Published: Tuesday 30 November 1999

Population and environment

This is with reference to Anil Agarwal's article 'Promising water' ( Down To Earth, Vol 8, No 8; September 15). I am perplexed about the apparent gulf in India between the increasing environmental degradation and the increasing human population, which is now exceeding one billion.

Do you feel that the whole system analysis must include all variables, or do you believe that humans are exempt from the ecological restraints that apply to all other species?

Global Population Concern

The Editor replies:
I agree that an increasing population of humans will definitely exert greater pressure on the environment and lead to environmental scarcities and degradation. However, I am not convinced that a large part of the environmental degradation and scarcities that we see today in India, despite its one billion population, is entirely because of this factor. In fact, this factor has been overplayed in comparison to the management factor.

Indians, unfortunately, suffer from an extremely incompetent and corrupt government which does not want to admit its mistakes and even far less try to rectify them. It is for this reason that I do not focus on the population issue because I find myself playing into the hands of the very culprits who have created the problem and do not want to change themselves.

In fact, studies have shown that where participatory natural resource management paradigms have been implemented with some effectiveness, the carrying capacity of the environment has improved so dramatically that there has been reverse urban-rural migration and livelihoods have increased in rural areas. Environmental scarcities have gone down quite dramatically. I would like my country to focus on its own incompetence rather than blame the poor people and their children all the time. I strongly suggest this even for the people in the North, if they are concerned about the poor and not just about numbers.

There is no question of saying that a totally unlimited growth of population will be manageable. But it is also important to realise that proper management also leads to changed mindsets in which people begin to realise that population is a problem. But if environmental management is extremely poor and it treats everything as a free access property, it is often rational behaviour to increase your population.

I think the heart of the problem lies in the incompetence of our government and also the incompetence of the advice that is given to us by the North. If Indians had been intelligent enough to make sure that every single Indian was educated in the first 50 years of its independence, our population would have stabilised by now, something that we cannot even foresee will happen in the near future....

Learning more about water

Anil Agarwal discusses the issue of managing our water resources and touches on the need for education in his article 'Promising water'. I believe that if people at the grassroot level are educated, then politicians and bureaucrats will be under pressure to perform. For this purpose every non-governmental organisation in the country must be roped in for this mammoth task. Primary health care is a sector that needs immediate attention. We found that at our school for the adivasis , who stopped complaining about stomach ailments only after clean water was provided to them....

The woes of tribal people

Vidhya Das' article ('Land of Sufferance', Down To Earth , Vol 8, No 8; September 15) is very interesting. She has correctly identified the problems of the tribal community in Koraput district in Orissa who are beginning to assert their right to their lands, their livelihood and the environment. The displacement caused by irrigation dams and industrialisation has not only affected their rights over tribal and but destroyed the tribal way of life which is rooted in the forests.

The assessment by Das would have been more relevant to tribal reality if she had focused on land lost by tribal communities to the forest department who have confiscated such land in the name of forest protection and conservation. For example, the forest department of Andhra Pradesh in the World Bank-assisted Andhra Pradesh Forestry Project has quietly deprived the tribal community of their land which they had been conserving for ages. This has affected their right to land and livelihood.

Development activists such as Das should take the lead with the support of non-governmental organisations to help the tribal community all over India....

People for environment

I find articles in Down To Earth very informative and useful. Although a large number of people in our society are apathetic towards environmental issues, there are a few who are concerned about the growing air and water pollution.

In Surat, a number of people, including lawyers, scientists and social workers, have formed an association to conserve the environment. Our projects include the planting of trees, campaigning against the use of plastic bags and encouraging the use of cotton bags. As both the Union and state governments are notorious for reacting very slowly towards environmental degradation, it is up to people to take the initiative and bring about a change....

The larger picture

The article 'Eat sauce, fight cancer' ( Down To Earth , Vol 8, No 2; June 15) quotes researchers as saying that consuming tomatoes and tomato-based products can prevent cancer. Having been involved in research and aware of the pitfalls of using statistics to prove a point, I am sceptical about such findings. Firstly, any research based on a single factor (in this case tomatoes) is bound to be incomplete and misleading especially for as complicated a disease as cancer. Therefore, when one considers only a particular factor that one is interested in, one tends to miss out on the role of other factors. In this case, for example, factors like whether the person suffered from stress of other ailments, was prone to inheriting cancer, had irregular food habits also need to be considered. But we do not know whether these studies were conducted?

As far as statistics are concerned, one can take any factor and relate it to any disease that one would like with a given number of samples (people); chances are there that it will give a strong correlation, but this is just statistical correlation and not a real one.

The article says that eating pizzas with a lot of tomato sauce will save you from cancer. This is ridiculous as a high cheese content can invite heart problems. Eating foods with high tomato content will also cause acidity and teeth problems. Many readers take the health columns in tabloids too seriously and such articles may only encourage people towards an unhealthy way of life. Instead every news item must be researched and analysed properly to give the positive and negative effects of every new discovery....

Sweet remedies

The article '(un)Healthy drink' ( Down To Earth , Vol 8, No 4; July 15) rightly states that honey assists in the absorption of medicines and can be taken with any drug. This has been advised by our Ayurvedic system of medicine. Honey has a high calorific value and is an instant source of energy because it contains pre-digested simple sugars collected from flowers. Honey has also high antibiotic quality which not only corrects common ailments like cough, cold and gastrointestinal disorders, but also heals the wounds effectively....

Where's the analysis?

Your articles on the harmful effects of diesel made interesting reading. Silent and invisible killers are more dangerous than the more obvious ones, because we ignore what is out of sight. Special mention must be made of Gobar Times , Down To Earth's children's supplement. But the articles need to be more analytical to have a wider perspective. For example, there was a question in Gobar Times: "What will happen if all of us use air conditioners?" One aspect which has not been touched is that for every 100 units of cooling the air conditioner does within a room, around 130 units of heat is thrown out in the surrounding air. This not only contributes to increasing the air temperature outside, but decreases the efficiency of the air conditioners for the next round of cooling....

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