A polluted environment nurtures a disease ridden society

Shobha Shukla, CNS Columnist 
(Based on an interview with Dr KC Mohanty, Founder President of The Environmental Medical Association)
The 20th National Conference on Environmental Sciences and Pulmonary Medicine--NESCON, was organized in Mumbai in very green surroundings during the last week of June 2014, by the Academy of Respiratory Medicine under the auspices of the Environmental Medical Association. As always, this Environment and Lifestyle diseases conference emphasized upon the impact of various controllable environmental factors on human health through an increasing disease burden.

A good environment is one in which we are able to breathe fresh and pure air. In fact, as stated by the WHO, it is the fundamental right of all human beings to have clean unpolluted air to breathe, palatable and potable water to drink, and unadulterated nutritious food to eat. However, an insatiable human greed has resulted in degrading the environment and adversely affecting the flora and fauna of our surroundings through irresponsible cutting down of trees and reckless killing of animals.

Merely planting thousands of trees is not going to help, if most of them die within a few days/ months for want of care. What is more important is to nurture and look after every tree planted for at least the next 3 years. Then only will our massive tree plantation drives make a difference. Dr Mohanty has shown the way in his own village near Mumbai. Within a span of 18 years he, with the help of the villagers, has transformed the area into a green belt with the help of drip irrigation, matka irrigation (burying earthen pots in the ground near planted trees and periodically filling them with water), rain water harvesting through digging of trenches and a pond. Today the village boasts of more than 25000 trees of different varieties dotting this once-barren land and paddy production has gone up threefold.

Environment, according to Dr Mohanty has two components —one part pertains to ecological balance and the other is about the economic, social, political, communal and family environment. Communal and harmonious living is also an integral part of it. When we destroy and/or degrade the environment we actually destroy human life. The port of entry of several pollutants, virus, bacteria and fungi from the outside environment into the lungs is through the air we breathe for our survival. If there is environmental pollution, we go on inhaling impure air, allowing the disease germs to enter our body, more so in overcrowded transport and public places where infectious diseases spread like wild fire.

Lifestyle diseases also have come up in the last 20 years as a direct result of fiddling with the environment, often in the name of development. “However real development should entail technology without tears,” thinks Dr Mohanty. Computer and internet have become indispensable in today’s world. But they have also made our lives more sedentary and constant use of them is adversely affecting our eyes and limbs. As walking and physical exercise has gone down, incidence of diabetes has gone up to as high as 10-15% in urban areas and around 6% in rural areas. Diabetes has a debilitating effect on several body organs as well. Then again, we always seem to be in a hurry and so eating unhealthy fast food is becoming more of a norm than an exception.

While our agricultural production has gone up through the use of pesticides, fertilizers, insecticides, and preservatives, it has also resulted in a lot many harmful chemicals entering our body through consumption of such chemically treated food grains, vegetables and fruits. If public healthcare has to improve dependence on chemicals will have to be reduced. This can be achieved by using ecofriendly chemicals as has been done successfully by Israel. Also in our own country context it might be a good idea to give a high procurement price for their produce to the farmers instead of giving them subsidy on fertilizers. Opening of more store houses/godowns and cold storages will save the farmers from doing distress selling during over production and living in scarcity in lean periods. This would also tend to stabilize food prices and benefit everyone by way of improved health and also save expenditure on public healthcare.

Dr Mohanty strongly believes that, “A true environmentalist is one who keeps the neighbour’s compound clean. In order to remain evergreen (healthy and disease free) we must embrace green. Life sustains life. So we need to protect (and not destroy) the ecological balance inherent in nature. It is possible to have a good environment through public consciousness to work collectively, resulting in coordinated and combined efforts of the government, semi government/ non- government organizations and the fourth estate (media) for an improved environment.”

Dr Mohanty advocates public private partnerships in the Indian healthcare system. While the government should be able to provide the infrastructure and medical staff, the private corporate sector should take care of providing the usable and disposable items like medicines, and diagnostic and other equipment to the healthcare centre which they adopt under their corporate social responsibility. This will not only improve our ailing public health system but also restore the confidence of the common public in it.

In the words of Dr Mohanty, “The best gifts which we can give to our children is a healthy and ecologically balanced environment where they have enough healthy food to eat and a disease free atmosphere to live in. Of what use will be giving them money if they have to fight against this or that disease all the time. It is not important as to how long we live, rather how healthy we live.”

Shobha Shukla, Citizen News Service (CNS)
8 July 2014
(The author is the Managing Editor of Citizen News Service - CNS. She is a J2J Fellow of National Press Foundation (NPF) USA and received her editing training in Singapore. She has earlier worked with State Planning Institute, UP and taught physics at India's prestigious Loreto Convent. She also co-authored and edited publications on gender justice, childhood TB, childhood pneumonia, Hepatitis C Virus and HIV, and MDR-TB. Email: shobha@citizen-news.org, website: www.citizen-news.org)