India Inc's role in safeguarding Mumbai's health
Aug 29, 2005
One of the best things that happened last week was that Corporate India not succumbing to pressure tactics of the state government by rushing with their cheques for the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund. Many of India’s leading industrialists simply stayed away from the meeting and those who attended, reportedly sent an unambiguous message that they wouldn’t cough up money without a clear plan. So far, all we have seen is knee-jerk reactions. The political establishment, cutting across party lines has finally shifted focus from banning dance bars to banning plastic bags.
There is no arguing the fact that plastic bags combined with the poor civic sense of Mumbaikars, played a significant role in choking drains. Unfortunately there is little clarity about the scope and implementation of the ban.
Now that the government has fixed the ostensible cause of flooding, we need to worry about its failure to deal with health and sanitation issues that have grown into an ongoing and unresolved nightmare.
A month after the deluge, Dengue and Leptospirosis has already claimed 247 persons and a thousand more have been hospitalised. While the media is rapidly losing interest in the story, the state has yet to find an effective treatment for the waste and sewage that flooded through Mumbai’s streets and houses after the deluge. The problem is more acute in badly-affected pockets, slums and localities that are close to open drains or overflowing garbage bins.
Contrary to popular perception, the spread of disease through mosquitoes and rats is unlikely to end very quickly. In fact, increased toxicity during the hotter months of September and October could lead to a second round of epidemic. The urgent need to clear dead animals after July 26, forced the municipal corporation to hastily bury or chuck carcasses in dumping grounds or open spaces.
Sources connected with the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) say over 2,000 buffalo carcasses and a massive 12,000 dog and goat carcasses were dumped at the Vasai and Deonar dumping grounds. In some cases, there has been an effort to bury them, but not at Vasai.
The Indian Express has in its possession photographs taken just a week ago, which show that carcasses thrown in the Vasai dumping ground are generating dangerous toxic waste and such high stench, that it is unsafe to visit the ground without protection. Today, Mumbai has two options: to deal with frequent epidemics carried from these toxic graveyards or to treat them and contain the danger.
The former is not really an option for a megalopolis aspiring to become an international financial centre. A quick Google search reveals that news about Mumbai’s 200-odd deaths has been reported across the world. On August 16, the International Herald Tribune carried reported Mumbai’s disease related deaths under the headline ‘‘People are dying like flies’’.
Another severe outbreak could generate international travel advisories and disrupt business. It is all very well for industrialists to ask the Chief Minister to produce a plan before they cough up money, but they would do well to pay attention to the consequences of untreated garbage to themselves and their employees.
Can we leave it to the municipal authorities to work at preventing epidemics? Even if these authorities have the will to do so, do they have the resources and the flexibility to consider new and innovative ways of disease prevention?
Dr Uday Bhawalkar and Dr H.S. Shankar of IIT Mumbai have designed a breakthrough solution that is being actively supported by The Indian Express. Their work has led to two doctorates and a US patent.
Dr Bhawalkar, who heads the Bhawalkar Ecological Research Institute (BERI), has developed the Vermi+Biosanitizer, which acts as a catalyst for treatment of garbage and sewage, preventing the spread of disease through nitrat management.
The Biosanitizer was used to clean the Powai Lake and free it from water hyacinth. The Express Initiative, led by Shantaram Shenai of Green Cross, was limited to demonstrating the effectiveness of the Biosanitizer (refer The Indian Express, August 14) by spraying it on garbage at Juhu, with the active help and support of senior municipal officers. However, a far more concentrated treatment is required at the dumping grounds and other affected areas.
Dr Bhawalkar recommends sprinkling the recommended quantities of Vermi++ Biosanitizer at the dumping grounds of Vasai and Deonar (the most dangerous areas) as well as places that were especially affected by the flooding (Sakinaka, Kherwadi, Dharavi, Kalina, Bharatnagar, Vasai and Deonar). Its immediate effect would kill the stench; the Biosanitizer would then leech through the soil and prevent the development of disease-carrying mosquitoes, flies and rats.
Although The Indian Express is keen to take this effort forward, a larger programme would require corporate support and initiative. The alternative is to wait for municipal and government authorities to plod through the paperwork required to experiment with breakthrough technology and hope that it leads to an official clearance for the use of such remedies for the greater common good.
Unfortunately, as Dr Bhawalkar points out, time is not a luxury available to Mumbai and large parts of Maharashtra that are affected by the floods. Although much of the criticism aimed at the government and the municipal corporation after the deluge was justified, there are times when business has to look at the larger picture. Today, municipal workers who deal with the garbage and transport it to the dumps are directly and constantly exposed to disease. They are as much in need of support and sympathy as the average Mumbaikar who was affected by the rains.
Dealing with the situation does not require a huge financial outlay. Dr Bhawalkar estimates that treating all the worst-affected parts of Mumbai with the Biosanitizer concentrate will require an outlay of under Rs 25 lakh. Raising the money ought not to be a problem, what is lacking is the vision and willingness to get past the blame game and support a positive initiative that can be replicated in the rest of Maharashtra and around the country