Traveling on one of my filming expeditions to Bhavnagar, I came across a beautiful sight — a turquoise blue estuarine river emptying itself out into the sea. I stopped to soak in the sight and approached the river bank for a closer look. A strong acrid and stinging vapour made me pull back. It was a smell that was familiar from school days: the smell of copper sulphate!
That explained the intense blue colour. Small clusters of blue crystals had formed on some of the dead twigs and stones in the water.
Nothing moved in that sterile river. It was bereft of life, poisoned.
The river was loaded with chemical effluent from a factory a kilometer upstream. The story is the same everywhere. Factories pump out untreated effluents and chemicals directly into the rivers. According to government surveys, the pesticides in most of the rivers, including the Yamuna, is a few lakh times over the permitted levels.
This is the water India drinks.
Instead of being preoccupied with frivolous issues such as pesticide in cola we should get to the bottom of the problem.
The pesticide in the cola is not being imported from somewhere. It is in our own drinking water — not only in rivers but in the groundwater. In fact pesticide is in everything, in all the food we eat. It is even present in the safest food in the world: Mother's milk.
Our farmers are misusing pesticides — some out of ignorance and some by design to get that extra profit. Many of the pesticides used, are banned all over the world. So how are they still available off the counter here? Is it ignorance or some corrupt officials greed that is poisoning the nation?
The damage caused to thousands by Endosulfan is an example of what havoc pesticides can cause. Diseases like cancer, kidneys stones, tumors, allergies, brain damage and skin diseases like leucoderma have been traced back to pesticides.
Thousands of young farmers have gone prematurely grey in Bhatinda Punjab. It can trigger off Alzheimers, Parkinsons and cause a drop in sperm count. In relation to their body weigh, infants and children eat and drink more than adults and are more vulnerable.
But can we do without pesticides?
Not so long back, I was in Austria in a friend's garden. She was complaining bitterly that her prize flower pots did not bloom any more because of the aphids that were attacking and killing off the buds.
All the pesticides she used had not managed to get rid of them. Next morning, I took a walk in the nearby wild undergrowth and found what I was looking for quite easily: Ladybirds. I released about six ladybirds on the Aphid infested flower pots. A week later the Aphids had diminished considerably and10 days later all were gone. The Ladybirds had done their job.
Their larvae were feeding off them and multiplying happily. Natural predators of Aphids— I explained to my overwhelmed host. Pesticides kill off the good insects along with the pests creating an imbalance. Biological pest management is the best way to go.
Meanwhile, soak vegetables in salt water for a couple of hours after peeling and wash thoroughly. Spinach absorbs a lot of pesticide and heavy metals. It must be soaked in salt water and then washed under running water. Trim fat and skin from poultry. The fat stores pesticide.
Another intrusion on your table is the copper sulphate which makes lady fingers (bhindi) choliya and shelled peas look crisp and green.
Bleaching chemicals are used to make gur (jaggery) whiter .Our preoccupation with good looking food will get us into trouble. The shining brinjals, red tomatoes, plump chicken are all laced with chemicals and hormones. It is the callousness and greed of a few and the lack of education which is poisoning the food we eat and the water we drink.
Enforcement and education are the key if we are to build a strong healthy and dynamic India.
(Mike Pandey is a wildlife conservationist and winner of three Green Oscars)