, as it is hazardous to the environment. We thought that you might be interested in our attempt to reduce pollution, albeit in a small way. Please find below a copy of our letter to Sunil Alag, chief executive officer of Britannia.

Rishi Valley School
Chittoor, Andhra Pradesh

The students' letter to Sunil Alag is reproduced below
We are students of environmental science in class ix of Rishi Valley School. We have become aware of the plastic accumulating in our campus. In an attempt to stop this menace, all food items packaged in plastic have been banned from our school. We have now decided to take a positive step towards reducing this menace, not just from our school, but also from as much of the world as possible.

We recently read your interview with environmentalist Bittu Sehgal. We were heartened to see that you were lending support to Project Tiger. Noting your concern for the environment, we wonder if Britannia could take its actions a little further, and do something about the plastic menace, beginning with your very own products.

We have observed that many Britannia food products are packaged in what seems to be an excessive amount of plastic. We have a few alternatives that could possibly reduce this threat to the environment.
Cardboard cartons, which are easier to recycle and are far less expensive than the polluting plastic packaging, could be used. Also, a separate plastic tray included to hold the biscuits is not really necessary.

Plastic wrapped cheese slices could be sold in recyclable boxes instead of a second plastic wrapping. While using cardboard, it is important that you do not glaze or plasticise it, as this would be defeating the purpose.

Some food items for large households and institutions could be delivered wholesale and sold by weight, or a set price per unit. This cuts down the individual plastic wrapping greatly.

Suggestions to reuse, reduce and recycle could be printed on the back of your packaging in an attractive manner along with information about Project Tiger.

We hope our suggestions are ecological and not impractical. To emphasise our collective concern, we have included the signatures of students and staff of our school, all of who support our cause wholly....

The other side of the summit

This is to commend the Down To Earth issue on the World Summit on Sustainable Development (wssd) (Down To Earth, Vol 11, No 9; September 30, 2002). dte has covered the wssd brilliantly, especially in the editor's page and the cover story. I participated in the summit as one of the civil society delegates. Civil society organisations, knowing fully well that they have been sidelined and marginalised at the Bali PrepCom itself, put up a brave front, and the quote "A sustainable world is possible" was prominently displayed in their banners, souvenirs and publications. They worked hard to put out their views, in spite of the lack of access to various venues and fora.

Civil society groups came to be recognised for the first time during Rio summit, and found place in the Agenda 21. They are unique to the un system, as they include almost every group other than the governments, covering non-governmental organisations (ngos), community based organisations (cbos), women, children, youth, indigenous people, scientific institutions and many more. In spite of affirmation by the secretary general of the summit, Nitin Desai, for strong engagement of the civil society in the wssd process, they had very little role to play in the final outcome of the summit.

Similarly, almost every country had engaged civil society groups in multi-stakeholder processes, and the final agenda of governments was hardly reflective of the concerns of these groups. In fact, multi-stakeholder dialogues were effectively torpedoed by government delegates at the summit.

Johannesburg was a big mela for civil society organisations. Their overwhelming presence was seen at almost every venue. This in spite of the fact that some of the delegates were travelling as long as four to six hours a day to reach various venues. The civil society inaugural event was planned at the Johannesburg Stadium with lots of entry curbs and much fanfare and hype on August 23, 2002. However, most seats were empty, and Nelson Mandela, who was to open the ceremony, did not come at all. The only solace to civil society was that Kofi Annan did address them on the penultimate day of the summit.

The summit outcome was termed by civil society groups as "crumbs for the poor...a triumph of greed and self interest, a tragedy for the poor and the environment, most pessimistic on trade and agriculture subsidies".

ngos termed the overall summit action plan as toothless and gravely disappointing. The mood at Nasrec, where the civil society events were mostly concentrated, was gloomy and there was a general feeling that no advancement has been made from Rio, but that there have been reversals on important principles of Rio.

Another area of much ngo protest was the partnerships to strengthen implementation of Agenda 21. Over 220 partnerships, with a funding commitment of us $235 were announced during the summit. It was claimed that many partnerships are still evolving, and that this concept is attracting interest from most stakeholders. However, ngos termed the partnerships as 'poisonous'. They were viewed as attempts to manipulate these ngos. By the end of the summit, a number of ngos were sporting stickers with slogans such as "Shameful...No more summits".

Centre for Environment Education
Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh

Unholy nexus

I was overwhelmed to read the 'Insight' section (Down To Earth, Vol 11, No 10; October 15, 2002). It is true that if at all a disaster like the super cyclone visits Orissa again, the state will still be nowhere. The so-called disaster preparedness initiatives taken by the government with financial assistance from United Nations Development Programme (undp) is a fiasco. It is aimed at giving jobs to the near and dear ones of some bureaucrats of the state.

The newly formed Orissa Disaster Mitigation Authority has become the feudal property of a bureaucrat, which has enabled him to claim that he is a disaster management expert of international repute. The bureaucrat has been attending national and international seminars with funds from osdma, which were meant for infrastructure development in Orissa. Despite a huge outcry from the members of legislative assembly (mlas) to oust the bureaucrat from the post, he is not disturbed. This is possibly due to his nexus with some other bureaucrats (even retired ones) who are said to be close to the chief minister.

Another bureaucrat who was in charge of the Community Development Programme of undp is a fraud. He knows how to appease others, even mediapersons. Come to a village, and see the disaster preparedness initiatives. They are still to understand the importance of preparedness. The undp volunteers consider the job of the volunteer a good means of appropriating money from undp.

Unless this nexus is broken, and the bureaucrat in charge of the Disaster Mitigation Mission is changed, the disaster preparedness mission will be a far cry in Orissa.


History lessons

I thank the editor for substantively thrashing out, in the editorial 'The politics of empty words' (Down To Earth, Vol 11, No 6; August 15, 2002), the central points in the ongoing climate change debate, and for exhorting the Indian government on what it should do. I want to reinforce your point with an interesting quote from Bjorn Lomborg's book The Skeptical Environmentalist. "Do something that actually does good and not sounds good."

Urgent mitigation of the negative impact of climate change is no doubt necessary, but a permanent solution to the problems is a must, because we need mother earth more than she needs us. This is possible only if we consider the earth and the human family as one integrated system. It is essential that we act locally in a just and equitable way, and follow a greener approach.

History shows that societies in the past have collapsed due to a failure to solve climate change and other environmental problems (eg Indus Valley civilisation, Maya civilisation, the Ansazi in the us). History will repeat unless we resolve the conflict between short-term interest groups and long-term interests of society before it is too late.

But what must be done must be done even if the ground reality presents a different picture. Global warming and climate change have become political problems today, owing to conflict of interests. The wealthy West is responsible for most of the environmental damage we are faced with. Yet it is unwilling to make the social and economic changes necessary to tackle its climate problems. That would be politically unwise for the industrialised nations.

Mumbai, Maharashtra...

Towards a solution

I agree with the views in 'Rivers of Dispute' (Down To Earth, Vol 11, No 9; September 30, 2002). Our bureaucrats and technocrats in government service know how to manage water resources in order to maximise profitability to farmers. However, either their suggestions are not accepted by the powers that be, or they are not bold enough to put forth their suggestions, and the river water dispute remains eternally unresolved. In this connection, I would like to bring to the kind notice of dte readers my observations on the sharing of river waters.

A river is an important component of the river valley ecosystem. The prime function of the river is to act as conduit for draining the toxicity built up in its watershed or catchments during floods and dry weather flow. As a rule, a portion of the floods and dry weather flow should reach the sea for the health of its catchments. We have to remember that a river is like the blood and urine of humans, which carry and drain the toxic elements of the human body, just as the river drains its toxicity into the sea.

The health of the watershed is gauged by the quality of water that flows in the river, just like the health of an individual is assessed based on the quality of his blood and urine. This fact is almost completely overlooked and attempts are made to exploit the total flow of the water in a river.

A river originating in state 'a' flows through state 'b', and after it is exploited by both the states, drains to the sea. It is wise for the states to allow a certain portion of flood flow and dry weather flow to find their way to the sea. The balance quantity of water, both flood flow and dry weather flow, can be, by mutual agreement, shared by the two states. If state a does not want to share the dry weather flow in the river then, ethically or morally, it has to pay compensation to the lower down state b for absorbing the flow. Then state b can claim compensation, whether there is actual damage or not. State b can plan for crop patterns based on the agro-climatic conditions, as well as the water resources available in the catchment to maximise profitability. The dry weather flow will contain very high fraction of toxic components, for which also the lower down state can claim compensation.

Chennai, Tamil Nadu...

Inhuman labour practices

Prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, upon persuasion by the National Human Rights Commission (nhrc), included the need for elimination of manual scavenging in his 15-point initiative spelt out in this year's Independence Day address to the nation. That a vow in this regard was taken 10 years ago, also in an Independence Day address by then prime minister P V Narasimha Rao, speaks volumes on the insensitivity of state governments. They do not realise the imperative for complete elimination of manual scavenging within a definite time frame, while ensuring suitable alternative employment for hapless persons, majority of who are women.

Incidentally, another despicable practice of civic bodies -- employing manual labour using primitive tools for clearing blockages in underground sewer mains, often resulting in the unwary labourers dying due to asphyxiation -- needs to be stopped immediately, and replaced by modern technology-driven practice.

As for garbage collection work, the misery of the workers is highlighted in a report in The Times of India, October 3, Bangalore edition. The report speaks of the failure of the civic body to provide workers with hand gloves and gum boots. Clearly, the governments are only "getting and spending, laying waste their powers". In the context of the state governments dragging their feet in these matters, it will be but proper for nhrc/Supreme Court to act suo motu and issue a directive to them to initiate action consistent with needs.

Bangalore, Karnataka...

Water woes

The burgeoning growth of the packaged water industry is reflected in the fact that it has become fashionable to drink 'bottled' water. This in spite of the fact that more than half the brands are nothing but tap water put into a bottle or pouch. Even the Delhi Jal Board (djb) has entered the packaged water business, trying to grab a slice of the business. In developed countries, tap water supplied by city councils is potable. Instead of cleaning up our act to supply potable water, we are now encouraging packaged water. This is also indirect encouragement of plastics that are thrown away after the bottle or pouch is used. The government should improve the quality of potable water, so that this business does not cause further environmental harm and waste of resources.


Quick note

We write to request you for the address of Rakesh Agarwal, trader of medicinal herbs featured in your interview section (Down To Earth, Vol 11, No 8; September 15, 2002).

Saurashtra Educational Society

Rakesh Agarwal's address is as follows:
National Herbs Company
291/2 Ashish Market
Katra Piran, Khari Baoli
Phone: 91-11-391 7884, 394 4957



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