Little understood pillars of our lives


Published: Friday 15 January 2010

Trees, plants, and their surveyors

Sightseeing packages in Kolkata sometimes involve a visit to a large garden on the city’s outskirts. Usually a hurried walk, it scarcely affords a glimpse of the 109 hectares that was called the Botanical Gardens till about a year ago, when it was renamed the Acharya Jagadis Chandra Bose Botanical Gardens. Ironic, because the Bengali polymath rarely studied the 12,000-odd trees at the garden, preferring the laboratories of Presidency College. Nothing changed at the gardens but the name.

Now, the Union environment ministry wants to change the ways of the garden’s parent body, the Botanical Survey of India.

The change is dictated by the times. The garden is vintage East India Company stuff: set up in 1787 to identify plants of commercial value, such as teak, and growing spices for trade. In the late 19th century, it became integral to the Botanical Survey of India’s mission to list India’s natural wealth. Among the greatest triumphs of the Calcutta gardens was the introduction of the tea plant from China. Tea took root in the Himalaya and Assam under the supervisors of the Calcutta gardens.

Independent India retained the colonial love for surveys. But gathering data on plants and animals was a low priority for a state devoted to taking India on the road of high science—atomic energy, for example. The government did not quite give up on bsi (and its sister institution, the Zoological Survey). But it never gave the institution any direction. Individual researchers went on collecting data; many with the alacrity of colonial forbears like William Roxborough and John Royle. Their labours rarely contributed to any scientific breakthrough. The gardens became insipid tourist attractions.

With climate change dragging the biophysical world to global negotiating tables, institutions dealing with biological wealth are back in focus. bsi and zsi cannot remain devoted to repository building. The interdisciplinary nature of today’s research means data on plants and animals must be linked with that of the those nebulous things called fungi.

Today’s cutting-edge methods are fund-driven and funders are known to demand accountability. Not always undesirable, but accountability today often means a tacky way to set research on narrow agendas. J C Bose would most likely have been uncomfortable studying the 12,000-odd trees with a narrow, application-driven agenda. The person who now gives bsi ’s gardens its name never had funders beating down his neck.

Mobile towers of an eerie silence

Until the 1980s, a telephone was a luxury in India. Today, the country has one of the fastest growing telcommunications sectors in the world. Fishermen in Kerala routinely use mobile phones to ascertain the price of their catch before heading back to the shore. Stockbrokers use the device to exchange information about price movements. An auto-rickshaw driver does not have to get back home late at night to know his daughter’s higher secondary exam results.

Mobility is empowering. Telecom mobility is no different.

Not always, though. Mobile phones talk via electromagnetic radiation or radio waves. The base stations, popularly called ‘mobile towers’, interact with cell phones using these radio waves. Before mobile phones became popular, these radio frequencies were considered safe; it was perceived that radio waves could pass through atoms without altering their form. But recent animal tests show that radio waves can heat up body tissues and mutate cells. We know now that birds and bees can get disoriented near mobile towers. There is a growing fear that these radio waves can cause cancer among people.

Science is unsure of a cause-and-effect relationship. Telecom companies cite this uncertainty to thwart regulations based on the precautionary principle. Their shareholders demand profits, which follows the principles of demand and supply. So we have mobile towers atop crowded residential buildings.

It is in this light we must see a recent citizen’s initiative in Mumbai to spread awareness on the pitfalls of radiowaves from mobile towers. Industry is used to bull-dozing villagers when it comes to matters like land acquisition. Can the urban middle class force industry to truly experiment with corporate social responsibility?

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