Tuesday, March 31, 2009

21. Belch out the Devil

Till the other day, there was a definite charm about him. Following his rejection to the coveted position at the united nations, he overexposed himself by writing on anything and everything. Any intention of reading him is gone (nor that I had any) following his close allegiance to the one and only Coca-Cola. That he's contesting from Thiruvananthapuram and yet defending his love for it (Coke) is a paradox that only the literate electorates of the constituency will take a call on. Let good sense prevail (amid the electorates) as I wish conditional luck to Shashi Tharoor. I suspect if this posting will reach him but if Max Martin's report in Mail Today (March 22, 2009) is any indication, half of any election is won or lost in the cyber space (in Kerala).

Following my article on Coke's dubious claims on groundwater recharging aimed at diverting attention from its water-guzzling business in the Economic Times in May 2008, an email was received from one of those who was apparently engaged (`employed' is more appropriate expression) in a groundwater recharging project of the Coca Cola Foundation rubbishing my position. The respondant felt the foundation was doing excellent work and that any fears regarding `milking the aquifers dry' were unfounded. Tharoor is behaving in much the similar way, taking Coke's deft public relations (Coke's global publicity budget is a little over US$ 2 billion) as `news' and forcing many uninitiated minds to believe him.

I'm afraid Shashi Tharoor has got his facts wrong, I repeat `absolutely wrong'. My own information on the subject has been padded by authoritative writing by Mark Thomas. For those who may not be familiar with Thomas, he's an ace television comedian (Channel 4 in UK) and journalist who has travelled across the world to document Coke's dubious (criminal) escapades in his book `Belching out the Devil' (Beacon Press, 2007). Mark's stunning revelations on Coke's child rights abuse in El Salvador, labour intimidation in Colombia, monopolistic trade practices in Mexico and robbery of groundwater in India will prompt every sane mind to proclaim: belch out the devil.

Placchimada and Kaladera were part of Thomas' travel itinerary, wherein he verified `facts' to the last digit. The groundwater recharging systems were definitely in place and these do have the `potential' to recharge as much groundwater as the company extracts. Shashi Tharoor is likely to jump at this, asking: so where is the problem? The problem is that it doesn't rain as much in the region to help the rainwater harvesting systems realise its `potential' of recharging at a pace with which water is being pumped out on a daily basis. No wonder, farmers in and around Kaladera (near Jaipur) complain loss of agriculture due to drying up of village wells. And, the fact is that the company has been using 3.8 litres of freshwater to generate a litre of carbonated drink.

Pardon me for my political naivety but I had a notion that voting for an educated-affluent could be the finest exercise of one's franchise, believing that such an elected representative will not only take `wisest' decisions but would be less `corrupt'. But I think in political matters it's erroneus to count on `individual honesty'. To quote Swaminathan Aiyar: `Critics have accused Abraham Lincoln and Manmohan Singh of being hypocrites who advertised their personal honesty but agreed to dirty deals to promote their political aims. Singh not only formed a council of ministers that included seven politicians facing criminal charges but won vote of confidence with the help of currency notes being waved (first time ever) on the floor of the house'. The message: don't get charmed by `integrity' and `honesty'!

With millions of young electorates to exercise their constitutional rights for the first time during upcoming parliamentary elections, it is the test of their ability to `pick' the best. I hope the above narrative helps them in `belching out the devil' - in Thiruvananthapuram and the rest of the country.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

20. Ganga: Purity and Pollution flow together

(It is indeed a welcome step that the Ministry of Environment & Forests (MoEF) notifcation of Feb 20, 2009 has alleviated the Ganga to the status of a National River, echoeing the sentiments expressed by the PM in the recent past. The notification stresses the need for effective abatement of pollution by adapting a river basin approach alongside maintaining a minimal flow. A National Ganga River Basin Authority has been set-up with the PM on the Chair. A similar enthusiasm was seen when Ganga Action Plan was launched in 1984. An article published in March 1985 issue of Manthan, a quarterly published by the Deendayal Shodh Sansthan, had raised questions on the then Plan. The stand taken in the article (see the text below) stands vindicated as the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of the Parliament found in 2004 that Rs 960 crore spent on the project only ended-up increasing the level of pollution in the river. Many of the questions raised in this write-up are still as relevant).

The formal announcement of the setting-up of a Central Ganga Authority by the Central Government represents the commitment of the government towards purity of the primary river as well as its commitment towards cleaner environment. While this step has brought appreciation from many quarters, there are several aspects that need to be looked into. Many questions have been raised which need to be discussed:

1. Can Rs 250 crore project cleanse the Ganga, when the State Pollution Control Boards and the Central Board for Pollution Control could not do so with the help of a legal weapon called the Water Pollution Control Act, 1974?

2. If the existence of Pollution Boards and the Act during the past decade is a testimony to an increase in the levels of pollution, isn't there something wrong with the functioning of the Boards and the implementation of the Act?

3. While providing sewerage treatment facilities to 29 Class 1 cities along the Ganga may not reduce pollution to even 50 per cent, how is the complete check on waste disposal to be achieved?

4. It is believed that 25 per cent of the pollution in the Ganga is caused by 132 major industries along it 2,000 km route from Haridwar to Howrah. Out of these units, 66 are on the banks of the river at Kanpur alone. Whereas providing sewerage and sewage treatment facilities is a government responsibility, industrial units are supposed to have their own treatment facilities for the wastes they generate. But none of the industries have a fool-prrof waste treatment facility, though under Sections 25, 26 of the Water Pollution Control Act, the industries cannot dispose their untreated effluents into the natural water courses.

5. On the other hand, Section 33 of the Act has provided the Boards with legal powers of punishment and imprisonment to erring authorities. Also, under certain conditions the Boards can purify the effluents for the industry and recover the expenditure incurred. What then prevented these Boards from implementing the provision?

6. Political interference, business lobbies and lack of technical manpower curtailed the functioning of most of the State Pollution Boards, but it has not indicated any measures to strengthen their functioning. If, alongwith these Boards and the Act, a separate Ganga Authority is required to clean the river, then what will be the future role and status of these Boards?

7. The project on paper seems alright and thereis every possibility of treating sewage and sullage, provided funds are available. Can all the population (informal settlements) living along the Ganga be covered under the sewerage schemes of municipalities?

8. The Ganga plan indicates a net profit of Rs 14 per person by way of gas/manure on an investment of Rs 23 per capita per year towards expenditure on pumping and treatment of waste. Had this idea been sold to the State Pollution Boards, they would have earned a significant profit to the States?

9. It is rightly said, `The poor simply defecate into the river, the rich dispose their wastes and religious throw their dead into it.' Sewage is the major culprit, for which a massive awareness drive needs to be launched and, shockingly, this doesn't form part of the Ganga Plan. Why?

10. When Ganga is mother to millions of Indians, let this Ganga Plan be a peoples' plan. Let's inculcate into millions of Indians the spirit of saving the mother, by awareness and education. Why Not?

*This article titled `But can the Ganga be purified? Ten pertinent questions to the Government of India' was written by Sudhirendar Sharma.