Interviews | VOL. 11, ISSUE 65, March-April 2011 |

Our Immediate Challenge is Water

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What, according to you are the most significant environmental challenges that India is facing today?

The challenges are many and grave, from environmental degradation to climate change. It is difficult to prioritise, but prioritise one must and in my perception, our immediate challenge is water which sustains life in all its dimensions. The water tables in India are falling at an alarming rate and if we do not address this issue now in a couple of decades there may not be even portable water for people to drink. Research needs to enhance our understanding of the ways by which we can conserve water, keep it pure, rationalise its use and ensure that the changing water cycle does not upset the natural balance in nature.

In context of the recent earthquake-tsunami disaster in Japan, another challenge is to protect our civil nuclear installations from similar dangers. The Prime Minister has ordered a comprehensive review of the security requirements in view of the Fukushima disaster and Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited and the Atomic Energy Board have already undertaken the exercise.

Then there are the issues of air pollution and the degradation of the soil by the excessive use of fertilizers. Added to these are the varied challenges that are emerging because of climate change – the shifting pattern of the monsoon and its effect on our agricultural production, the floods and the earthquakes. The Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES) is alive to these challenges and is taking purposive and effective steps to meet any eventuality.

The MoES has been working to scientifically improve the capacity of the country. Would you please share some of the initiatives of the Ministry that have significance in the perspective of Earth Day?

We have taken a number of initiatives, one is the tsunami warning system that was set up in 2007 and is considered one of the best in the world. The Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services (INCOIS) in Hyderabad is capable of giving preliminary assessments within 15 minutes of a tsunami happening anywhere in the world.

Another area, which needs to be addressed, and where significant effort is being focused is the earthquake monitoring, prediction and mitigation system. A set of 17 broadband seismic stations have been set up and networked to collect earthquake parameters in near real time. The earthquakes are being auto located and the first information is available within 15 minutes using both Indian and over 364 global seismic stations that have been configured. MoES has started research in multi hazard and vulnerability mapping and real time tsunami inundation modeling as well as 3D geographical information system (GIS).

The microzonation studies for Delhi, Guwahati, Sikkim and Bangalore are another major initiative. The former two have been completed on a 1:25,000 scale. Microzonation for Delhi too has been completed and maps are being refined on a 1:10,000 scale. However, much needs to be done to prepare maps for all the vulnerable coastal areas of the country. The databases will be useful for not only saving life and property during disasters but also for broader planning purposes.

Would you please share some of the recent developments in MoES that will benefit common man?

One of the mandates for the MoES is to explore our wealth in the continental shelf and territorial waters of India. Efforts in this direction have yielded exciting results and we can now harness bioactive compounds from the marine organisms for human therapeutic purposes. Over 2000 extracts of marine samples were screened for wide spectrum bioactivity including anti diabetic, anti hyperlidemic, anti malarial, anti HIV, anti cancer and anti osteoporosisproperties and 24 hits have been identified from these fractions out of which 8 leads have been found as having potential. The resources of the sea have to be fully explored and exploited and India is one of the few countries that has acquired deep sea mining capabilities for the purpose. If we are able to fully, commercially and optimally utilise our marine resources, it would not only make a huge contribution to the national economy but also help in addressing the challenges to environmental degradation.

By bringing the meteorological agencies and ocean development department under one umbrella, what has been the impact of MoES for the country?

It was a conscious and considered decision of the Government of India to create a separate Ministry that would in a holistic manner address a whole gamut of challenges relating to – weather adversities, monsoons, disasters including tsunamis, sea level rise, living and non living resources, climate change, ocean science and coastal and marine eco systems. The bringing together of all disciplines relating to the earth sciences under one umbrella eliminates the duplication of research efforts in the different administrative hierarchies. It is purely a matter of optimally utilising the benefits of our research in interrelated areas.

We would be delighted if you could share a story of change in relation to dwindling resources and eroding biodiversity that has and continues to inspire you.

My mother used to say we should plant a tree whenever a child is born, that trees are like our children and grow with us. In the late 1970s under Indiraji’s leadership the country witnessed a major thrust on environmental issues – I as an enthusiastic Congress volunteer sowed a 100 Ashoka trees in a park in front of our house. Today when I walk in that garden and see those trees standing upright in their majestic glory, I am reminded of what my mother said; truly, like my children, the trees have bloomed, imparting pristine happiness. Another inspiration for me is our Shastras that have taught us to always be in harmony with nature, with the forces that God has created and which are a part of our own being. The elements of nature can never be defied; they must always be worshipped, sustained and built upon.

As we celebrate Earth Day 2011 what is your message for our readers?

Do not cut trees. Conserve water. Keep your environment clean and live in harmony with nature. Environmental issues are real issues and the challenges that we face in India are common with the rest of the world. The strategy to check environmental degradation must be conceived and implemented above any partisan agenda. This is a responsibility that the present generation of leaders must discharge in trust for future generations. Environmental issues relate to intergenerational equities and this is how this must be seen.

In an affable conversation with the editor, Dr Ashwani Kumar’s deep sense of commitment towards the challenges being faced by modern India was clearly palpable. Complimenting G’nY on conceiving a special Earth Day issue the Minister went on to add that as a tribute to mother earth, in the tradition of our Shastras, people of the country are rising to protect the environment and the earth, which eventually and ultimately sustains all life.

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