Published: Wednesday 31 May 2000

Distorted facts

The editorial 'Polluting politics' ( Down To Earth, Vol 8, No 19; February 29) carries several wrong statements, distortions and innuendo which are not reflective of good journalism and truthful reporting. The message from Anil Agarwal published in the magazine states, "It is, therefore, not surprising that only a few months ago the director of teri (Tata Energy Research Institute) was quoted in newspaper reports as arguing that burning of leaves by the poor and not automobiles, was the cause of air pollution in Delhi."

The Economic Times , in an article by Nivedita Prabhu published on October 24, 1999, had actually quoted the director of teri as saying, "I would dispute that the bulk of suspended particulate matter ( spm ) is from diesel. An enormous amount would come from biomass burning and dust." There is no mention in this of burning of leaves by the poor. Nor can it be denied, in the absence of accurate measurement of data, that there is a considerable amount of dust (including that generated by construction activities in Delhi itself) that comes into Delhi from surrounding locations, and that biomass burning is at a seasonal high during the winter months.

The same article in Down To Earth goes on to say, "Given that a tata company -- telco -- is leading the diesel brigade, should we call this connivance, or term it a coincidence?" Perhaps, the editor and publisher of Down to Earth are not aware that teri has no dependence on the Tata companies, financially or in any of its managerial functions. The institute is a registered society duly approved as a Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation under the department of scientific and industrial research.

The readers of Down To Earth should also know that the Indian Institute of Science is a Tata promoted institution, like several others including the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. Each of these institutions is respected and seen with some trust as credible and objective research organisations. If the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research ( tifr ), which is a government institution under the department of atomic energy, was to take a position on a matter of policy, would Down To Earth still indulge in the same despicable innuendo. Perhaps the promoters of Down To Earth would not understand this, either because they choose to be ignorant about facts or because they have a unique talent for looking at issues in a subjective manner and push forth their agenda at all costs, if necessary, even through lies?

We hope that the editor and publisher of Down To Earth have the courage to publish this rejoinder.

Annapurna V
New Delhi

Editor replies:
We see no reason to respond to such a scurrilous and intemperate letter. Our article was based on facts, not fiction and we will leave it to our readers to decide if our cities should not deal with local pollution -- air pollution from diesel vehicles -- and instead worry about global warming as teri has advocated. As far as the tata connection is concerned, it seems to us that the fair institution does protest too much. Is this because truth often hurts?...

Hard facts

Asbestos cement pipes and sheets can play a vital role in the rural water supply and housing schemes suggested in the Union Budget. These are most cost-effective, durable and safe. Asbestos products of iso standards are now available in India and at a cost of one-third the alternatives like metals, plastic and concrete. Moreover, their durability is also three to four times more.

There is confirmed scientific evidence that asbestos cement, which has so far been perceived as hazardous, is actually highly eco-friendly and much safer than the alternatives such as metals, plastic and concrete. According to studies conducted by the World Health Organisation ( who ), International Agency for Research on Cancer ( iarc ), France, and the us Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry ( atsdr ), the health risk ratio in asbestos is only 0.9 to 1.5 compared to about 200 in metals and plastics.

Moreover, several of the 20 most hazardous substances are involved (used or generated) in these industries (metals and plastics). Asbestos is not even listed among them. In view of the above facts, it is my belief that the public is being wrongly informed about the health implications of asbestos cement. Moreover, information regarding the much higher health risks posed by the alternative building materials are being deliberately suppressed.

Received on email

The editor replies:
Asbestos is a proven carcinogenic substance and in the developed world they are either being banned or there is a general tendency to reduce its use in the coming years. Not only the customer suffers from the use of asbestos, but workers employed in the cement-asbestos companies also suffer from many diseases. Reacting latently, the particles take as long as 25 to 30 years to make their presence felt in the human body and by then it is almost impossible to eradicate their adverse affects. According to a study conducted by a non-government organisation ( ngo ) based in Ahmedabad, nine per cent of the workers in asbestos manufacturing units had patches in their lungs. In the West, insurance companies have stopped issuing policies to workers employed in asbestos factories and mines. Taking into account all the results of studies done on asbestos, it would certainly not be prudent to recommend its use....

Harvesting water

During my organisational training at the Vikram Sarabhai Centre for Development Interaction ( viksat ) on the project "Drafting Information on Urban Water Use" at the Sabarmati River basin in Gujarat, I came across this concept of rainwater harvesting at Khambat in Anand district. The people in this town, due to salinity in the groundwater, have been practising rooftop water harvesting since a long time. There are channels from the roof running inside the walls to an underground chamber of around 20 feet deep. The latter is covered by a lid and is used to collect the water that is directed into them by the channels. The chamber is washed periodically to keep it clean.

According to the local people, the water of one rainy season served their drinking purposes for the entire year. Unfortunately this system is now dying out. In most houses, the water channels have been neglected and are blocked as people opt for modern appliances to store water. There were also plans by the government to supply sweet water from a neighbouring lake. Moreover, the new houses did not even have the provisions to store rainwater.

May be Down To Earth could investigate this matter and encourage the people of this region to revive the dying tradition....

Many faces of a town

This is with reference to the interview "Bad environment makes the poor more susceptible to diseases" ( Down To Earth , Vol 8, No 18; February 15). Unfortunately, Howrah has been referred to as a "town inhabited by railway porters" and this needs to be corrected. I had mentioned that Howrah has suffered historical neglect, in comparison to Calcutta, the city across the river Hooghly. Being an industrial town, with a large migrant worker population, Howrah was viewed as a "coolie town". Here the term "coolie" denotes labourers rather than railway porters. (Thus, even in California, Chinese workers are referred to as coolies.)

Long before the establishment of the English trading post, which eventually became Calcutta, Howrah's present location was a well-known centre of artisans and handicrafts, trade and commerce, pilgrimage and learning. References to Betor, in the southern part of Howrah, which included a port, and to Ghusuri, in the north, are to be found circa 1498. The ancient eastern Indian seaport of Tamluk mentioned in Indian epics may also have included parts of Howrah.

Notwithstanding the administrative disregard, Howrah was a large town, and an urban sensibility and neighbourhood ethos had taken root. Many wealthy families had their homes here and a number of educational and cultural institutions were established. Parts of the town came to be associated with learning and music. Howrah could also boast of the Botanical Gardens, the Bengal Engineering College, the Belur Math (headquarters of the Ramakrishna Mission order established by the religious leader Swami Vivekananda) and, of course, the cantilever bridge that bears the town's name.

Partition and Independence in 1947 deprived the state of West Bengal of the jute growing hinterland to feed its factories, striking a fatal blow to the jute industries at Howrah. In the late 1960s, serious economic recession in the country and in the Calcutta metropolitan region in particular, crippled Howrah even more. The shifting course and siltation of the Ganga, which has, historically, made and unmade riverside towns in Bengal, also rendered Calcutta's port increasingly insignificant in national and international terms.

Its history, context of resource scarcity, survival imperative in its people and the parasitic greed and activities of cynical profiteers, all combine to make today's Howrah the ultimate planning nightmare, or challenge, depending upon one's perspective. The very blight that characterises Howrah today, can also be seen as a rare opportunity to shape the Howrah of tomorrow. This is the gift of Howrah's history....

Subscribe to Weekly Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.