Category: South Asia

Arsenic in the News

Professor wins $1M for arsenic filter – Yahoo! News

The National Academy of Engineering announced Thursday that the 2007 Grainger Challenge Prize for Sustainability would go to Abul Hussam, a chemistry professor at George Mason University in Fairfax. Hussam’s invention is already in use today, preventing serious health problems in residents of the professor’s native Bangladesh.

This British Geological Survey website provides a good primer to the problem. Some key points:

  1. Arsenic is very toxic
  2. Arsenic is naturally occurring in the shallow groundwater aquifers of Bengal and Bangladesh at a toxic level
  3. The surface water is contaminated with bacteria and was responsible for high infant mortality, so aid agencies in the ’70s encouraged the use of tube wells and other groundwater pumps. While this contributed to a decline in infant mortality from gastrointestinal infections, it also dosed unsuspecting people with disease causing levels of arsenic
  4. The technology for removal of arsenic is very well known. But most solutions require electricity/periodic maintenance/technical skills and are thus not universal or sustainable.
  5. Simplicity is the key. You can’t tell the people to not drink the water, it is the only clean water available. You can’t install water treatment plants, there is no running water, you can’t rely on solutions that are centralized.

So with all that in mind, here’s what Prof. Hussam did:

The Gold Award-winning SONO filter is a point-of-use method for removing arsenic from drinking water.  A top bucket is filled with locally available coarse river sand and a composite iron matrix (CIM).  The sand filters coarse particles and imparts mechanical stability, while the CIM removes inorganic arsenic.  The water then flows into a second bucket where it again filters through coarse river sand, then wood charcoal to remove organics, and finally through fine river sand and wet brick chips to remove fine particles and stabilize water flow.  The SONO filter is now manufactured and used in Bangladesh. That’s great, and easy!

That’s pretty much freshman chemistry right there, further proof that most innovation does not need new science, only people willing to spend some time on problems that don’t necessarily get looked at.

Indian and Pakistani armies destroying the Siachen Glacier?

Lifted from comments… (thanks Ajit Singh)

Siachen glacier has been melting alarmingly more due to military activity of India and Pakistan than global warming, a new study has said. Siachen glacier was rapidly melting because of the ongoing military activity at the highest flashpoint of the world, according to the study conducted by Arshad H Abbasi, a consultant for the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF).
Source (Zee News)

Well, that’s interesting, and a bold and provocative argument. Where is it coming from? The source is a document from Arshad H Abbasi of the Pakistan wing of the World Wildlife Fund.

The problem is being caused by the establishment of permanent cantonments on either  side of the Saltoro ridge, the daily heavy air traffic to advance camps (up to Indra Col post), the cutting and melting of glacial ice through the application of chemical, daily dumping of more than a ton of chemicals, metals, organic and human waste, daily leakages from 2000 gallons of kerosene oil from 250 km plastic pipeline laid by India throughout the glacier

Unfortunately, the article does not provide any references to studies, or any justification for the argument made. The argument definitely “feels” right, and it maybe true, but the data provided does not support the conclusions. South Asia’s ice is definitely melting, as pointed out earlier, and the effects are going to be fairly catastrophic. It would be good to know why, global warming is surely the prime suspect. And this stupid war does not help, I am sick of India, Pakistan, Al Qaeda, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the US, etc. purporting to speak for the Kashmiris, killing and oppressing the people, carrying out ethnic cleansing in the guise of patriotism and destroying one of the most beautiful places on earth. But can military activity destroy the second largest non polar glacier?

Who knows, maybe a potential catastrophe will get the  protagonists talking, and maybe Siachen will become a peace park. All I know is that I start writing a post about the science of the Siachen melt and quickly devolve into a despair spiral as I contemplate the pointlessness of destroying the most beautiful part of South Asia in order to possess it.

Colonialism, Pharmaceutical style

Legal wrangle puts India’s generic drugs at risk – health – 29 January 2007 – New Scientist

Tens of thousands of people being treated for AIDS will suffer if Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis succeeds in changing India’s patent law, the humanitarian agency Medecins Sans Frontieres warned on Monday. Novartis is challenging a specific provision of India’s patent law that, if overturned, would see patents being granted far more widely, heavily restricting the availability of affordable generic medicines, MSF says.

In 2000, antiretroviral (ARV) treatment cost was estimated at $10,000 per patient annually. But the availability of generic drugs produced mainly in India, allowed costs to plummet to about $70 per patient per year, Mwangi adds.

You’ve got to love the friendly multinational arguing to make extra billions while people die. But I don’t think any Indian judge will overthrow Indian patent law. And there is a national interest  exemption built into most patent statutes, per the TRIPs agreements.

Arabic Strains of Islam hitting Kerala?

This can’t be great for Kerala, and something to keep an eye on.

Austere version of Islam finding a home in India – Los Angeles Times

The change came several years ago for Maryam Arrakal. Her husband brought a black, all-covering abaya back to this steamy, subtropical town from the desert sands of Saudi Arabia. It contrasted starkly with the pastel saris she normally wore. But in the 12 years that her husband, Kunchava, had been running a Saudi fabric shop, he had become detached from this melting pot of Muslims, Hindus and Christians, and more drawn to the Saudis’ strict version of Islam.

In general, a well written article. The combination of all the new money, influence and free time (when you come back “home”, you’re rich, you don’t have to work for a living) could be diverted to other things, but religion always seems to win out!

Kerala’s elders often boasted that Hindus, Muslims, Christians and a smattering of smaller religious groups were Indians first. Religious identity took a back seat to class interests. The Communist Party and the conservative Indian National Congress dominated elections.

This is the first time I have ever heard the Congress party being described as conservative. The author tries too hard to fit Indian politics into American clothes, and fails. The Congress is a left leaning market socialist party, if anything. Kerala’s politics are so far to the left of American politics that there is really no frame of reference.

“Muslims themselves are worried by the rise of the militant Islamic organizations,” said Ajai Mangat, Calicut correspondent for the Malayalam Manorama, the province’s largest daily newspaper. “If they become more powerful, the Hindu nationalists become more powerful.”

This is not the first time India has faced religious challenges, it won’t be the last time. I have faith in the giant melting pot to slowly rough the edges away. There will be tension, lives will be lost, as always, but life for the majority of Indians/Keralites will go on.

Church State Separation in India

Meant to blog about this on Wednesday, but it’s been that kind of week!

Debate in India: Is Rule on Yoga Constitutional? – New York Times

At issue is a measure by the Hindu nationalist-led government of the state of Madhya Pradesh, in central India, that required public school students to practice the sun salutation and recite certain chants in Sanskrit during a statewide function on Thursday. The state government, controlled by the Bharatiya Janata Party, or B.J.P., said that it complied with a central government policy to encourage yoga in schools and that it was inspired by a recent visit from a popular Hindu spiritual leader. Muslim and Christian groups in the state took issue not so much with the yoga exercise, but with the chants, which they said were essentially Hindu and in worship of the sun. They argued in court on Wednesday that it violated the Indian constitutional provision to separate religion and state.

The courts did the right thing. Yoga in India is definitely associated with being Hindu, and Sanskrit as well. There has been a growing tendency among right wing Hindu organizations to conflate Hindu and Indian (they do mean the same thing, after all). I would recommend any number of essays from Amartya Sen, especially those from the Argumentative Indian for a definitive takedown of this pernicious movement. The one-line answer is that India over the last 2000+ years has been influenced by so many religions and regions (Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, China, Arabia, Persia, Europe) that it is a foolish to ascribe any one identity to this country.

Whether yoga is religious practice is, like everything in this country, a matter of debate. Some people note that its recitations sometimes invoke Hindu gods, but others argue that its physical exercises have nothing to do with Hindu ritual. It is hardly uncommon for non-Hindus to practice yoga

And a lot of Hindus celebrate Christmas by going to the temple, funny how that works, and funny how nobody’s making them do it. The issue here was always imposition by the state and choice.

Yoga is wonderful and very good for you, and with a little care, can easily be delinked from its religious affiliations. Maybe this program can be done right, if the government is actually interested in getting it right.

What can the U.S learn from homeopathy?

Homeopathy was all around me growing up in India, so I read this article with interest as it jogged many memories of visiting the family homeopath with my parents.

Faith Healing with Homeopathy — In These Times

Homeopathy rests on three unproven tenets: First, “Like treats like.” Because arsenic causes shortness of breath, for example, homeopaths prescribe its “spirit” to treat diseases such as asthma. Second, the arsenic or other active ingredient is diluted in water and then that dilution is diluted again and so on, dozens of times, guaranteeing—for better and worse—that even if the dose has no therapeutic value, it does no harm. And third, the potion is shaken vigorously so that it retains a “memory” of the allegedly curative ingredient, a spirit-like essence that revives the body’s “vital force.”

Fooey, the description of the science is hilariously pseudoscientific, but homeopathy is no laughing matter in India. It is estimated to be a Rs. 250 Crore (that is 2.5 billion rupees or about $58 million) industry as of 2002-2003.  I do not think this includes doctors and clinics. This website lists 158 colleges in India offering the  valid (it is like an MD!) degree of Bachelor of Homeopathic Medicine and Surgery, or BHMS. My parents swear by it, most of my family living in India has either visited, or regularly visit one. It is hugely popular for hepatitis and liver disease, more so than conventional medicine in India.

What’s the deal? Why is it so popular? I think Terry Allen is on the right track, this sentence here, buried in the middle, hits the nail on the head…

Part of the effect comes from the ritual of consultation with a practitioner who treats the patient like a person rather than a body part on an assembly line.

Allen does not quite grasp the significance of this sentence and tracks away into placebo effects and evil pharma. But here’s the deal: A lot of Indians (who can afford $4-$5 consultation fee) visit their homeopath every month. When I tagged along with my parents, we would go on a Sunday afternoon at 2 PM to this homeopath’s office, which was a wing of his house (a big house, I might add!). It was a relaxed and leisurely time, he spent 10-15 minutes with each of us (yes, my parents made me!) talking about the previous month, what we were up to, how stressed we’d been, how our ailments from the previous month were doing, had we noticed any changes to our health over the month, etc. We would be interrupted occasionally by his little kid, or his assistant relaying a message from his wife, it was as far removed from a doctor’s visit as possible. And yes, he would take your blood pressure, run simple blood tests, etc. At the end of it, he would give you little sugar pills/sugar coated powder formulations to take home. The formulations were individually dosed, it was all categorized and labeled for you.

This is like having a mini physical every month. Surely, just the act of talking to someone made you feel better, the act of ritually opening up little packets of “medicine” and following detailed instructions for 5 days helped, surely the homely and relaxing atmosphere of visiting a family friend helped, I don’t know.

Metrics? both my parents occasionally had their hypertension treated with homeopathy. This worked as long as they were borderline, and simple stress management would get the numbers down. This doctor was/is very good at stress management because he talked calmly, yet firmly, he would listen and tease their little everyday stressors out of them and that was probably good for a 10 point reduction. But I remember the homeopath sending mom off to a doctor for a more conventional treatment regimen as soon as she hit 160.

It never ever worked for me because I was way too sceptical to buy into the process, so I would not listen, or relax enough to talk. I would take my pills, but it would make absolutely no difference whatsoever. Of course, he was trying to treat me for severe sinus related issues probably brought on by pollution, and by sleepless nights spent on a beach looking for turtles!

I am sure that for every good homeopath, there were two bad ones who just handed out pills of sugar. But my parents’ homeopath was, and continues to be part Dr. Phil, part candyman, part cheerleader!

Homeopathy probably “works” because it makes people take the time to think about their life and what’s ailing them. It’s a lesson that American primary care providers could do well to learn.

Pakistan and the Taliban

At Border, Signs of Pakistani Role in Taliban Surge – New York Times

The most explosive question about the Taliban resurgence here along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is this: Have Pakistani intelligence agencies been promoting the Islamic insurgency?

The government of Pakistan vehemently rejects the allegation and insists that it is fully committed to help American and NATO forces prevail against the Taliban militants who were driven from power in Afghanistan in 2001.

Western diplomats in both countries and Pakistani opposition figures say that Pakistani intelligence agencies — in particular the powerful Inter-Services Intelligence and Military Intelligence — have been supporting a Taliban restoration, motivated not only by Islamic fervor but also by a longstanding view that the jihadist movement allows them to assert greater influence on Pakistan’s vulnerable western flank.

Read the whole article, it is instructive. Most South Asians (including Pakistanis) would say “D’uh”! We’ve known this for years! It’s considered a well known fact that the Pakistan’s Intelligence Agency ISI helped create the Taliban with US assistance and coordinated the Mujahideen resistance in Afghanistan. Read this article from 2001 for a good summary.

My point is not to discuss the rightness or wrongness of these actions. Most competent countries will do whatever is in their best interests. Everyone’s known this piece of information about the ISI for years, and the U.S government knows this as well. It is in every country’s best interest to be as hypocritical/devious as possible in the pursuit of foreign policy. 

But  it is incumbent on any newspaper covering the government to not participate in this hypocrisy. The NY times writes three pages on the Taliban without providing any background on U.S involvement. It is an article of faith among South Asians like me that American mass media is an organ of U.S diplomacy and/or propaganda. Articles like these only confirm this hypothesis.

Mercury Exposure in India?

Ex-workers ask HLL to accept liability for mercury deaths

The death of a 47-year-old man who had worked for a Hindustan Lever thermometer factory for 18 years brought out hundreds of ex-employees, who had also been exposed to toxic mercury, to the streets.

Scores of people in the area suffer from skin diseases, premature greying, incessant headaches, stomach pain, kidney problems and blood in the urine, say the former workers who approached the Supreme Court in 2005 demanding compensation.

Well, I don’t know what to say. This tragedy goes on in India continuously, occupational pollution exposure is through the roof in most factories. Safety equipment is not used, enforcement is minimal, all in all, in a country of 1+ billion people, some are more expendable than others.

I suspect this one is getting more play because a large multinational is involved. But Indian factories are equal opportunity killers, whether owned by large behemoths like Unilever, or by your local rotary club small businessman.

It looks like they have not even done an autopsy/blood test to look for mercury in this man’s system, so it’s early days.

South Asians: Watch your Heart

Seems like us South Asians die earlier from heart attacks.

ScienceDaily: South Asians Have Higher Levels Of Heart Attack Risk Factors At Younger Ages

Deaths related to cardiovascular disease occur 5 to 10 years earlier in South Asian countries than in Western countries, according to background information in the article. This has raised the possibility that South Asians exhibit a special susceptibility for acute myocardial infarction (AMI; heart attack) that is not explained by traditional risk factors.

But why?

The prevalence of protective risk factors (leisure time physical activity, regular alcohol intake, and daily intake of fruits and vegetables) were markedly lower in South Asian study participants compared with those from other countries.

Um, it is mainly behavioral, not genetic according to the authors, and hence can be mitigated by lifestyle changes.

Well, I guess it is time to take a personal stock as of 1-18-2007:

  • Weight – Well, I am in the lower end of the healthy BMI.
  • Exercise – 4-5 days of 45 minutes – 1 hour per day, pretty good.
  • Food – Well, mostly good, especially if the candy can be avoided. I need to eat more vegetables, but I eat a lot of high fibre, and whole wheat food, probably not enough protein, mostly vegetarian.
  • Alcohol (1-2 drinks is apparently a heart protector) – Amen, I am a religious one drink a day partaker, more on weekends :-;
  • Smoking – Well, gave that up a while back, now to quit that occasional “party” smoke.
  • Stress – Well, not so good, this is probably the area I would need to work on the most.
  • Hypertension – Well, I am borderline on my blood pressure readings 🙁 Need to work on that.
  • Cholesterol – Still waiting for results on my physical.

On the whole, I seem to be in decent shape. It’s good to take stock once in a while.

Indian Supreme Court to Review Hitherto Sacrosanct Laws

BBC NEWS | South Asia | India court opens laws to review

Judges led by the chief justice closed a loophole that has kept some laws from their scrutiny in a part of the constitution called the Ninth Schedule. The Ninth Schedule was created in 1951 to help protect progressive laws on land reform and ending feudalism, but critics say it has since been misused.

Unfortunately, a shortsighted solution to a problem will be misused. Shielding laws from judicial review is good if you have a reform minded  legislative, and an atavistic judiciary, which was presumably the case in 1950s India. Nehru and his parliament, fresh from the independence struggle, and eager to transfer power from the entrenched zamindari system to the proletariat enacted the ninth schedule as part of the first amendment to the constitution.
The judiciary, and I am guessing here (this is a blog, isn’t it!), was probably filled with remnants of the British Raj civil service, and hence full of entrenched interests. The situation is reversed now, with the judiciary (the higher reaches, that is) coming up through the ranks as lawyers, and the politicians, well, being Indian politicians!

Bad law enacted for a good purpose is still bad law, and this judgment will bring some sanity into lawmaking.

BTW, the list of laws that will come under scrutiny is long, it is a bunch of land reform, industry nationalization and tribal rights acts that will not be challenged. Number 116:

116) The Tamil Nadu Backward Classes, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Reservation of Seats in Educational Institutions and of appointments or posts in the Services under the State) Act, 1993 (Tamil Nadu Act 45 of 1994).

This is the one that precipitated the review. This law called for a 69% of all college admissions in government institutions be based on a quota system to benefit “backward castes”. The supreme court had instituted a 50% cap. This law is sure to be challenged and since the protection under the 9th schedule is lost, will surely be overturned.