CSE's Fortnightly News Bulletin (January 16, 2015)

CSE's Fortnightly News Bulletin (January 16, 2015)
Thank you, Mr Obama
As the Indian government prepares to roll out the red carpet for the US President Barack Obama, it has one little fear – that Delhi’s air may not be so good after all for the presidential lungs and may even force him to stay indoors. The fear is a legitimate one. Delhi’s particulate matter (PM 2.5) – the most serious health risk factor – in December 2014 was around 260 while the safe limit is 60 according to CPCB (Central Pollution Control Board). How important clean air is is demonstrated by the fact that the United States embassy in Delhi does not rely on Indian government’s data but monitors Delhi’s air pollution with its own equipment. For the Indian government, suddenly air pollution has become a serious issue since pollution cannot be confined to the common people’s areas and will inevitably travel to and even linger in the lush Lutyens’ Delhi where our politicians live.
To emphasise the gravity of the issue, CSE got some eminent persons in Delhi to test air quality in their homes. The results indicated high pollutions levels as CSE expected but the testers – some of them in Lutyens’ Delhi – were taken aback by the findings and once again got the subject some attention. Pollution as an issue sometimes does not fly, but when important people are involved, it does.  Thank you for making it topical, Mr. Obama.
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- Editorial by Sunita Narain
- Down to Earth (DTE) Cover story: Forestry, the Mexican way
- DTE Web Special: 102nd Indian Science Congress
- DTE Photo Gallery: Homeless in cold Delhi
- CSE Store: Order your copy of CSE's Environmental History Reader; India's most credible statement on state of environment and more
Real pride of ancient indian science
by Sunita Narain
I write this with considerable impatience and one question. Do we really have the time to waste on controversies like what ancient India did or did not achieve by way of scientific discoveries? This is when there is the huge unfinished agenda to use the best of science to tackle current challenges and crises.

At the recently concluded annual ritual of the Indian Science Congress, the Union science and technology minister drew solace from the fact that ancient India had mathematical prowess—we gifted the Pythagoras theorem and algebra to the world. There is truth in this, no doubt. But this is about the past. At best, it tells us to be proud of our legacy. But what does it tell us about what needs to be done to innovate for our needs?

There is no doubt that Indian science is losing ground; every indicator shows this. The ranking of our top scientific educational institutions is consistently falling and our achievements are fewer by the day. Most importantly, Indian scientists are nowhere to be seen in the world you and I inhabit. This is when our modern world requires science to be integrated into every aspect of daily life.
This is also the problem I have with the current controversy about Vedic science—whether we flew aircraft or mastered plastic surgery is immaterial for modern India. What matters is ancient Indians understood the science and art of settlement planning, architecture and governance of natural resources. This is the history we need to learn because it tells us what we must do right. These are the real symbols of ancient India’s scientific prowess.

Take water, for instance. Traditionally, we built highly sophisticated systems, which varied to suit different ecosystems, for harvesting every drop of water. Archaeological excavations near Allahabad have found evidence of early Indian hydraulic engineering. Dating back to the end of 1st century BC, the Sringaverapura tank is a remarkable system to take the floodwater of Ganga into a set of desilting chambers, including water weirs, to clean the water for drinking. It can be a matter of belief that Lord Ram drank water from this tank. But it is a fact that the technological system is so evolved that it would put to shame all public works engineers of today’s India.

Dholavira, a settlement off the coast of Gujarat, dates back to the Indus Valley civilization. Archaeologists have found this desert city had built lakes to collect monsoon runoff, bunds and inlet channels to divert water, and intricate drainage system for storm water, drinking water and waste. Today, we cannot even build city roads that do not get flooded each monsoon, or protect lakes for storing rainwater.

Till the time the British came to India, the water traditions were in vogue. British gazettes speak of these systems, at times with awe, calling us a hydraulic society. Sir William Willocks, a British irrigation engineer, who was called in 1920 to advise the administration on how to handle famines, said the best answer was to go back to the ingenious system of flood management of Bengal. This was never done, of course.

Ancient Indians also understood the art of water governance. Kautilya’s Arthasastra, written around 300 BC, has details of how tanks and canals are to be built and managed. The key was to clarify the enabling role of the state—the king—and the management role of local communities. The kings did not have armies of public works engineers; they provided fiscal incentives to communities and individuals who built water systems. The British changed all this, by vesting the resource with the state and creating large bureaucracies for management.
The British rulers also changed the tax system; collection of revenue became paramount, even during droughts. There was little then to invest in community assets. The decline came quickly and was cemented by polices of independent India. This is the history of resource management we need to learn.

But if we must be proud of our water heritage and relearn its art and science, then we must also reject its ills—the focus on rituals and the evils of the caste system. We are such a dirty nation today—look at the untreated sewage in our rivers and garbage on our streets—because we come from a society where waste is an “untouchable” business. As long as we can live with the idea of manual scavenging—somebody from a “lower” caste will carry our excreta away—we will never get a clean India.

If we must glorify the past, we must be proud of our present. This is what we need to learn. Quickly.

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- DTE Cover Story: Forestry, the Mexican way
Mexico has made great strides in democratising its forest governance. DTE travels to the forested states of Mexico to document the turnaround and brings home lessons on forest governance

- DTE Special Report: Into the abyss?
The situation of India's farmers has only become grimmer in the past decade, according to the latest National Sample Survey Office report

- DTE Special Report: Cotton quandary
As China, the world's biggest cotton buyer, restricts imports, the US aggressively competes with India for global market. Can India stay in the race and rescue its struggling cotton industry?

- DTE Special Report and first of series on dying urban lakes of India: In Srinagar's footsteps?
Unplanned urbanisation is killing lakes that have saved Raipur from floods for over 1,000 years

- DTE Interview: "The world needs a new work culture, not just jobs"
Austrian-born Frithjof Bergmann, a professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan, USA talks to DTE about how following one's calling and getting involved in community work can reduce unemployment in India

- On the trail of tsunami
Since the 2004 tsunami, scientists have moved closer to understanding and predicting its trigger, the tectonic earthquake. Are governments prepared to benefit from the knowledge?

-  DTE Web special: 102nd Indian Science Congress
The theme of the Indian Science Congress coincided with the government’s agenda of development. At the event, Down To Earth spoke to many experts about how they think science would contribute to development in the next few years

- DTE Photo Gallery: Homeless in cold Delhi

- DTE News (India): Over 20,000 wildlife crimes recorded in India
Seizures of ivory, skins and bones of wildlife species represent only those cases which come to light

- DTE News (India): Sundarbans oil spill: who will clean the mess?
Though UN team members who visited the World Heritage Site reported limited immediate impact, experts say extent of damage will emerge five years on

- DTE News (World): China eases litigation by NGOs against polluters
Government ministries also guarantee support to environmental protection NGOs

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Read blogs on latest developments:
- Whose science should we focus on?
The current debate over ancient India's scientific feats is less about science and more about a cultural `feel good' factor

- Of pseudo-sangams and de-linking of rivers
How Madhya Pradesh government is exploiting religious sentiments to trump common sense in water management and project the chief minister as a hero and god

- Twelve dams that changed the world
Dams have serious environmental impacts, and their benefits dwindle as they age
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- India-Africa Experience Sharing Orientation Workshop on Clean Air and Sustainable Mobility
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- Anil Agarwal Environment Training Institute Course: Agenda for Survival
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- Anil Agarwal Environment Training Institute Course: Challenge of the Balance: A Course on Policies, Politics & Practices of Environmental Management in the Developing World
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The understanding of our ecosystem would be incomplete without understanding its past. CSE’s latest book is invaluable as it helps you figure out some present day environmental concerns from a historical perspective.  
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- Down to Earth Annual: State of India's environment
India's most credible annual statement on state of environment backed by more than three decades of experience in research and reportage
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