Published: Thursday 31 May 2007

Gaumukh concern

The article 'Melting fast' (March 31, 2007) correctly establishes the fact that Himalayan glaciers, along with other glaciers across the world, are receding at a much faster rate than previously believed.

Over the past two decades, the glacier Gangotri, which is at Gaumukh and gives rise to the river Bhagirathi (the Ganga), has receded by a few kilometres. There is no evidence that man-made activity such as tourism and trekking is responsible for the recession. But given our limitations in tackling a phenomenon like global warming, we must find local measures to check it. For instance, human settlements should be relocated from the vicinity of Gaumukh; only small groups of tourists or trekkers should be allowed to visit the place; camp fires and fires for cooking or heating should be banned near the glacier; and trees endemic to the region should be planted.

D B N Murthy

Changing irrigation policy

I want to add some points to your editorial 'The politics of inefficient irrigation technology' (March 15, 2007).

We need to place greater emphasis on irrigation projects to improve agricultural productivity. Over the past 15 years, there has been an overall decline in the rate of agricultural production, which, I feel, is largely due to over irrigation and over use of agrochemicals.

In India, a farmer is charged for the area he irrigates and not for the amount of water he uses. This often prompts him to over-irrigate or shift to water-guzzling crops irrespective of soil composition. Farmers should be charged for the amount of water they are supplied, with seasonal variations. Maharashtra is exploring this option.

Besides, our emphasis on commercial crops, such as sugarcane and cotton, is now leading to excessive groundwater exploitation. The rate of withdrawal of groundwater is far higher than that of recharge. Commercial crops are also responsible for growing indebtedness.

Dryland agriculture is profitable. Unfortunately, little research has been done on it to pinpoint optimal farming cycles or develop agronomic techniques suited to particular climatic patterns.

We should also be careful in managing demand so that resources are not over-exploited. Or else, even grandiose schemes such as river interlinking will fail to solve our problems. Instead, new ones, like sharing water, will crop up.

Renovating dilapidated water sources or creating more rainwater harvesting systems are also necessary.

S Venkataraman

Halcrow on port EIA

Halcrow Consulting India Pvt Limited, the environmental consultants to the proposed deepwater port in Puducherry (see 'Land Ahoy!', May 15, 2007), replied to our questionnaire after the story went to press.

Halcrow says that far from causing environmental problems, the proposed port will "be a major asset for the people of Pondicherry (sic)".

On questions of the littoral drift and beach erosion, it says: "The development of the proposed deepwater port will protect much of the beach in front on (sic) the town. Pondicherry Port Ltd also has plans to regenerate the beach through a beach nourishment system which would artificially recreate the natural sand flow. ...if the existing situation continues, the beach and sea front of the town will continue to erode and be vulnerable to storm and other damage." Halcrow admits that "further studies are required about the littoral drift and beach nourishment work and breakwater design", while claiming that "the process and solution is sufficiently understood for eia (environmental impact assessment) purpose".

The company says there are "no substantive stands of mangroves in the area of the port" and that the "adjacent area of mangroves would not be affected by the port".

Halcrow relies on its eia report for a diagram showing duration, direction and speed of wind. It says "the dominant wind direction is from the South West and blows offshore.... The time when the wind blows from the South and South East is small. Moreover, the shape of the port basin will trap any pollutants...within the basin when the wind is blowing in these directions".

Halcrow's reply also mentions a report by Mercer Consultants which says 24 of the 50 best cities of the world have a port within or immediately adjacent to these cities.

Down To Earth Replies

Though the consultants claim the port will be an asset to the people, the National Institute of Port Management (nipm), official consultants to the Puducherry government, says the project is not economically viable. The nipm report also says the number of risks involved with the project is greater than the rewards. The only direct benefit that the port assures is employment for 1,500 people and that, too, after seven years when the port is fully functional. The government of Puducherry will only get 2.6 per cent of the gross profit from port operations.

The environmental consequences of the breakwater for the small commercial harbour completed in 1989 led to staggering coastal erosion in Puducherry. The impact of a port with a breakwater 10 times larger is bound to be much greater. Moreover, the eia also says dredging and beach nourishment will be carried out by the Puducherry government. Puducherry already has a dredging system, which was installed in the 1990s. A 2005 report of the comptroller and auditor general points out dredging was not carried out at all between 1994 and 1998. From 1998 to 2005, only 3 per cent of accumulated silt was removed. A beach nourishment system installed in 2004 has not been used so far. A study carried by S M Ramaswamay of the Centre for Remote Sensing, University of Tiruchirappalli, says constructing a port in the area is avoidable because of its extensive sedimentation problem and other environmental problems.

Puducherry has about 35 hectares of mangroves, mostly in and around the Aryankuppam backwater. Ecologists say it has a unique ecosystem. Studies commissioned by the Puducherry government have indicated that the mangroves are already threatened by dredging. The construction of the new port will magnify the problem.

As far as wind patterns are concerned, the existing Pondicherry Port's meteorological data shows that during the southwest monsoon--March-September--the wind blows predominantly from the south and will carry airborne pollutants towards the city located north of the proposed port. Further, the eia does not mention any design element that will help reduce pollution.

We have not said all ports pollute or harm the host cities. It is farcical to say 24 of the 50 best cities in the world have ports. It can be argued, along similar lines, that there are more than twice as many cities where ports have caused major problems.

Even Subhash Projects and Marketing Limited, the port's promoters, have clarified that the eia done by Halcrow was a rapid assessment and that a fresh two-season eia is being carried out by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute. Halcrow has iterated that the eia was made in accordance with terms of reference provided by the port developers.

Widespread waste concerns

The report 'Pandora's garbage can' (March 15, 2007) coincides with a study done by our organisation, Centre for Ecological Engineering, in West Bengal's Malda town. The solid waste problem in Malda is acute.

Our study shows that the per capita solid waste generation in this municipal area with a population of 330,000, is around 2.42 kg a day. The quality and quantity of municipal solid waste, however, vary across social strata. The per capita contribution of solid waste of high-income groups is more than that of middle- and low-income groups.

No standard management practice is followed for storage, collection, transportation and disposal of solid wastes. A lot of the waste is used by land developers to fill up the town's low-lying areas. The dumping sites release foul odours and become breeding grounds for flies, rodents and other pests. The waste also pollutes surface and groundwater.

Over the past decade, Malda has developed at a rapid pace. Now, it is time for its municipality to manage solid waste management following modern and scientific methods.

arunayan sharma
Malda, West Bengal

The report disappointed me because it did not say much about solutions. A large proportion of municipal solid waste is generated by kitchens. Hence, our approach towards solid waste management should be decentralised and involve people's participation.

I would like to mention an initiative called Shakti Surabhi. The Vivekananda Kendra-Natural Resources Develop-ment Programme, an ngo based in Kanyakumari, has developed a biomethanation plant that uses methogenic bacteria from cow dung to extract biogas from kitchen wastes.

The unit consists of a simple digester drum, where kitchen wastes can be stored and used as inputs for biomethanation. The process has two outputs containers: one for biogas and the other for slurry. By using 5 kg of kitchen waste and 5 litres of water, the plant can produce 1 cubic metre of gas. Moreover, the slurry that is generated is rich in nutrients and can be used as fertiliser.

The technology is cost-effective and can be easily installed in hotels and houses. Moreover, it is a perfect example of decentralised and ecological way of dealing with solid wastes.

G Vasudeo

Laudable venture

This is in response to the report 'Riverfront redux' (April 15, 2007). The reportage is a lesson for the city managers, flood managers as well as disaster risk managers. According to me, the Sabarmati initiative is a model in many ways. Its background studies, team planning, land management, real-estate revival are worth lauding. However, some aspects of the project such as urban flood management, finance, social equity and rehabilitation need further improvement.

mihir r bhatt

Kyoto's compliance

We have developed a Kyoto-compliant waste-to-energy programme. Coupled with other Kyoto-compliant technologies, the programme offers a holistic answer to climate change. One can log on to our website www.watersmart.com for details. We have developed a number of Kyoto-compliant designs for pulp and paper plants, sugar mills and palm oil plants. We are doing well in Latin America with some 50 projects underway. We were making progress in India until we split with our partner. We are looking for another one.

C G Steiner

Small tractors

This is in response to your article 'Disconnect-Indian agriculture' (October 31, 2004). I wish I had read it a little earlier. In the article you have said small tractors would have benefited a majority of the Indian farmers, but it didn't find any suitable entrepreneurs to take the venture a step forward.

My grandfather and father manufactured small tractors (of 10 hp) in the early 1980s. Initially, a tractor used to cost around Rs 12,500. Later the price went up to Rs 28,000. Still the enterprise ran well, until it was hit by a financial crunch and had to be shut down in the late 1980s. Since then, it has been my dream to restart the manufacture of small tractors. Unfortunately, I have not found the right opportunities.

Shubhankar Tomar

Energy alternatives

This is in response to your report 'Bio-fuelled debate' (January 15, 2007). It made me think harder about energy alternatives and the problems associated with them. Renewable energy sources are receiving great attention these days at various forums across the world.

Our scientists are busy developing small engines that will be capable of running on a wide range of indigenous oils. There is a remarkable interest in various wild oil-bearing plants, such as the physic nut (Jatropha curcas L), as fuel sources. This will help develop small-scale enterprise, especially in energy-scarce regions. Jatropha, corn and other plants are already in the loop. Since our oil resources are limited, these experiments must be conducted faster.


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