‘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.

Kurinjippoo revolution and its political implications

Munnar town

A view of Munnar town

The strike by women tea estate workers in Munnar in Kerala for bonus, now nicknamed after neelakurinji flowers, was a resounding success. (The workers did not face any police brutality unlike the Jasmine revolution in Tunisia.) Its political implications are significant and will be watched for long.

Notably, it was the recognised trade unions— rather than the tea company (Kannan Devan Hills Plantation), which had to give in to women power as hundreds of unorganised women labourers from the estates thronged the roads of Munnar virtually paralyzing traffic and economic activities in the town including tourism. Politicians and trade union leaders who spoke against them had to eat their words. This was the result of the unions betraying the workers for long.

Chief Minister Oommen Chandy had to convene urgent meeting with the women’s representatives, keeping away the trade unionists, to settle the strike. The labourers were demanding 20 per cent bonus this year and company was refusing to pay that saying that its profits had come down. However, company is a captive unit of Tata Global Beverages and profits depended on at what prices tea was being sold to the Tata group company.

The argument of the trade unions that the women made a mistake in agreeing to a reduced the bonus component of 8.33 per cent and the balance as ex-gratia has no much merit. They say that next year they would be able to start the negotiations from 8.33 per cent bonus component against 10 per cent promised by the company this year. But, next year’s outcome will depend on what force the women are able to muster next year. However, an immediate concern to them will be forthcoming negotiations on daily wages which is one of the lowest among agricultural labourers in Kerala. The workers are demanding daily wages of Rs. 500 which is about double the current wages. Minimum wages of women agriculture labourers in Kuttanad is Rs. 330 a day while that of men is Rs. 560 a day.

The estates workers may be on the way for substantial gains in this respect as Labour Minister Shibhu Baby John had to swallow his remarks that such a wage level was not feasible in tea plantations. The women labourers are now trying to form a union of their own. They may succeed given their will power. But there is no guarantee that the new union too will not go the way of existing unions which had sacrificed workers’ interests for personal gains of their leaders. May be it is better for the women to remain ‘unorganised’.

However, a crucial development to watch will be whether some of these women will emerge as contestants in the forthcoming panchayat elections. If they do, it could cause considerable worries to the political parties and unions, and rewrite history. Emergence of an alternative to the unions in Munnar like the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi could not be ruled out. If that happens, the established political parties will be the losers.

Related:
New York Times: Hopes, and Homes, Crumbling on Indian Tea Plantations

Farmers in distress

Farm landsPrime Minister Narendra Modi’s proposition for farmers falls short of requirements.

There is little doubt that the several of the measures being taken by the Central government, whatever is their positive impact on the economy, will hit the farmers, small traders and the even pensioners. So, measures are needed to protect them.

As to farmers, the government is taking certain steps one year after coming to power. They are already late as could be seen from the suicides of farmers in Maharastra, Telangana, Karanataka, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala.

The proposed crop insurance scheme will go a long way in helping the farmers if implemented properly. First of all, wide coverage of the scheme encompassing all sections of the farmers should be ensured. Secondly, compensation should be made within 30 to 45 days in the case of crop loss. This should be mandatory with delay in making the payments attracting penal interest.

However, it should be noted that the insurance scheme would be of help only in the in the case of crop loss/failure while fluctuation in prices of farm produce is a bigger problem faced by the farmers. The government should bring in better instruments to ensure remunerative prices. Indian farmers do not like to be on welfare.

Every crop in the country suffers from sudden fall in prices one time or another. Even rubber is no exception as could be seen from recent developments. Often the fall in prices of rubber are caused by imports and international developments such as fall in prices of petroleum. Fall in prices of rubber wood has compounded the problems as farmers used earnings from clear-felling of plantations to fund replanting.

The move of the Central government to allow 100 per cent foreign direct investment in rubber and coffee plantations could be of disadvantage to small farmers. The funds flow would be accompanied by technology flow also, and small farmers may soon lose competitiveness.

Be ready for the next IT revolution— in healthcare

The next information technology revolution will be in health care. However, we are far from ready.

healthtechMost doctors in India still use prescription pads and printed results of diagnostic tests. However, this is changing at least in respect of some big hospitals. Doctors could now access results of diagnostic tests online. Appointments with doctors are fixed online.The prescriptions, made online, instantly land on the desks of nurses and pharmacists. A company offering diagnostic services through a chain of laboratories in Kerala is now offering the results through Internet so that you can access them from home or hospital.

However, bigger things are yet to come. Telemedicine is already in vogue and its practice will get deeper and wider. Electronic health records and personal health records will make communication between patients and doctors as well as doctors and specialists easier. Medical images could be moved on the fly and examined by experts. Mobile platforms will increasingly used for monitoring of patients and communication of medical information.

At the next stage, computer programmes will also undertake analysis of medical images. Algorithms are already being developed for these purposes and they promise to detect problems that doctors fail to identify. CT scans will come with analysis. (The casualty would be doctors who expertise in evaluating images will gradually go into disuse. Programs will not be free of errors, but doctors can put the blame on the machines.)

The vistas that new technology is opening up in the health care sector are tremendous. It will now be possible to ‘scan’ large populations for diseases and accumulated data could be sent for diagnosis and analysis for specialists. For example, local health care technicians could be trained to capture images such as that of the retina using small devices and sent to doctors for detection of various diseases such as diabetic retinopathy. Trials for detection of retinopathy have already been done this way in Australia. The United States is already implementing Health IT program through a National Coordinator for Health Information Technology. Incentives are being offered for adoption of the technology.

The Digital India initiative is to have components that focus on healthcare. Indian IT companies such as Infosys are already working on the design and programming part. Cognizant is also emerging as a major player in the area. So, it is high time that the Centre and State government starting training youth to tap the emerging opportunities. The government also needs to come up with guidelines to hospitals regarding inter-operability and other norms. Legal protection of medical data, encryption and other privacy concerns need to be addressed as we go digital.

Hat trick by Oommen Chandy

Sabarinath with CM

K. S. Sabarinath (Right) with Oommen Chandy

It was a hat-trick victory for Kerala Chief Minister Oommen Chandy and the ruling Front in Aruvikkara Assembly constituency on Tuesday. The United Democratic Front (UDF) had won by-elections earlier at Neyyattinkara and Piravom after Mr. Chandy came to power in 2011.

The result indicates that Mr. Chandy’s mass contact strategy is still working though some might be disappointed by the unchanging face of bureaucracy. It also shows that the corruption charges against the government did not have the impact that the Opposition hoped for. The failure of the candidate put up by UDF dissident P. C. George to garner even one per cent of the votes perhaps underlines this.

The UDF had cleverly fielded a new face in the election instead of a seasoned politician. Now, almost every citizen know that politicians routinely take money from businessmen including bar and quarry owners for doing favours. But UDF candidate K. S. Sabarinadhan could not be grouped with them as he has not been in politics before.

Vote sharesHowever, it is notable that opposition parties, including BJP, and NOTA carried away a vote share of 56.87 per cent while UDF’s vote share dropped by 9.17 percentage points (from 48.78% to 39.61%.). The Opposition Left Democratic Front (LDF) suffered a loss of 7.1 percentage points (from 39.61% to 32.51%). NOTA polled one per cent of the votes. The vote share of BJP increased by nearly four-fold from 6.61 per cent to 23.96 per cent.

It showed that BJP could extend the advances it made in Thiruvananthapuram at least partially to neighbouring constituencies provided that it has the right candidate and political climate. BJP’s O. Rajagopal had won 33.3 per cent of the votes in the Lok Sabha polls from Thiruvananthapuram constituency in 2014. Now, he has won 23.96 per cent votes from a neighbouring Assembly segment.

This does not mean that BJP can duplicate the performance in the Assembly elections in 2016. It simply lacks candidates of the stature of Mr. Rajagopal to be fielded in other constituencies. It is also notable that Mr. Rajagopal’s popularity is not as strong as in Thriuvananthapuram in Aruvikkara. His appeal may have also diminished compared to the time of Modi wave and loss of popularity of Shashi Tharoor (who defeated him in Thiruvananthapuram).

However, the BJP’s performance is a clear warning to both the UDF and LDF. They will lose votes if people find an alternative, perhaps even NOTA, if they take the voters for granted. People are also not ignoring issues like development. The UDF lost a lead in Aruvikkara panchayat of Aruvikkara constituency over issues of local development. It won because BJP took away votes of LDF also. by-electionRelated Post:
Crucial battle for Oommen Chandy in Kerala

Poison in food

If we look at officials records, the banning of Maggi noodles will look as an isolated incident. Maggi was the first instant noodles to be introduced in India in 1982 and the pre-1982 generation had not tasted anything like that before. However, the food item had hardly been examined critically though sometimes perceived as unhealthy having several additives and preservatives in it.

When the dust settles down, Maggi will bounce back. Many Indians would not have even heard of the controversy and they will continue to relish the foreign food. The Maggi incident will not be a lesson for either the authorities or the people. In fact, there are thousands of products in the market which can be worse than Maggi.

The Food Safety and Standards Act was enacted in 2006 with more stringent provisions than the erstwhile Food Adulteration Act. However, during the past nine years, the authorities have not cared to strictly enforce the Act, but for occasional tests and warnings.

The problem is not confirmed to large packaged food manufacturers. Many food items such as vegetables and grains in the market are contaminated or adulterated. Items procured by large manufacturers cannot be free of contaminants and it is not easy to test all the items that go into production. Many smaller operators cannot even afford to do any testing at all.

It has been found that excessive quantities of pesticides are being used in vegetables cultivated in Tamil Nadu and grains in Punjab. Sometime back, all samples of packaged chilly power sold in Kerala were found to

Potassium dichromate used as an adulterant in chilly powder affects resperatory system, liver, kidneys,eyes, skin and blood.

Potassium dichromate used as an adulterant in chilly powder affects resperatory system, liver, kidneys,eyes, skin and blood.

have highly toxic and carcinogenic potassium dichromate in it. Even products of well known brands had it. It turned out that they were procuring chilly powder from North India and was merely packaging and marketing it in Kerala without any testing. (It was more profitable for them to buy the powder than buy the raw material for powdering in Kerala.)

Nothing was heard of prosecution in these cases. And it is not known whether chilly power sold in Kerala still has potassium dichromate. Pesticide residues and contaminants sometimes become undetectable after processing. All these point to the need for stricter food safety enforcement covering the source to final product.

 

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.