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September 25, 2010

Environmental concerns in agriculture – a very old problem

Filed under: agriculture, common man, environment, gandhi, gandhian principles, global warming — Tags: — neosurya @ 17:21

I often used to think that the environment concerns in agriculture could not be very recent. Similar concerns should have been present earlier as well. After all, the human species has been cutting down trees and establishing itself as a mono cropper from sometime now. I used to wonder how early people would have reacted, especially the farmers in India.

I have been reading Ramchandra Guha’s “India After Gandhi” [Reviews: 1, 2]. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in contemporary India. Since we are talking about agriculture here, I will put a few relevant excerpts. Guha’s book contains the following discussion between a village lever worker (VLW) and a farmer (MS):

VLW: What do you think of the new seed?

MS: What can I think? If the Govt. thinks it is good, it must be good.

VLW: Do you think it is better than the local variety?

MS: Yes, It resits disease much better. It can stand frost and rain, and there is more demand for it in the market.

VLW: What about yield?

MS: I cannot say. Some people say it is more, others say it is not.

VLW: Some people say it is not as good in taste.

MS: They are right. It is not half as good. If the roti is served hot it is more or less the same, but if we keep it for an hour or so it gets tough as hide. No, it is not as good in taste. People say that we all get very weak if we eat this wheat.

VLW: What is your experience?

MS: Many more people suffer from digestive disorders these days. Our childern have coughs and colds. Perhapes it is becasue of the new seed and sugar cane. It may be that the air has been spoilt by the wars.

VLW: And what about the new fertilizer?

MS: They increase the yield; there is no doubt about it. But they probably destroy the vitality of the land and also of the grain.

There is another quote included by Guha, a letter by Gandhi’s disciple Mira Behn dated 1949:

The tragedy today is that educated and moneyed classes are altogether out of touch with the vital fundamentals of existence — our Mother Earth, and the animal and vegetable population which she sustains. This world of Nature’s planning is ruthlessly plundered, despoiled and disorganized by man whenever he gets the chance. By his science and machinery he may get huge returns for a time, but ultimately will come desolation. We have got to study Nature’s balance and develop our lives within her laws if we are to survive as a physically healthy and morally decent species.

The discussion between the VLW and villager was first published by S C Dube in 1958 [Links to book: 1, 2], and the letter above was written in 1949. One can imagine how far back people were thinking about the effects of chemical farming and the resultant socio-environmental issues.

For those who are new to environmental problems in agriculture, I had previously blogged about a few aspects: Bt Brinjal, Double standards in Organic food, One Straw Revolution.

India’s changing villages: human factors in community development

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September 14, 2009

Coal stories…

“How can we get digital cable and Internet in our homes, but not clean water?”

This was a quote from the mother of a child who was severely effected by the polluted water from a coal slurry. The quote appeared in a NY Times article that can be accessed here. It is easy to miss the innocence of individuals who use technology. Most people are often unable to see that the very lifestyle they want demands the large-scale environmental plunder and pollution (Note, I said lifestyle they want not lifestyle they need). The 400-channel cable network that they so much enjoy, the internet, the 5-star safety rated sedan, and the 4 bedroom “modern” home, all have their parts to play in the pollution game.

Coal slurry is a by-product of mining; coal is apparently not very clean and has to be washed before it can be used. The slurry that comes out of washing is composed of several chemicals, some that are used in the washing process and some that come out from the coal ore. A list of these chemicals can be found here. Many of these chemicals are quite dangerous. Slurry is a regular by-product of several mines; even Uranium mining results in slurry. Imagine the water coming out of your washing machine; it obviously is not palatable. Now consider that you are washing coal, and the water would be much worse. Now, imagine washing radioactive Uranium and similar minerals that power the nuclear energy, and the nuclear defense world. The waste generated while cleaning minerals is hazardous to say the least.

Several mining firms do try to implement controls to contain and re-process these wastes. And we cannot really take chemicals out of our life; the paint on your wall is a chemical, the air that you breathe is a chemical. The problem starts when these mines are used beyond their design limits, and larger than acceptable concentrations of dangerous chemicals are created at a single location.

A reason why most people do not appreciate mining as problematic could be because a majority of their lives are far from mines and the consequent ill-effects. Invariably, they see the benefits of using coal (steam engines, thermal power plants), Uranium (Power plants, nuclear bombs) but do see the true cost of these comforts. Worse still, some users would not even want to see the true price others have to pay, and also do not want to use these resources in moderation.

More such articles on coal, and its complications:

http://www.onearth.org/article/coal-country

The above spill happened on 10-11-2000; Quotes from the above:

Local people remember the boom years fondly. Anyone who wanted could get a job, and unemployment went from 25 percent to 3 or 4 percent, they say. “First a guy would get a job at the mine, and after that he’d get himself a trailer, a four-wheel drive, and a color TV. After that he’d get either a boat or a wife,” a county resident recalled. Intense gratitude toward the coal companies may be found in the county to this day.

….

On the scale of spills, it was about thirty times the size of the 10 million gallons from the wreck of the Exxon Valdez. Aside from good local reporting, especially by Ken Ward Jr. in the Charleston (W. V.) Gazette, coverage of the spill had been sparse. Trying to make sense of it from a distance, I wondered mainly about the place: What could it possibly look like after suffering a wastewater-and-coal-slurry spill of 300 million gallons?

At a hearing in March 2001, a resident told Art Smith, the EPA official in charge of monitoring the cleanup, that backhoe operators were merely turning over the earth and burying the sludge underneath.

Greg Preece said that many of those affected by the spill were burned out on talking about it.

(Excerpt from an interesting interview from the above article)

N.: “An independent test had said that there were six heavy metals, including cadmium and arsenic, in the drinking water, and finally the EPA said, ‘We’ll check into it.’ And we still don’t know if our water’s safe or not.”

M.: “An EPA lawyer at that meeting told everybody, ‘Listen, people, coal mining is a dirty business, and you-all better get used to it.'”

N.: “People around here hear you criticizing the coal companies, and they start moaning, ‘But what’ll we do if the mines shut down? What’ll happen to those jobs?’ I sympathize to a certain extent, but I also tell them, ‘Lots of places in America don’t have coal, and don’t have coal companies, and they manage to support themselves OK.'”

M.: “‘Jobs’ is a sacred word. It’s a word like ‘shareholders.’ To some people, I’m the turd in the punchbowl because they think I don’t believe in jobs.”

N.: “And how good a job is it, anyway, if you have to risk the lives of the same people you employ?”

M.: “If people are all scared about jobs, that gives the coal company more power and makes it seem more important than it is already. That’s what happened with this cleanup — the coal company announced what it planned to do, and the government and everybody basically just rolled over and said, ‘OK.'”

His grandfather raised twenty-four children on the farm’s 8-plus acres. His father raised two, and Glenn raised six. The farm’s creek-valley topsoil produced fruits and vegetables that won prizes at the county fair. The soil had hardly a rock in it; but after the spill and the cleanup, the replacement dirt supplied by the coal company was all rocks and clay left over from strip mining, compressed to an impervious hardness by cleanup vehicles.

http://blogs.wvgazette.com/coaltattoo/

A video on coal mining in West Virginia Appalachians:

An article on Uranium mining:

http://www.indiaenvironmentportal.org.in/node/32083

July 17, 2009

Water in the market – bottled water

If there were ever futures trading with water, I would be a millionaire. Several others would be too. I would have a lot of money, and I would be very thirsty too.

I read an article in the TOI, page 14, July 17 2009, Bangalore edition title: “Stamping a new mark for bottled water“. The full article can be accessed at this URL, excerpts are below:

Though the consumption of packaged drinking water in India is just 1.7 litres per month, the packaged drinking water industry sees India as the most booming sector, growing at a rate of 25%. Jeffrey B Smith, general manager, global water business of Underwriters Laboratories (UL), tells TOI about UL’s venture to set up a water certification programme that will supplement the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) in India.

…..

We are currently analysing the challenges but according to our studies so far, fluoride and arsenic are huge contaminants here. Pesticide residues also. The issues are different in the West. For instance, in the US, iron levels are very high and there are concerns about aesthetics: the water should not smell, it has to look good…. We are here to add value to the issues of water scarcity and safety. Even though buying power is a problem with the poor here, most of the middle class prefers safer options, and that is huge for us.

Now they see packaged drinking water as a market, and an opportunity. Am I the only one who sees a problem in water, or am I just dumb….

Reminds me of the story “Welcome to the town of Allopath“, by Mike Adams. This was sent by my colleague, Shekhar who has a farm outside BLR. Gist of the article is that Allopath is a city with the problem of accidents. A doctor “Dr West” examines the accidents and concludes that they are linked to “skid marks”. If the skid marks are removed/prevented he concludes, there will not be any accidents. He recommends that the roads be lined with teflon that will prevent all skid marks. The accidents increase exponentially. A hermit comes along and recommends that the teflon be removed and that stop signs be installed to prevent the accidents. He is chided since he is not “qualified” enough to advise. Accidents continue, almost all of the city dies off. Several years later, the hermit is still living on, painting stop signs so that a new generation could use them.

Anyhow, I am also part of the middle class who walks the often trudged path. BTW, folks who got till here would like to read my other post on dry borewells in hyderabad.

May 6, 2009

The metro war with Lalbaugh park in Bengaluru.

Many years ago, there was a plan to destroy cubbon park and build a freedom fighter’s memorial called the veera soudha. People protested, and there was a move to shift it “somewhere else”, the Govt. circular from that time says. Excerpt about the struggle at that time:

About two decades ago a large portion of Lalbagh was marked out for a massive Veera Soudha. Five thousand people gathered and protested. The Government breathed fire and the then Chief Minister made statements that they would implement the project come what may. But people persisted, and the Government had to back down. Which is why you now see no Veera Soudha in Bangalore, and Lalbagh is intact.
A decade ago, 32 acres of Cubbon Park were marked out for building a large hotel complex. Several of us protested. Dharma, Chandra and many others from Sanmathi stood there and protested for close to 40 days.  Not only the Government, but the entire Legislature was against us. They even made many insulting remarks against women, so lewd that the statements had to be expunged from the record. Eventually the plans to build a large hotel complex for the legislators were abandoned, which is why you now see the Indira Gandhi fountains.
The point is clear. It is people’s protests that stopped such disastrous destruction of parks then. It is only people’s protests that will stop the destruction of Lalbagh and Lakshman Rao Park, and give us a Metro that we truly deserve. Something that will last a hundred years, and something for which Mr. Yeddyurappa’s great grandchildren will also praise him and his wisdom in stopping the current alignment, his wisdom in re-aligning the Metro to save Lalbagh, Lakshman Rao Park and half of Bangalore.

We, the citizen wonder why the Metro needs to destroy Lalbaugh park and LR Park. As per a mail being circulated by Hasiru Usiru:

The Government passed an Ordinance on 22 November 2008 to avoid bringing the issue to the Assembly and Council for debate. This Ordinance is illegal because it has taken out a portion of Lal Bagh and Cubbon Park without seeking the permission of the Karnataka High Court as required by its judgements.

What’s more, the Government has directed the Horticulture Department to sell a piece of Lalbagh to the Metro at a price fixed by the Bangalore District Commissioner! A terrible precedent is being established.

The Karnataka Parks (Preservation) Act requires special permission to be taken before altering Lalbaugh or Cubbon Parks. This has not been done.

April 14, 2009

Lawn funda: NASA says lawns are more than farmland

Filed under: environment, social change — neosurya @ 19:45

Homes in USA almost always have laws in front of the house. In some areas, it is a legal requirement, and residents also often debate wether the Govt. should mandate such lawns.

Apparently, according to NASA, “more surface area is devoted to lawns than to any other single irrigated crop in the country. For example, lawns appear to cover more than three times the number of acres that irrigated corn covers.”

A quote from the scientist who worked on this project:

“This country has large variability in climate, and people are very mobile. But although we move a lot, we tend to recreate the same landscape wherever we go. Most of the grasses used in U.S. lawns aren’t native to the area they are grown; many of the species come from the East, Kentucky bluegrass, for example. A lawn isn’t a big deal in the northeast, but when you recreate that same landscape out West, it becomes a major ecological issue because the only way to grow those grasses is with high use of water and nitrogen fertilizer. An individual, quarter-acre lawn isn’t a big ecological influence, but adding up all those quarter-acres for everyone in the country . . . We suspected that the ecological impact could be pretty big.”

October 16, 2008

“No Fridge”

So, I have been living without a refrigerator for the past few weeks. And I buy vegetables once a week and cook at home every day. A few friends asked me how I manage to keep things fresh. The following pictures show how it went; I had taken the first picture on Monday when these vegetables were purchased. The second image is from Thursday; one of the carrots has gone bad, but most of them are all right. The third and fourth images have been taken on Sunday. How to do it is shown in images 5 and 6.


Day 1: Monday


Day 4: Thursday



Day 7: Sunday.


Solution: A wet cloth.

For the skeptics among us, please recall the local bhaji-waala… Do you remember any refrigerators lurking away in a corner of their shops? Oh yes, one very intelligent friend pointed out that they have these cooling units at their homes where they store the veggies. Very innovative; I presume the units are capable of storing some 20-30 kilos of vegetables, and the thela-waala runs a very profitable business by paying for electricity in their shanties. Dudes, ever notice the gunny bags and the big wicker baskets? Wonder why the bags are perennially wet, dark and not dry. Put one at home with a tomato or two in it and you would know why.

Several vegetables and fruits are naturally capable of staying fresh for at least a week on their own. They only need to be draped over with a wet cloth for the time period. I am not suggesting that one should replace their refrigerators. I am not a fanatic Greenpeace activist. However, I would prefer to use technology when nature may not work; like making ice for your Patiala peg :). I also believe in eating fresh vegetables, and absolutely hate the “fridge stink” that tends to stick onto veggies.

BTW, a wet cloth does not work for everything. For example cracked coconut, or ginger. I am sure there are ways to keep them fresh for a few days without the use of a refrigerator. When I find the method, I will post it promptly. In the meantime, I have found a possible solution for keeping milk fresh. Figure below:

Keeping milk fresh: The most popular approach at Shekhar’s farm.

October 10, 2008

Then, the diesel ran out

Filed under: environment, social change — neosurya @ 12:36

Last night, we had a power cut for more than 4 hours; generators kicked in at 8:00 when the power cut began. At about 12:00 or so, diesel ran out in our building. By 1:00, diesel ran out in a neighboring building. Several flats in Bangalore have a generator system. I wondered what would happen if there was an extended power cut for a much longer time and diesel ran out at more places then today.

A parallel can be drawn to the lack of order, lawlessness, and other aspects in our country. Folks having resources have resorted to creating their own “backup” systems to stay away from these drawbacks. Some friends live in other countries to escape these problems, creating their own little India’s; others use their power or wealth to bypass the correct process; still others crib and refuse to participate in their civic responsibilities. I wonder what they would do when the problem overflows their systems and the “diesel runs out”.

BTW, there is another aspect about people creating their own little India’s; they think that other cultures are less holy. I guess this is a part and parcel of every “way of life” out there. Several groups in North America and most of the West believe that “urban, consumer-driven, sex-based” lifestyle is the best representation of a free, developing world. Large sections of India, think that it is the epitome of ethics. The West pushes its lifestyle by way of foreign policies and IMF/WB. The latter groups behavior gets reflected in the personal lives of each Indian. A closely related point is raised in the movie “Khuda ke Liye”; It is a Pakistani movie with a strong message.

September 21, 2008

Hero Thunder MTB.

Filed under: cycling, environment — neosurya @ 11:53

I finally bought a two-wheeler, and I am liking it. The bicylce is a Hero Thunder MTB, all aluminum, light weight, Shimano Tourney 3X7 = 21 gears, Full Aluminium mudguards. It is very nice. I had to fit in a carriage to carry my laptop. The bike itself was around 6.4K and with VAT, a dynamo light, bell, carriage, and lock it came to around 7K. I purchased it from the Madiwala RR Cyles.

The Aluminum carriage was significantly expensive, about 600 bucks, so I went for an iron carriage taken from a hero hercules. It is heavy, but I can live with it; The bike itself is very light weight. Bicycling in Bangalore involves negotiating an obstacle track with boulders, dividers, and short stairs in buildings. The weight makes it easy for me to pick the thing up. It also is very fast and responsive. The bad part is that it bounces a bit on bad roads, but that happens to every bike without shocks.

I had tried something with shocks earlier; they do stop some jerks, but are not all that useful. Also, picking up the bike, having a full-metal mudguard, and carriage is critical for me. Shocks do not give us that, though the new Hero Octane can apparently come with full aluminum mudguards. With rear shocks, the frame is slightly inconvenient to lift the bike for a long time. The Atlas Ryder is available with front shocks, but somehow the MTB felt lighter and better.

The gears are flawless and behave as expected. Their true nature may be evident after a few months of use.

The build quality of the bike could have been better. Reflectors on the pedals have plastic screws, and one of the reflector broke off within a day of riding. The front reflector also broke, but that was bound to give away some day. It is best to have reflector stickers all over the bike.

The dynamo is self contained, very functional, and does what it is supposed to do – Let the guy coming from the opposite direction know that there is a bicycle somewhere in front. I would prefer to have a dynamo that has a lot less friction, and is more silent, but maybe I shall have to build it myself. I do not know of a place in India that will sell high-quality ones. A few sites with details about dynamos:
http://www.nordicgroup.us/s78/dynamo.html
http://www.freelights.co.uk/
http://pilom.com/BicycleElectronics/Dynamo.htm

I ride about four Kms to work each day – ST bed layout Kormangala to Forum. It takes about 15 minutes to bike. It is less than the time taken for my colleagues on cars, motorcycles.

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