Always a blind spot

I look at the rhetoric surrounding Elections 2009 and wonder – has any political party promised to improve the state of the environment for you and me? Or thought about our right to fresh air or clean water – commodities that have become a rarity in an urbanising India?

Over the past few weeks I’ve studied the manifestos of all political parties and silently witnessed the city around me change. Ancient trees are being decapitated for wider roads, a park’s been taken over for a multiplex and a storm drain, a barrier against monsoon floods, has been filled with sand to make way for a parking lot. Grab and construct is the new mantra for the ‘development’ of our cities.

We spend three hours on an average on roads, stuck in traffic jams, while one in every five Indians suffers from respiratory disorders. Indian cities are headed towards an urban disaster. Take the depleting quality of the air we breathe or the water we drink (that’s if we get it in our taps); while rivers turn into noxious black threads with methane bubbling on their surfaces and landfill sites expand.

Analysts predict that in the next thirty years, more than half of India will be living in urban areas. But does any leader or political party have a vision to address the impending environmental problems? Caste and religion continue to dominate the rhetoric of Election 2009, but is global India, with a growth rate of 9 per cent, doing anything about the toxic gas chambers that are our cities or the brown sludge flowing from our taps?

You could dismiss my angst for clean air and water as an elitist preoccupation that doesn’t affect a majority of the population. But take a look at the alarming figures collected by the Central Pollution Control Board and the Centre for Science and Environment. Out of the 100 Indian cities monitored, almost half have critical levels of particulate matter. Fifty-two cities hit critical levels, 36 have high levels and a mere 19 are at moderate levels. Only three cities – Dewas, Tirupati and Kozhikode – recorded low pollution levels.

Adding to the gas chambers are toxic gases like nitrogen oxide – a major contributor to acid rain and global warming – that are on the rise even in smaller cities like Jamshedpur, Dhanbad, Nashik and Chandrapur. Indian cities can be cured of the curse of pollution, but various policy measures will have to be initiated. One way out could be the introduction of compressed natural gas in the public transport system, and financial incentives for people to buy more fuel-efficient cars or to switch to public transport.

If we look at the availability of water in Indian cities, the situation is no different. According to a 2007 World Bank study on 27 cities, the average duration of water supply was not more than four hours and in some, like Rajkot, it’s less than 0.3 hours. Not even one Indian city gets continuous water supply, and a majority are in the red in terms of plummeting ground water tables. Besides, in the poorer parts of our nation, people have to buy water and have to spend, on an average, one to two hours per day foraging for it.

And what about the impending threat from climate change? There is now enough scientific evidence to show that climate change will first affect the poor, with disastrous consequences for India’s farmers and fishermen. But has any political party woken up to this threat? The BJP, interestingly, has a separate section on the environment in its manifesto, referring to the need to move towards a low-carbon economy. Does that mean it will scrap the 54-odd thermal power projects that were cleared under the UPA government? Climate change may already be upon us in many ways. But one look at the National Climate Change Action Plan launched by the Prime Minister will tell us that most of the targets under the eight missions are non-measurable, so there’s no way to measure the outgoing government’s performance.

And how ‘green’ are our politicians themselves? While one has drained the wetlands of an endangered bird only to build an airstrip in his native village, another, with strong prime ministerial aspirations, spent more than Rs 80 crore ravaging a green belt on the edge of the Okhla bird sanctuary, while yet another in Madhya Pradesh got the course of a river diverted, to make it flow close to his private resort. Media campaigns ask voters to stop complaining and go out and vote. Yes, I too will go and vote. But I am still waiting for that one political party or candidate who promises me, a citizen of India, my right to clean air and water.

By: Bahar Dutt
(This article appeared in ‘Hindustan Times’ on May 5, 2009)

Bhopal Gas Tragedy: Investment Vs Justice

VictimBHOPAL, THE capital city of Madhya Pradesh, is also known as the centre of the ’biggest industrial disaster’ or the ‘Hiroshima of chemical industry’. On December 3, 1984, a union carbide pesticide producing plant leaked highly toxic cloud of methyl isocyanate into the air of a densely populated region of Bhopal. Of the 800,000 people living in Bhopal at that time, 2,000 died immediately, 300,000 were injured and as many as 8,000 have died since.Due to the accident, many people suffered from various diseases and disorders even till many years later. The worst part is that people living near the premises of the site still continue to suffer. People living around the Union Carbide plant site have two options when it comes to drinking water. Either they are forced to drink the contaminated groundwater, which continues to be affected by toxic wastes dumped in the plant premises, or the municipal water is supplied from the nearby Raslakhedi village, known for a huge sewer. The water from both sources has been officially declared unfit for drinking.

The Bhopal gas tragedy is a catastrophe that has no parallel in industrial history. Yet the people who have suffered are still awaiting justice, even after more than 23 years. On Wednesday, victims of the tragedy protested against the inaction on the part of the government to nail the culprits. The fight that the survivors of the tragedy are leading is now not restricted to them only. In 2001, Dow Chemical bought Union Carbide for $9.3 billion, despite this, Dow has refused to accept moral responsibility and does not take accountability for the Bhopal gas tragedy. Even our Commerce Minister has also commented that ’Dow cannot be held accountable for Union Carbide’s liabilities’.

Union Carbide and its former chairperson, Warren Anderson, both of whom face charges of culpable homicide and grievous assault, are absconding from Indian courts since 1992. By virtue of its acquisition of Union Carbide, Dow Chemical has inherited Carbide’s civil liabilities – of clean-up and compensation for water to the affected people. Also, in acquiring Union Carbide, Dow was well aware that it was inheriting an absconder.

The government went a step ahead and in the year 2006, it approved the collaboration between Reliance and Dow for the transfer of Union Carbide-owned patented technology. But according to the activists, this is illegal as Union Carbide’s assets in India are subject to confiscation as per the 1992 order of the Bhopal magistrate.

Instead of showing some sympathy and the will to fight for the victims, the government is worried about loosing the investment in the country. They feel any overtures to hold Dow liable for Bhopal-related issues will scare away Dow’s promised $1 billion investment in India and also discourage other American investors. Dow even admitted paying $22,000 (Rs 88 lakhs) as bribe to agriculture ministry officials to expedite registration of the three pesticides namely Dursban, Nurelle and Pride.

The company had to pay a fine of $ 325,000 (Rs 1.43 crores) to the Securities Exchange Commission for violating the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act last year. Dow tried to wash its hands off the controversy but there was substantial evidence against them. Dursban pesticide is banned in the US, as it is a neuro-toxin that can cause permanent damage to children’s brains but we are registering such pesticides so that we don’t loose investment. After all, who cares about the people when we have the population of over 1.1 billion.

In May 2007, Sharad Pawar said that the enquiry in this matter was going on by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). The probe is concluded. But the report is gathering dust. Meanwhile, the pesticides and the culprits are roaming free and poisoning the children. Dow Chemicals should not be allowed to expand its operation in India until justice is meted out to the victims. Indian state’s unwillingness to discourage foreign private investment has been a crucial factor in the continuing injustice in Bhopal!

If you want to extend support to the cause please visit:

http://www.studentsforbhopal.org/

India today. Its been 60 years. Right??

Pride in being an Indian, nostalgia for what it must have been like in those heady days ahead of August 15th 1947. Looking at sepia-tinted images of Rajpath on the day India achieved freedom, one can imagine the frenzied crowds, the sense of utter joy at being a free nation. We take freedom for granted today. We couldn’t have been quite so bindaas 60 years ago. That perhaps is our greatest achievement, creating a sense of uninhibited freedom among millions (spit where you want, vote for whom you wish!).

Few gave this country a chance of survival 60 years ago. The prevailing wisdom was that India would crack apart into dozens of princely states, that the centre would simply not hold. By contrast, it was expected that Pakistan would be a more homogenous nation,united by religion. As it has turned out, Pakistan has become a nation undermined from within by religious fanaticism and an emasculated middle class. Sure, India too has its crisis points in the form of an imperfect democracy battling poverty, farmer suicides and unemployment, but despite the imperfections, it has been astonishingly resilient.

In the remarkable book, India after Gandhi, historian Ramachandra Guha had once tried to unravel the enigma of India.

“Why does India survive?”, he asked in his final chapter.

His answer, a sense of a shared symbols – cricket, cinema, music – a respect for diversity, and above all, a remarkable constitution that guarantees fundamental rights and enshrines the principle of one man one vote. I think this country owes a huge debt to the framers of the constitution. I cannot think of a more progressive document anywhere in the world, one that respected individual rights above all . We must be blessed that in the 1940s a collection of rare public figures came together to frame the constitution. It might be difficult to imagine this in our polarised times, but in the 1940s, Indians had the sagacity to realise that people of differing ideological persuasions needed to be brought together so that every possible talent could be harnessed. Maybe, we need to read our history books once again to understand the true meaning of freedom, of being an independent nation. Today’s young and restless I fear often have little knowledge or interest in history.

  • How many young Andhraites know of the sacrifice of Potti Sriramalu, the man whose fast unto death led to the formation of the modern Andhra Pradesh, and laid the basis for liguistic states?
  • How many young Maharashtrians know of the Samyukta Maharashtra Movement and the sacrifice of those who fought for their state?
  • Is any young Punjabi interested in reading the biography of Tara Singh?
  • The Forward Bloc may keep the flame of Netaji alive, but do young Bengalis bother to read his life story?

Sadly, we are becoming a country ignorant of our history. We seem more comfortable with the quick fix cinematic idea of Gandhi in Munnabhai, than doing anything to really try and understand the man behind the Mahatma. In the 60th year of Independence, we need to make a pledge: a pledge to try and appreciate our history a little more.Remember that old chestnut:

“Those who forget their history are condemned to repeat it.”

Rachit Chandra

A Truth little inconvenient…

I was though never insensitive to the critical and burning issue of environmental hazards, but the subject didn’t merit enough attention to put an extra effort in creative awareness. I used to really get agitated when I would see long processions of school children jamming the road. The scene was never a soothing one to my eyes when I would see students shouting slogans against those pollute the environment. The activity would further congest roads, ( be it of any city ) leading to unnecessary delays.

Forests
My views on subject drastically changed when recently I had a chance to watch an amazing environmental film, ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ that showed how man mercilessly cuts the tree that provides him shade in the scorching heat.
The film daringly showed how the industrial cities of the world have contributed in badly polluting the environment, depleting ozone layer and increasing toxicants in the air. It showed how the limited resource of fresh water has become unfit for consumption. It showed how the global warming has gradually affected glaciers and ice caps, raising the level of ocean waters and posing a great threat to the coastal cities. The scenes in the film predicted that within four to five decades the Earth would no longer be able to sustain life and that the end was far nearer than it seemed. The stark reality really jolted me out of the deep slumber I was in.
The knowledge of this grave truth calmed me down to a great extent that I actually began to admire those school children who walked miles to create awareness about our deteriorating environment. Today I don’t mind if I have to wait for a procession to pass, and I feel sorry for those who lose patience because they do not understand the gravity of the situation. The ignorance about the subject is too much and we have very little time left to reverse the process of self-annihilation. These school children are doing a great service to humanity and we must support them. After all, it is our own existence which is at stake…

Save Our Ragpickers!

Have you ever noticed the rag pickers who daily forage into the garbage bin near your house? They are the people responsible for cleaning most of the stuff we throw in our garbage!

Chances are you have never noticed these rag pickers, but these poorest of the poor rag pickers are the ones who not only clean our dirt but do more. Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle are 3 Rs for energy conservation and environment. And the 3rd R, Recycle, is taken care of by these ragpickers!

Save Them

In US and UK there are active recycling centers, where consumers come and dump their waste or a consumer’s waste is collected by recycling center. Electronic waste like LCDs and even tetrapacks are being recycled in other countries!

But India has no awareness like that. Here, recycling is taken care of by people, whom we more than often, relegate to lowest hierarchy of humanity: ragpickers and kabaris! Most ragpickers are young, little above the age to be called kids. Thousands of ragpickers as they sift through garbage unprotected, absorb toxins from the garbage. They are hunched for hours, which gives them several back and cervical problems at early age. They get numerous cuts and bites from rodents and the glass, needles and other things we carelessly throw in our garbage.

The other people involved in this recycling process other than ragpickers are: small middlemen, transporters, larger middlemen and reprocessors. Together they form recycling chain in India.

Ragpickers sell the waste to middleman called kabari. It is not easy for the rag pickers to be paid for their waste from kabaris, the kabaris want the waste completely sorted into different categories of plastics, paper, glass, metals. The rag pickers waste bag must be dry and clean so that kabaris accept it.

Delhi generates over 7000 MT waste daily. Studies estimate that these informal labour forces saves the three Municipalities a minimum of Rs. 6 lakhs daily. The meager payment rag pickers receive from kabaris is several times held back for various reasons, leaving these rag pickers hand-to-mouth. Bullies also snatch their hard-earned money. To save themselves from starvation, rag pickers end up into vicious cycle of debt. Often their earnings are held back by middlemen to cover previous loan. They are yet forced to starve! It is a scary profession.

It is sad that rag pickers who clean up our dirt and contribute to environment are harassed by both police and municipal workers. They need to bribe municipal workers to forage into garbage bin. Police, instead of protecting them, often beats them and forces them to sweep police stations and municipal offices.

What We Can Do

In US and UK, despite recycling centers that segregate waste, citizens are aware about segregation of waste at homes and work places. Whereas in India, if we were more aware about segregation of waste, these ragpickers would have less cuts, burns, backaches, allergies, dog-bites, respiratory disorders. We could be careful about throwing injurious stuff in our garbage bin.

These ragpickers are not beggars. They do the hard work. When will we recognize their effort and provide them at least basic amenities? Write in your comments if you have any ideas to work for the cause.

I also write at Visceral Observations.

DOWn and out : Kick them

Bhopal, the “Hiroshima of the chemical industry,” is the world’s worst-ever industrial disaster. “During the trial, Carbide’s lawyers had argued, shockingly, that an American life was worth more than an Indian life”.

The Union Carbide India, Limited (UCIL) plant was established in 1969 and had expanded to produce carbaryl in 1979; MIC is an intermediate in carbaryl manufacture.

The chemical accident was caused by the introduction of water into methyl isocyanate holding tank E610, due to slip-blind water isolation plates being excluded from an adjacent tank’s maintenance procedure. The resulting reaction generated a major increase in the temperature of liquid inside the tank (to over 200°C). The MIC holding tank then gave off a large volume of toxic gas, forcing the emergency release of pressure.

Body of a victimOn December 3rd, 1984, thousands of people in Bhopal, India, were gassed to death after a catastrophic chemical leak at a Union Carbide pesticide plant. More than 150,000 people were left severely disabled – of whom 22,000 have since died of their injuries – in a disaster now widely acknowledged as the world’s worst-ever industrial disaster.

More than 27 tons of methyl isocyanate and other deadly gases turned Bhopal into a gas chamber. None of the six safety systems at the plant were functional, and Union Carbide’s own documents prove the company designed the plant with “unproven” and “untested” technology, and cut corners on safety and maintenance in order to save money.

Today, twenty three years after the Bhopal disaster, at least 50,000 people are too sick to work for a living, and a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association confirmed that the children of gas-affected parents are themselves afflicted by Carbide’s poison.

Carbide is still killing in Bhopal. The chemicals that Carbide abandoned in and around their Bhopal factory have contaminated the drinking water of 20,000 people. Testing published in a 2002 report revealed poisons such as 1,3,5 trichlorobenzene, dichloromethane, chloroform, lead and mercury in the breast milk of nursing women living near the factory.

Although Dow Chemical acquired Carbide’s liabilities when it purchased the company in 2001, it still refuses to address its liabilities in Bhopal – or even admit that they exist. Till date, Dow-Carbide has refused to:

1) Clean up the site, which continues to contaminate those near it, or to provide just compensation for those who have been injured or made ill by this poison;
2) Fund medical care, health monitoring and necessary research studies, or even to provide all the information it has on the leaked gases and their medical consequences;
3) Provide alternate livelihood opportunities to victims who can not pursue their usual trade because of their exposure-induced illnesses;
4) Stand trial before the Chief Judicial Magistrate’s court in Bhopal, where Union Carbide faces criminal charges of culpable homicide (manslaughter), and has fled these charges for the past 20 years.

Now according to the latest reports the government is preparing to remove the hurdles to the entry of Dow Chemical, which has bought Union Carbide into India in a big way. The Chemical & Fertilisers Ministry has filed an affidavit in the tragedy case, seeking Rs 100 crore as initial compensation for Union Carbide India’s liability for cleaning up the contamination at the factory site. But, the Industries Department wants an out-of-court settlement and a withdrawal of this affidavit.
There is a consensus in the highest echelons of the Congress that it is India’s best interests for the US chemical multinational to invest in the country by getting rid of the obstacle that is Bhopal.
“It is not as if Dow Chemical has an impeccable record when it comes to manufacturing lethal chemicals. It was the sole supplier of the highly inflammable chemical, napalm, which the US used in Vietnam. For some years, despite widespread protests in the US and elsewhere against the use of this deadly weapon, Dow continued production of this profitable product, arguing that the US Department of Defence had to take responsibility for its deployment. As controversially, it (and Monsanto) produced Agent Orange — the toxic defoliant which was dropped widely over Vietnam to flush out the Viet Cong. It derived its name from the orange-striped barrels in which it was shipped out and is a cocktail of different herbicides. When it degrades, it produces dioxin, one of the most toxic substances ever known. In 1976, a chemical plant in Seveso, Italy, suffered a leak and a few kilograms of dioxin were released. The town has gone down in environmental history as one of the worst cases of accidents, along with the Sandoz chemical plant warehouse fire in Basel, Switzerland, the Three Mile nuclear incident in the US and Chernobyl in the Soviet Union”.(Hindustan Times dated 29/10/07)

It will be a tragedy if, in the attempt to be pragmatic in seeking a massive US investment, the government caves in and lets Dow off the hook.

For More details on tragedy and latest happenings visit: http://www.studentsforbhopal.org/

Ban That Bulb!

Everyone I talk to seems to know that we should not use incandescent bulbs. Rather, we should use CFL bulbs that save money and help in energy conservation. Yet we have not been able to either ban or phase out incandescent bulbs. Forget rural areas, you will be appalled at the bulb and electricity statistics in the Capital city, New Delhi.

As per statistics, the peak energy demand of Delhi is 3600 mega watt but its supply is falling short by 750MW. This leads to long lasting power cuts. In the 2007 budget, the state government decided to hike its power budget almost five fold to Rs 1285 crores to fight the energy crisis to invest in building of thermal power plants. Thermal power plants will only increase Delhi’s CO2 emissions fostering climate change, resulting in even hotter summers in the capital.

An estimated 12.5 crores of ordinary light bulbs are still wasting electricity in the state! Surya, Philips and Bajaj, the three largest bulb manufacturers in India are still churning out those criminal bulbs. Changing these 12.5 crore light bulbs to efficient fluorescent lamps could reduce energy consumption by roughly 450 MW, reducing the present power shortage by 60%. Message is clear, some of us know it yet do not fail to use those “zero power” night bulbs and more.

Sign this ban the bulb petition here. I just did. Can you believe it in a country where we have Internet reach of 99 million, not even one million have signed for the campaign?

Here is another creative video from my favorite Common Craft on why you should use CFLs.

[youtube 26DLW3ktGvI]

Why not use CFL bulb??

Source: Greenpeace launches a signature drive against the inefficient bulbs in India

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I also write on Visceral Observations