Published: Thursday 31 March 2005

Dust flies

Apropros 'cpwd: No fly ash zone' (Down To Earth, October 15, 2004), you have totally overlooked the Central Public Works Department's (cpwd) efforts in promoting the use of flyash bricks and other flyash products. As to your proposal that Portland Polozona Cement (ppc) should be used rather than mixing flyash with ordinary cement, please appreciate that ppc is not the only way to utilise flyash.

Flyash is replacing cement in many areas; we are also using these bricks in our projects across the country. In fact, in the financial year 2003-4 alone, about 88 lakh of flyash bricks were used and this year so far, we have already used 79 lakh.

While we are taking all possible steps to increase the use of flyash bricks and other products in the construction industry, we feel others like thermal power plants should also find more effective ways to dispose of flyash.

Rajesh Khare
New Delhi

Down To Earth replies
As cpwd finds flyash so useful, it's surprising the " principal agency for the Government of India on construction" is reluctant to recommend it to the construction business. Instead, it is promoting the use of Ordinary Portland Cement ( opc ) over ppc; that is, regular cement over fly-ash. Secondly, cpwd's ban was done on the grounds that ppc is less strong than opc. Nothing could be further from the truth (see 'Strong fetish', Down To Earth, January 15, 2005). It's disappointing that cpwd is reinforcing the myth that ordinary cement is stronger than flyash, rather than using its power to create change for the better....

Candyfloss media?

The role of the media should be one of responsibility. However, the focus of the print and electronic media, in general, seems to be on issues and people (read; high society and frivolous gossip) that have nothing to do with the life of an ordinary citizen. Issues like bad roads, municipal corruption, use of plastic bags, garbage and pollution of water bodies affect day to day life and need to be investigated so that there can be accountability and better governance.

G R Vora
Sion East, Mumba...

Judicial factivism

With reference to the Sethusamudram Canal Project, the Madras High Court dismissed the petition of the Coastal Action Network (can) against Environment Public Hearings (eph) and asked the district collectors to complete the eph speedily. The judges, M Katju and N V Subramanian, also called can's petition premature and against the national interest, at the same time referring to the petition by the Tuticorin Port Trust as ocean-appropriate.

The judges are within their rights in exercising judicial wisdom. But what constitutes "national interest" and how are its adverse effects on individuals and communities to be viewed? How does one weigh a saving of 36 hours of transport by sea vis-a-vis the loss of livelihood of the fisherfolk? The authorities' claims of ensuring no toxic discharge are also hollow. Scrapping the project may affect profits; but going ahead with it might deny livelihood and kill myriad life forms.

S G Vombatkere


Lethal questions

Carbon dioxide (co2) may not trap the sun's heat ('Polarised', Down To Earth, January 15, 2005), but what of the by-product -- suspended particulate matter (spm) -- that is produced when co2 increases to 550 times the present level and also absorbs the sun's heat? The quantum of oxygen needed to produce this amount of co2 , plus the oxygen used up by hydrocarbon fuel to produce water vapour, also needs to be looked at. Our lungs absorb oxygen till co2 reaches a concentration of 3-4 per cent, at which point we involuntarily exhale. A high level of co2 in the air supports combustion, but it also produces carbon monoxide that's fatal at even 0.1 per cent concentration. This can happen, for instance, when the engine and air conditioner is kept on, in a closed environment like a garage.

Satish M Vaidya

Parel, Mumbai...

Unstoppable tsunami

Unlike earthquakes, a tsunami is not a "temporary and preventable disaster" ('Science after the tsunami', Down To Earth, January 31, 2005) , though it was a tragedy caused by bad governance.

To prevent future disasters, one could map vulnerable areas in coastal zones, but then entire coasts would become vulnerable. Local people should continue to live in coastal areas, but not violate the Coastal Regulatory Zone.

However, the impact of industry is debatable. More hotels might have led to a higher financial loss than the limited financial impact this time. At the same time, it doesn't serve any rational purpose to link environmental conservation to this discussion. Nor is it correct to suggest that coastal areas become more vulnerable to tsunami with hotels and industry.

Disaster management has more to do with warning systems, education and dwellings. The sensory apparatus the government invests in will be only as good as those that run them, and maintaining the infrastructure is critical here.

Also, information must be disseminated quickly at the local level. Using television, radio and vehicles with hailers could do this. But given the dispersed pattern of coastal inhabitation, many people will still be missed out of the evacuation effort. Education would help to fill the void created by loss of oral histories and schoolchildren who live near the coast can be taught to recognise approaching tsunami.

With regard to dwellings, I feel buildings cannot be designed to withstand tidal waves. Nothing but sheer concrete and heavy masonry can do it. Unlike earthquakes (low cost structures) or coastal storms (airflow-water flow principles), nothing can stop or withstand the impact of a tidal wave.

As stopping material damage during a tsunami is totally unavoidable, it's important to warn people to get out in time. Technology and science never have all the answers, human development and good governance does.

Adit Pal

Safe water, not debates

The debate on arsenic ('Are some humans more equal?' Down To Earth, November 30, 2004) needs to be extended to non-experts and arsenic victims as well. The Arsenic and Medical Group, School Of Environment Studies (soes), Jadavpur University, Kolkata is all for the Bureau of India Standards revising desirable maximum limits of arsenic in drinking water at 0.01mg/1. This is at par with recommendations (made in 1993) by the World Health Organization (who) and adopted in 2004 by the Environmental Protection Agency of the us (epa).

However, maintaining the desirable arsenic level at 0.05mg/1 in countries like India and Bangladesh (Arsenic Drinking Water Regulations in Developing Countries with Extensive Exposure --Allan H Smith and Meera M Hira Smith, Toxicology, 198 (2004) 39-44) seems more appropriate. Apparently, standards for drinking water vary; not only in terms of the number and type of parameters specified but also the set limits of parameters. For instance, for drinking water, the epa specifies more than 90 parameters with set limits to be monitored, but the corresponding Indian document specifies only about 35 parameters. Fluoride, another aqueous menace in India, specifies a desirable minimum limit of 1.5mg/1 and a permissible limit of 2.5mg/1 in the absence of an alternative reliable source of drinking water, while the epa specifies a minimum level between 2 to 4 mg/1.

As soes points out, arsenic standard setting is based on three factors: dietary water intake, nutritional status and arsenic from dietary sources. But another factor could be the level of arsenic in soil, water and air in different localities in India. Disposal is also a problem. The West Bengal government advises the public to bury such adsorbents a few feet underground. But the arsenic would soon leach into the soil and affect aquifers nearby. soes admits problems in lowering the arsenic level to 0.01 mg/1, like the monetary burden, inherent constraints of measuring arsenic at level 0.01mg/1 and the inefficiency of most arsenic-removal plants. It also stresses the need for strategies to supply safe drinking water.

Implementing arsenic standards is not merely a subject of scientific discussions, but critical for public health. Most arsenic victims, predominantly in rural areas, are exposed to arsenic levels in drinking water 10-20 times higher than the 0.05 mg/l level. The state must not only set standards for arsenic but also start getting tough on action.

R Majumdar
Kolkata ...


It is regretted that pac was inadvertently referred to as powdered activated carbon ('Chitosan Scores'. Letters,
Down To Earth, January 31, 2005). it should have been poly aluminium chloride.

National Utopia Plan

National Utopia Plan The experts behind the new draft National Environment Policy (nep) have drafted a comprehensive document. Several concerns of environmentalists have found a place in it, such as involving the community in the care of the ecosystem, environment not being 'free goods', "polluters pay" principle and natural resource accounting. The draft also emphasises the need to set up a legally enforceable regulatory mechanism, which is welcome.

However, some of the points made are not so conducive. For instance, in Substantive Reforms (5.1.3) on Environment and Forests-Clearances, the stress seems to be more on clearances rather than protection. Again, objectives like "institutionalising regional and cumulative environmental impact assessment" and giving " consideration to quality and productivity of the lands proposed to be converted" sound good.

But in the very next breath, the document says: "Projects involving large-scale diversion of prime agricultural land would require environmental clearance, whether or not the proposed activity otherwise requires environmental clearance." This would amount to large-scale projects getting clearance, like thermal power projects getting cleared easily, as in the past. It would be rare to find projects here that would not be in the list of 25 major polluting industries. Similarly, clustering of industries, setting up an environmental management infrastructure, along with monitoring and enforcing environmental compliance, are good on paper but in practice would be like giving a green signal to the proposed Special Economic Zone (sez) in Mysore and in other places where such sezs are proposed. Such industrial clusters attract more and more industries and soon outgrow their facilities, leading to further chaos.

The draft also declares: "Prohibit the diversion of dense natural forests to non-forest use except in site-specific cases of vital national interest. No further regularisation of encroachment on forests should be permitted." Here perhaps a list of cases of vital national interest should be discussed publicly. Acts like establishing a new firing range or a rocket-launching site in the middle of forest areas are not very wise.

With regard to Living Modified Organisms (lmo) and policy formulation, we should not easily yield to big multinationals. Worldwide, there is resistance to genetic modification (gm ) and its products and the experiments in India with bt Cotton were far from satisfactory. Techniques like terminator technology are a threat to life and aimed only at monopolising trade. They should never be allowed.

Finally, there are several excellent documents, such as the National Biodiversity Strategy Action Plan, that could be useful as guides to formulating policies and enactments.

Ashok Kundapur
Udupi, Karnataka ...

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