Sunday, October 14, 2007

Health. An ecological perspective.

Two isolated yet related events made me write this article. The first was a tucked away news item in a newspaper which said that the central government has issued instructions that hence forth bamboo is to be preferred to wood in making furniture required for use in government offices. The other was my reading the proceedings of a symposium held during Dec 98 at Rishy valley on environmental problems.

The government order on the use of bamboo was with the intention of saving wood and there by trees which are felled legally or illegally all over the country, to make furniture and fittings, news print and for use as fuel. Vast areas of forest have disappeared to meet this demand. The universal use of tables and chairs and wooden cots in middle class Indian homes is comparatively a recent phenomenon. About 75 to 100 years ago we managed with cotton durries and cushions and used reed mattresses for sitting and sleeping. Use of chairs for sitting has brought in its wake some problems such as stiff back and hips. A sample survey of 50 men and women of middle-class were asked to squat from a standing position and the get up with out support. Most of them failed this test did not come as a surprise. This is one minor example of use of furniture on health. The larger issue of cutting trees on a large scale is much more dangerous. Cutting trees results in washing away of the top soil and silting of our rivers which overflow the banks and inundate vast areas of land with loss of cultivable land and creates swamps that breed mosquitoes and you know what happens when the population of mosquito increases. There is a resurgence of malaria, filaria, encephalitis and dengue fever. There is also increase in the incidence of cholera, typhoid fever and gastroenteritis which is due to contamination of drinking water with sewage which is common during floods.

You hear of inadvertent trespassing of whatever little wild life there is on to human habitat. This is because of destruction of their habitat partly due to encroachment and partly due to destruction of forest cover and disappearance of feeder species of plant and animal life. Bamboo furniture is not going to solve the problem. Large-scale cutting and use to make furniture out of bamboo is also not the answer, as bamboo groves naturally growing, is a link in the ecological web of the forest. The ultimate solution lies in changing our life style and going back to way of our forefathers. Our homes then will not have to have wood based products. Metal can be a better substitute to wood and may be, less ecologically damaging. Destruction of plant cover that includes forests has serious long term economic and health consequences.

Rendering the land fallow will mean desertification with no economically feasible agricultural activity with the resulting less grain production and starvation. Malnutrition related illnesses are very common in our country. Malnutrition invites all kinds of illnesses including that major scrounge, tuberculosis. To sustain minimum nutrition standards we need to increase the grain production. We have so far done this by taking recourse to introducing hybrid high yielding crops with ample supplementation of the soil by chemical fertilizers and keeping the pests at bay by using liberal doses of pesticides. This has proved a very shortsighted success and has had disastrous long-term consequences. These pesticides and chemicals have already got into our systems and the result is that we are seeing an increase in the incidence of hitherto unknown illnesses and an increase in the incidence of cancer. The land enriched with chemical will not sustain plants for long and we will be in for a major disaster if these practices are continued.

The only viable solution is to use organic natural manure for which we need animal and plants and above all abundant supply of water. Many parts of our country that once sustained verdant plant and animal life is now fallow. Large areas of such land can be reclaimed not with western technology but by following methods indigenously developed by pioneers. Efforts of a single man, Rajinder Singh has brought about an agri revolution to 650 villages in Rajasthan. What he did, million others can repeat. He simply observed the natural flow of rainwater and built check bunds to slow the rate of flow and made this water collect in small and large percolation tanks. This made the water table go up and charged the wells which were hither to dry. This primary phenomenon of availability of life sustaining water makes all the difference to the lives of our people from one of poverty and misery to one of at least minimum sustenance. This will also arrest the flow people to town and cities in search of livelihood. Rishy valley is another such example. What was once barren land of dust and rocks has been successfully greened with immense economic benefits to the villages around. The same result can be seen by the work of Anna Hazare at Raalgoan Sidddi in rural Maharashtra. When once a villager becomes self sufficient in food, his and his family's health improves and he will listen to what we talk about family planning, sanitation, nutrition etc. An empty stomach resists all attempts at progress. Thus health is linked to nutrition which is linked to crops which are linked to the availability of water which is linked to plant cover which is linked soil retention which is linked to us not cutting trees.
All of us will be forced to realize that natural resources does not exist for man alone and this manipulation of nature that is going on world over to serve the interests of humankind will only invite disaster. When once this simple truth is understood by us and our governments, then humans will start repairing the damage to the environment, reduce their consumption and nature may forgive the injuries that she has so far suffered. If this does not happen, the humans are on their way to sure self-destruct.

This article was written ten years ago and is still relevant.

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