Friday, September 29, 2006

Think Twice Before You Drink

A huge debate is going on now- was it correct on the part of the Government of Kerala to ban Coke? Those who support Government’s decision say that Coke being a carbonated drink (read MNC’s drink) should not have any kind of pesticide. Those who oppose Government’s view argue that pesticides get into Coke through the water and Government should take steps to provide good and safe water to one and all.

I am an environmental engineer working in the design of water and wastewater treatment plants for the last 5 years in US. I would like to present some facts to you about the so called “safe to drink” water we get in our homes in Kerala.

So when we think about a water treatment plant what comes to our mind? The process like coagulation, sedimentation, filtration, using sand and disinfection with chlorine. Over 85% of drinking water treatment plants follow these conventional treatment processes.

Most of the treatment plants in US are moving away from conventional treatment process. Research has found that many organic contaminants (which include most of the pesticides) cannot be treated using conventional treatment process.

US Environmental Protection Agency in March 2001 published this report. The abstract of it reads like this

“A group of chemicals, known as endocrine disruptor chemicals (EDCs), has been identified as having the potential to cause adverse health effects in humans and wildlife. Among this group DDT, PCBs, endosulfan, methoxychlor, diethylphthalate, diethylhexylphthalate, and bisphenol A may occur in drinking water. The various components of the drinking water treatment process have been evaluated and granular activated carbon has been identified as the method to be used for the removal of EDCs from drinking water. This document presents treatment processes for large municipalities and small communities to remove EDCs from drinking water.

So did you read DDT and endosulfan – two compounds that we use widely as pesticides and pet subject of our CM. How many water treatment plants have granular activated carbon treatment plants in Kerala? I don’t know of any. So what that means? You may be drinking water containing DDT and endosulfan. Our elected representatives are doing nothing to improve the drinking water quality.

We think if we boil the water we are safe. Yes boiling water removes virus/bacteria but most pesticides/organic contaminants which are carcinogenic persist. If virus/bacteria are present you get sick immediately. If carcinogenic substances are present, over a period of time you get cancer. Now you know, who is the main culprit for increasing the cancer rate in our community?

Another wrong belief- adding more chlorine to water is good. Yes it is good in killing the microbes but if we add chlorine to water not properly treated it produces what is called “disinfection byproducts” which are highly carcinogenic. These compounds are regulated in US and most of the water treatment plants are moving away from using chlorine as a primary disinfectant. All water treatment plants in US have to monitor for disinfection byproducts daily. Does anyone sitting in Kerala Water Authority have any knowledge about disinfection by product formation potential of chlorine? I don’t know. It is time for them to know this, as they are playing with the lives of millions of people.

There is a treatment plant near my house in Trivandrum. This treatment plant is in a place called Vandithadam. What they do is, pump water from the Vellayani Lake and pass it through a sand filter, add excess chlorine and sent it to the distribution system. Last time when I came back from India I took a water sample and brought it to my lab. I found the disinfection by product almost 50 times that is permissible in US. Yes, being an Environmental Engineer, I know the water my parents and brother drink, is not safe, but do we have any other alternative?

I wish the political parties instead of taking law into their own hand and destroying public/private property do something to provide safe drinking water to the people.


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Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Yehi Hai Right Choice

Update: This post has resulted in a heavy dose of heated debate. As it rages on, thought we might do well with something to chill a bit :) Here is the malayali version of the popular "hot-stepper" I received via email: Very funny, and kind of throws at us something else we need to tackle right at the school level - communication (voice and accent training especially), behavior and other soft-skills.

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Every now and then I get this urge, as well as requests from readers, to change the title of this blog to just Save Kerala and not Dog's Own Country. But it doesn't take long before there is an act by our beloved "mallu" brethren which puts most dog's to shame. Acts which make you feel like hiding your face under a pillow and want to make you forget that you are a Keralite too.

The latest came in the form of student political outfits rampaging through Coca Cola and Pepsi warehouses, and damaging the properties and stocks. This was their response to the High Court order quashing the Kerala Government's order banning "manufacture and sale" of Coke and Pepsi company products in the state. Kerala was the first and the only state to comprehensively ban the colas in the state, and even the West Bengal government, another Left ruled state, managed to think a bit more sensibly. The Kerala government has decided to engage in further legal wrangles by challenging the High Court order, which is fair enough. I would have agreed had the government decided to ban it from educational institutions only until the court decided.

But how can we let vandalism and goondaism rule the state? Who is answerable to the losses of the distributors, owners and the companies? Who is answerable to the further damage in Kerala's image as an investment unfriendly state? These goons from the supposedly political parties had a free-for-all with camera-men and TV channels airing the footages as if it was something glorious. And strangely, there were no cops in sight. Two days after the incident, no arrests have been made. Ofcourse, we know who is ruling the state. Or have these party outfits taken over as the Kerala Police?

If Coke and Pepsi products contain pesticide residues, it is obviously from the ground water. Dont the government and its policing activists have anything to do or say about that? After all isn't that what the common man drinks? Shouldnt the government be more concerned about providing potable and safe water to the entire state? In any case, Coke and Pepsi have conducted independent studies that show their residues are much lower than the required (even European) standards after their purification processes. And the BIS standards the CSE (again not a Government body) has used, is not applicable to bottled drinks. IF at all we decide to have it as a standard, are we going to have the same standard for our Corporation water, which the majority of the people drink? Are these goons going to stop drinking water then or break the Corporation water tanks?

If these "people's party" leaders are really concerned why are they not breaking down warehouses and shops that house liquor, arrack and toddy - which is what the people of Kerala prefer over Colas or even water, ofcourse. (Perhaps the government is just endorsing that preference by these outrageous acts.) The country-liquor and toddy made in Kerala has perhaps in the worst possible standards: and every now and then we have people dying and going blind. But they dont fight or campaign against alcohol: ofcourse for them it is part of a "local industry" and has to be supported. Why arent these "activists" breaking down Beedi factories and tearing up Cigarette packets, when the whole world knows tobacco is carcinogenic and harmful? There are larger political interests surely behind all these anti-Coke, anti-Pepsi campaigns. After all its easier to make the people of Kerala a willing bunch of donkeys.

And the leaders of the party outfits said they are making people's voice "heard". Isnt that the lamest reason you could ever hear in a state that gloats under the umbrella of 100% literacy? If the people have a voice why dont we let them decide? We can just choose to NOT DRINK it, or DRINK it. We dont need third rate scoundrels or their parties, or even the government, make such decisions for us. I have a right to think, consider facts and decide which is safe and what I want to drink. It is unacceptable that a party makes that choice for the people. The people should have the right of choice, and that is what would have made us seem more literate, democratic and cultured.

Imagine every now and then you are thirsty, and you ask : Dear politician, shall I drink Coke, Pepsi, Corporation water, Arrack, well-water or Smirnoff today?

So much for the "Peoples Voice".

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Friday, September 15, 2006

How Hartals and Bandhs Hijacked our State

Recently, the Kerala chapter of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) said “a single day's shutdown costs the state a staggering 7 billion (or 700 crore) rupees”.

Put that estimate and Kerala’s population together and that translates to a cost of 233 rupees per Keralite for a single day’s shutdown. No, don’t look in your wallet; your pocket change is probably still there. The money in your bank vault is probably still there as well. And your house isn’t going anywhere. So, what’s the problem, you ask? Well, let’s suppose that you’re not a government employee and that’s fair to assume since only 3% of our labour force is employed in the government. Are you self-employed? Well, you’ve just lost your daily wages. Are you employed by a private firm? Well, you can be sure that in the long run, your job is in jeopardy as the firm loses money.

Wait, so what, you say? The average Keralite earns less than 150 rupees per day, you say? Ahh, but you ignore the potential that is Kerala. For every rupee that the average Keralite earns, he or she loses out at least another rupee in potential wage increases. Why? Because of the complete absence of any substantial manufacturing industry in our state. Because of the complete lack of any sizable investments in our infrastructure. Because of the 20% of our educated youth who walk around unemployed. Because of these simple frustrations that crop in our lives. All because bandhs and hartals have scared any sensible entrepreneur or investor from Kerala.

Bandhs and hartals have become everyday occurrences in Kerala in stark contrast to the rest of the country. In other parts of India, a call to strike rarely affects all sectors of the economy in the fashion that is afflicted on our state. When a party or trade union calls for a dharna or bandh in Kerala, life comes to a standstill and the average person stays at home. When the same happens in Delhi, Calcutta or Madras, people go to work, stores stay open and general life goes on. Why has our work culture reached this stage?

Most people can point quite readily to the source. Public employees are not required to keep attendance and the costs of cutting work are far lower for them as they are salaried employees. The opportunity cost is even lower for politicians. In fact, they actually gain voting lobbies in the form of government workers and trade union members through such stunts. In contrast, employees in private firms have much to lose by resorting to coercive forms of protest. That is why you see one or two private bus strikes every year. And even those do not lead to full-scale shutdowns. The power to paralyze life has come to define the life of the public sector.

But what a narrow section of society it is. According to the Directorate of Economics and Statistics, government employees constitute 3% of the total working population. Political party workers constitute at most another 0.5%. How can such a narrow section intimidate the rest of society?

Well, they would not be anywhere without outright support by their unions. Most government employees are unionized and all political parties are by default, organized. The same cannot be said for Kerala’s self-employed businesses, which are affected most by these hartals. At last count, this sector constitutes 31% of Kerala’s labour force, a formidable voting bank that can turn the current state of stagnation on its head. Intimidation and apathy, however, have struck this section into inaction. No one wants to say no to bandhs or hartals as long as they are the lone voices in the wilderness.

The writing on the wall is clear. The need of the hour is a new social contract and a grassroots operation to back it.
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