It was another ordeal for endosulfan victims

endosulfan stir

Endosulfan victims and their mothers on hunger strike before the Secretariat

The hunger strike by endosulfan victims and mothers before Kerala Secretariat ended last week after the Government conceded most of their demands.

However, the demands conceded were the ones that the government had conceded as back as in January 2014 following their dharna before the Chief Minister’s residence. Implementation was lagging and the victims had to launch another stir to get yet another assurance that they would be implemented.

The only concrete gain from the agitation was a specific decision to include about 600 more persons from Kasaragod district under the government’s list for providing compensation. Whether other promises would be kept within the term of the present government is to be seen.

In fact, the approach of successive government to the endosulfan problem had been far from satisfactory. It is more than five years since the National Human Rights Commission recommended compensation and other measures. Still the compensation has not reached all.

Though it was a problem that should have been addressed on a war footing, governments often chose to ignore the problem. It was convenient for them to do so, because the State-owned Plantation Corporation of Kerala was responsible for aerial spraying of endosulfan. None of the officials who were responsible for using such dangerous methods of application of pesticides in a populated area, and that too in excess quantities and over water bodies, were never held accountable.

As to rehabilitative and remediative measures, the government could not even do what the voluntary agencies could. It is notable that even the BUDS schools set up by the government did not have facilities for use by physically challenged persons. Even western closets were absent.

As the water bodies were contaminated, the government took no steps to supply pure drinking water to the affected area for two decades after the problem became known. When Rajiv Gandhi drinking water mission was implemented in kasaragod district, the villages chosen for the project were not the endosulfan affected. Decontamination was never attempted. In fact, the remaining stocks of endosulfan with the Corporation are yet to be removed safety from the area.

This blog has said that the settlement two years ago was aimed at fooling the victims. This time also, the situation is only marginally better.

Mullaperiyar- fresh litigation will be ill-advised at this stage

Kerala Government plans to approach the Supreme Court yet again on the Mullaperiyar issue— this time over the alleged failures of the supervisory committee appointed by the Court to properly manage release of water from Dam through the spillways.

This is just an attempt by the politicians to buy time and hoodwink the public. The supervisory committee has representatives of Kerala and Tamil Nadu and Central Water Commission. The question of failure to issue timely warning before release of water through the spillways is a matter that the State government should be able to settle administratively, if necessary seeking intervention of the Centre. It will not be appropriate to agitate the Supreme Court now.

Moreover, it is not Kerala’s case that the Tamil Nadu did not warn it of impending release of water. There were reports that Theni Collector did so a few days ago. The complaint is that the Idukki Collector was not informed six hours before the release. Tamil Nadu apparently wanted to record that the water level touched 142 feet. When water level reached 141.9, it became imperative for Tamil Nadu to release water immediately as the inflow was very heavy. There needs to be an understanding on gradual release of water without waiting for the water level to touch 142 feet.

Kerala should also insist upon its lower riparian rights. The Expert Committee appointed by the Supreme Court had mooted construction of a tunnel to drain water into Periyar River downstream. This is also important from the point of view of safety. All modern dams have Bottom outlet tunnel which will facilitate emptying of the dam in case of an emergency—the Mullaperiyar dam does not have one, being one designed in the 19th century.

Every time Kerala has gone to Court over the Mullaperiyar issue, it has led to closure of its options. It has already lost its case that Tamil Nadu should raise the water level of Mullaperiyar beyond 136 feet only after exhausting storage at Vaigai Dam and that the spillway shutters should be opened gradually. In fact, when Kerala is arguing that the dam is not safe, it should be prepared for sudden release of water. This was what was lacking downstream of Mullaperiyar this Monday.

Kerala has failed to set up monitoring facilities it proposed on earlier occasions downstream of the Dam. Around 50 monitoring installations on the dam and reservoir, under control of Tamil Nadu, are reportedly not functioning. This is an issue that Kerala should be taking up legally or administratively. Even a modern dam without functioning monitoring equipment is unsafe.

Kerala had rushed to nullify a Supreme Court order of 2006 though legislation within weeks of the Court issuing the order. The legislature in its wisdom fixed the water level at 136 feet without building up supporting material. The Kerala Dam Safety Authority, which is a quasi judicial body, on the other had could have commissioned international studies on Mullaperiyar under the law and fixed the water level appropriately which would have been difficult to question before the Supreme Court.

When the Court quashed the law, Kerala suffered a multiple blow. Its arguments had led to the Supreme Court appointing a supervisory committee. As the supervisory committee of the Supreme Court is now managing the water level, it could put blame on Tamil Nadu only if it disregarded directives of the committee. Kerala will not even be able claim damages from Tamil Nadu for any losses caused by release of water or dam failure.

Kerala had ample time to prepare internationally acceptable documents on safety of Mullaperyar Dam from 2006 and even before. But it always rushed to do studies at the last minute. When safety of the people was paramount, one of the first studies it commissioned over a short span of time after 2006 was on submergence of forests and wildlife. (An analysis of errors in that study is available here. The author had to admit before Court that he had done a copycat job of work done by a State agency.)

Though there was an erroneous observation in the 2006 judgment (See Mullaperiyar- behind the veil.) that waters from Mullaperiyar would be contained in Idukki reservoir in case of failure of the former, Kerala failed to complete and produce the Dam Break Analysis before the Supreme Court in the case filed by Tamil Nadu challenging Kerala’s dam safety law.


 

Extract from judgment
Extract from the judgment of Supreme Court in ORIGINAL SUIT NO. 3 OF 2006 between Tamil Nadu and Kerala

Though the State Information Commission has ruled that this and other studies are public documents, the Principal Secretary of Water Resources Department has issued an illegal order against release of documents pertaining to the Mullaperiyar Dam as long as the issue is under litigation. Perhaps this is one reason why it wants another litigation.

As its strategies have failed so far, it is high time that it reconstituted the Mullaperiyar Special Cell with fresh talent and drew up fresh strategies.

For further reading:

Mullaperiyar: Kerala seeks review of Probable Maximum Flood

 

 

 

 

The ecology of cow slaughter ban

cowCow slaughter ban is something that was introduced in India thousands of years ago with good intentions though it has lost its rationale today (except for extreme Hindutva forces).

The ban has its roots in pastoral, and later, agrarian societies that grew along the Gangetic plains. Though the region was fertile, floods and droughts were frequent. When a drought strikes and grains become scarce, the natural tendency is to kill animals for food. Besides, water requirements of animals are high. So, it is extremely difficult to maintain domestic animals during a drought.

However, if massive killings of cattle took place, it would destroy even hopes of revival of the economy after drought. When tractors and other machinery were not there, draught animals were critical for revival of agriculture. While killing of cattle en masse could not be stopped, it was important to save at least the cows. If cows are there, even a single surviving bull can sire many calves. (Even now, a practice is there in North India of offering a bull to the community with connotations of bringing prosperity for the donor).

Some wise men apparently thought that the best way to effect conservation of cattle was to formulate it in the form of a religious edict. Obviously, this edict has lost its relevance today because we have better methods of farm management including artificial insemination and modes to transport grains across large distances in case of a regional drought. (Note that hauling loads of grain too required draught animals in olden days.)

Now, cow is no more central to the economy. However, certain other religious beliefs like those surrounding sacred groves in Kerala, for example, retain their relevance even today. Cattle also have role to play in organic farming even today, though that does not negate their slaughter.

It is also worth examining whether vegetarianism has any advantage over consumption of non-vegetarian food. Evolutionary history shows that Homo sapiens were never strict vegetarians. They started as hunter gathers and are omnivorous. Besides, a 100 per cent vegetarian dish can deprive you of some essential nutrients. Milk products and egg can make up for that to some extent. (So, here also cow becomes important). However, it is to be noted that in some regions of the world, you have to be heavily dependent on meat because of scarcity of vegetables and grain. In the arctic region, no vegetable is available locally. And people like the Eskimos, Inuits and the Cree traditionally survived entirely on meat. (They too have beliefs that ensure survival of animal species. The Crees have a method of determining whether the animal is “willing” or ready to be killed. If not, they will spare it.)

However, vegetarianism reduces your carbon footprint. More resources are needed to produce meat compared to vegetables. This is why even U. S. President Barack Obama is concerned about increasing meat consumption in Asia. He wants Asians to eschew meat consumption to keep American dream alive. So, RSS and the US have common interest though for differing reasons.

As human cultures and technology progress, it is expected that cruelty against animals will come down irrespective of whether it is a cow or bull or a goat. However, one should not be creating communal divides over the issue and commit bigger cruelty against fellow human beings.

‘Health sector like others should reduce its climate footprint’

skyAs concerns about climate change are rising, Director of World Health Organisation (Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health) Dr Maria Neira has made a call that the health sector too should lower its climate footprint.

Hospitals, as they operate today, are energy-intensive enterprises that contribute substantially to climate change. To reduce their environmental impact, they can adopt basic measures such as reducing toxic waste, using safer chemicals and purchasing eco-friendly products, she says.

She cites the example of a hospital in Jaipur, a 350-bed health facility that cut its total energy bill by half between 2005 and 2008 through solar-powered water heaters and lightning. In Brazil, one efficiency project reduced the demand for electricity of a group of 101 hospitals by 1035 kilowatts at a cost savings of 25 per cent.

But for the Jaipur hospital, the situation in India is no different from rest of the world. Hospitals consume a lot of electricity. In addition, they waste a lot of energy by subjecting patients to unnecessary procedures, just to make money. There is no attempt to reduce waste though facilities have come up for disposal of biomedical waste.

WHO estimates that climate change will cause an additional 250000 deaths a year between 2030 and 2050— mostly from malaria, diarrhoea, heat exposure and under-nutrition. That is, if human beings do not take steps to reduce their carbon foot print, the living earth will. However, the irony will be that the victims will be the poorer sections of the society; not the people who pollute the most.

The United States is doing little to reduce its emissions, while India and other nations have offered to reduce emissions intensity significantly. A study by Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi, the per capita household consumption expenditure of US is double that of an EU-28 household, 24 times a Chinese one, 44 times an Indian’s, 64 times a household in Bangladesh and 173 times a Malawi household.

Energy system in the US would remain fossil fuel heavy with 76 per cent of total primary energy coming from fossil fuels in 2030. Renewables contribution would just be 15 per cent by 2030. While India goes ahead with his ambitious plan to reduce climate footprint, it should also press that the United Nations and others make an equal, if not better, contribution. Those who created the problems should also be pressed to foot the bill.

Rahul Gandhi’s ‘war over sea’, a misplaced adventure?

Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi is reportedly planning an outreach programme in Chavakkad in Thrissur district next week to take up the cause of traditional fishermen. The most pressing issue there is described as the woes of fishermen resulting from the Central Government’s decision to impose ban on fishing for 61 days. He is ill-advised to take up this issue as a shorter ban on fishing is not actually in the interests of traditional fishermen.

It may be recalled that the traditional fishermen had launched a series of agitations for three-month ban on bottom trawling during monsoon led by persons like Fr. Thomas Kocheri and Sr. Philomin Mary in the eighties. The mechanised boat owners were strongly opposed to the ban though it was aimed at conservation of fish resources.

Fishermen's agitation

Fishermen blocking the highway at Alappuzha in 1985 demanding, among other things, ban on trawling.      Photo: Roy Mathew

Congress leader K. Karunakaran was not in favour of the ban and had used police to suppress the agitation when he was the Chief Minister. However, even Congress supporters in the Dheevara Sabha were forced to take a stand in favour of the ban. The agitation led to appointment of various committees to study the issue. Finally, the government decided to have a shorter ban of about 45 days though this was not a scientifically sound decision. Expert committees had called for a longer ban during monsoon to cover the entire breeding season of fishes.

What has changed between now and then is that more of the traditional fishermen have become owners or workers of mechanized fishing boats. The same forces which opposed the ban for quick returns and lobbied with Karunakaran are now behind Mr. Rahul Gandhi’s move. The only difference is that more ‘traditional fishermen’ are now with them. However, this assessment would depend on whether someone is ‘traditional’ by birth or by use of the fishing gears.

Scientifically, the only thing that has changed is confirmation of the fact that all (economically valuable) fishes do not breed during monsoon. Experts in the eighties have either discounted this fact or did not have adequate data to come to a conclusion. This may necessitate deeper look into the recommendation and possibly modification of the ban on a regional basis. More important may be the need to declare marine reserves like wildlife sanctuaries.

A shorter ban will not fully serve the purpose and a two month ban is reasonable considering all the factors. However, stricter enforcement of ban on net types and mesh sizes will be more crucial to conservation of marine resources. Fishlings ought to be allowed to grow to certain sizes before they are harvested.

Related Report:

After land, Rahul to wage war over sea

India opposes ban on pollutants

Stockholm Convention

TO VOTE OR NOT TO VOTE: Delegates to MoP of Stockholm Convention vote on whether to take a vote on listing, by raising flags, in Geneva on Saturday. Photo: Secretariat of BRS Conventions

India has been blocking moves at the Conference of Parties of the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants to list more chemicals for elimination from worldwide use. This precipitated a division for the first time in the history of the Conference— which used to take decisions by consensus, at Geneva on May 16, 2015.

The vote was for listing of pentachlorophenol, an organochlorine compound used as pesticide and disinfectant, for elimination (which will lead to ban on their production and use by member countries). Residues of the pesticide have been detected in the environment in wildlife and human biomonitoring studies.

Switzerland pressed for a vote on listing of pentachlorophenol after efforts to reach a consensus failed. The Conference first took a vote on whether matter should be decided through division. Then it voted 94 against two in favour of listing with eight abstaining. The decision is not binding on India.

The Conference this time was part of combined meetings of Basel, Rotterdam and Stockholm conventions. India opposed listing of trichlorfon at the Conference of Parties of the Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for Certain Hazardous Chemicals and Pesticides in International Trade also, leading to deferment of decision for want of consensus. India was the only country to oppose the proposal.

It was after much remonstrance that India agreed to the resolution on elimination of endosulfan in 2011 with riders (specific exemptions that included use on multiple crop-pest complexes). Though the Convention came up with alternatives to endosulfan as decided at its 2011 Conference, India is yet take steps for ratification of the decision through approval of Parliament. This was despite findings of serious harm caused by the pesticide in Kerala and Karnataka, and possibly in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu also.

Observers had alleged that representatives of the pesticide lobby were present in the Indian delegation at the 2011 Conference of Parties to prevent the listing of endosulfan. It is not yet known whether similar situation arose this year also with new government in power. However, it is very clear that India’s opinion at the International fora is dictated by the interests of pesticide companies rather than its population or the world at large.

Regulation is lacking or unenforceable (for want of proper enforcement machinery, laboratories and political will) in India though a substantial portion of the food consumed in the country is contaminated to various levels. Pesticides are often applied unnecessarily and in excess of recommendations in agriculture fields as well as godowns in most States. A national level analysis by government of more than 16000 samples of vegetables, fruits, spices, grains and other food items showed that more than 500 samples had pesticide residues above the limits prescribed by Food Safety Standard Authority of India.

Kerala’s vulnerability to earthquakes: action lacking

Kerala is yet to take steps for reduction of vulnerability from earth quakes though the issue had come to the fore several times during the past two decades.

As many as 45 earthquakes had been recorded in Kerala during the 20th century. On the basis of assessment of about 65 earthquakes recorded in the 19th and 20th centuries, the Centre for Earth Science Studies here had stated that there was possibility of earthquakes of the magnitude of up to 6 on the Richter scale occurring in the State. (Sensitive instruments have recorded around 200 mild tremours in Kerala from 2001 besides a few of magnitude of less than 4.)

Earthquake chart

Historic earth quakes: from 19th century to 2001

The most vulnerable areas were in Kochi and Alappuzha where buildings sit on 400-metre-deep alluvial soil. These soil formations could get fluidised in the event of even moderate earthquakes leaving to devastation as hardly any of the buildings there are designed to withstand earthquakes.

The Kerala Assembly Committee on Environment had called for enforcement of national building code as back as in 2001. It had suggested that the strength of buildings in earthquake prone areas should be tested using the services of experts and measures taken to strengthen weak buildings. The quality of materials used for construction of multi-storeyed buildings should be ensured. Use of wood and bamboo should be encouraged in the construction of houses for the poor.

Though BIS standards exist, they are not being followed for building construction. Houses for even tribals were being built with concrete though many tribal communities liked to live in thatched homes. Though a five-year, UNDP-funded earthquake vulnerability reduction project was taken up in Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi and Kozhikode from 2003-04, nothing much was of heard of its results. The disaster management policy, drawn up in 2010, also remains largely on paper.

Now, it is hoped that the expert committee which is considering changes of to Kerala Municipal Rules would look into matters connected to seismic safety. It is high time that Kerala moved to quake-resistant constructions and retrofitting of buildings for safety, especially in risk prone areas of Kochi and Alappuzha.

Moving NGT on Mullaperiyar can boomerang on Kerala

Kerala’s move to approach the National Green Tribunal against raising of the water level in Mullaperiyar dam is likely to boomerang on Kerala.

Environmental arguments similar to those against raising of reservoir level can be raised against lowering the reservoir level also.

In fact, changes to the ecosystem created by the dam and its water will be more pronounced while lowering the water level.

Kerala’s argument is that the raising of water level in the reservoir submerged nearly four decades old vegetation just above 136 feet level in Periyar Tiger Reserve. Lush vegetation including some specialised species have grown in the local environment created by lowering of the water level.

Now, let us look at what will happen if water level is reduced to 132 feet as demanded by Kerala at one point of time, or eventual phased decommissioning of dam. Lowering of the water level will result in the water table going down in many parts of Periyar Tiger Reserve. This would cause a relative drought conditions in many parts of the Sanctuary compared to the present situation and will loss of biodiversity and density of vegetation. The specialised species will not survive in its original location.

Legal position:
Environmental impact argument is something rejected by the Supreme Court in its 2006 verdict itself. However, Kerala tried to raise it again when Tamil Nadu challenged Kerala’s dam safety legislation before Supreme Court. For doing this, it commissioned a scientist from West Bengal, who produced a study report within a matter of weeks. The report had several errors and it was essentially a reproduction of arguments made by KFRI over which Kerala had argued its case earlier. Though these mistakes had been pointed out, Kerala went ahead with producing the author as a witness before the Court. During cross-examination, he admitted he had copied from the KFRI report. This meant that Kerala had no new argument or point to be presented before the Court. Now, Kerala is trying to revive its lost cause by approaching NGT.  It is not even considering the fact that Supreme Court is above NGT.

In any case it will be a win-win situation for TN. If the NGT rejects Kerala’s prayer, TN will have another handle. If it upholds Kerala’s argument, TN can use it in future against lowering of the water level or decommissioning of the dam.

Kerala’s argument goes against what the State itself is proposing to do. The new dam it is proposing to build at Mullaperiyar will submerge some areas of Periyar Tiger Reserve. It is also seeking Central clearance for raising the height of Peppera dam near Thiruvananthapuram by at least three metres submerging about 80 acres of forest. Though the area submerged by increased water level in Mullaperiyar dam is larger than these, the forests that would be submerged by the new Mullaperiyar dam or augmentation of Peppara dam are part of ecosystems that are hundreds of years old. Obviously, much more value is to be attached to the latter.

Moreover, Kerala has done the same thing that TN is doing. Water level at Idukki reservoir had remained low for about three decades. Kerala carried out augmentation scheme under Idukki project to improve inflow. None batted an eyelid, when vegetation that grew over the period was submerged by increasing water level. Besides, the area being submerged at Mullaperiyar was leased to TN much before the enactment of environmental laws.

If we really care for environment (instead just using environmental arguments with the wrong belief that it will win a case in which the key issue is safety), we should demand environmental flows downstream of Mullaperiyar dam, abandon the proposal for new dam and seek phased decommissioning of the old dam.

Silver Jubilee of Save Kurinji Campaign

kurinji 2014 bloom-in-meadow

Kurinji in bloom on hill slopes near Munnar in 2014

Tholkapiar sang centuries ago about neelakurinji plants that blossoms like a carpet over the mountain peaks once in 12 years. Today, that plant is part of a threatened ecosystem—the shola grasslands.

In September 1989, a group of nearly 40 men and women set out from Kodaikanal on foot to have a look at the plant and campaign against its destruction. They included members of the Palani Hills Conservation Council, Kodaikanal; Asambu Greens, Trivandrum; and a host of nature lovers and activists. The march led to the formation of the Save Kurinji Campaign Council soon after. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the march. The participants of the march will be gathering again in Kodaikanal on October 2 to commemorate the jubilee. There will also be a meeting in Munnar on October 4.

About Neelakurinji

Neelakurinji (Strobilanthes kunthiana) is a shrub that used to grow abundantly in the shola grasslands of Western Ghats in India. It flowers gregariously once in 12 years. However, on different locations, the flowering may take place in different years. Thus, kurinji has flowered in some areas of Munnar and Kodaikanal from July this year. However, it will flower in places like Rajamalai and other parts of Eravikulam National Park only in 2018. (The last flowering there was in 2006).

Once, kurinji used to cover the entire Nilgiris like a carpet during its flowering season. However, now plantations and dwellings occupy much of their habitat. Destruction of shola forests have also reduced its presence in Munnar and neighbouring areas.

Save Kurinji Campaign

The campaign had actually started in the eighties after K. V. Surendranath (then  Member of Kerala Assembly), Dr. Velayudhan Nair, Suresh Elamon, G. Rajkumar and P. K. Uthaman had a rare glimpse of gregarious flowering of kurinji in shola grasslands between Kodaikanal and Munnar, most of which were soon after converted into pine plantations. The campaign was also prompted by destruction of the habitat by fire and encroachments.

After the 1989 march, the campaign continued through the past 25 years. Several marches, exhibitions, talks and programmes were organised. One of the prominent marches was one that was held in 1990 when kurinji was in full bloom at the same locations as they are now. There was also a major march in 2006 and programmes in connection with the formation of Kurinjimala Sanctuary.

The campaign had contributed significantly in crystallising the idea of a sanctuary to protect the kurinji habitat and release of a commemorative stamp on kurinji in 2006. The blooming of neelakurinji and the need to protect its habitat got media attention thanks to the campaign. During 1990 and 2006, thousands of people flocked to Munnar to see the kurinji bloom and a kurinji fest was organised by the Government at Munnar in 2006.

Kurinjimala Sanctuary:

The Kerala Government notified part of the habitat of kurinji (shola forests) as the Kurinjimala Sanctuary in 2006. It comprises of 32 square kilometres in the Kottakamboor and Vattavada villages in Idukki district of Kerala. The declaration of the sanctuary was made by then Minister for Forests Benoy Viswam at the Neelakurinji Fest at Munnar on October 7, 2006.

The sanctuary is contiguous to the Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary and Anamudi and Pampadum Shola National Parks.

The Government notification said that the sanctuary would ensure the long-term protection of the entire biodiversity of the area, especially Strobilanthes kunthiana and its habitat. Private land holdings having titles in the villages are excluded from the sanctuary area.

Related:

You may also want to read my original report http://kurinji.in/march.html on which this post is partly based.