Beyond COVID-19: Combating a Health Concern
Covid-19 pandemic has captured the attention and galvanized action across the globe, including here in Assam, at a scale never seen before.
However, beyond Covid-19, what about other health related issues that have been detrimentally impacting the wellbeing of its citizens before the onset of the present pandemic and shall continue to do so even after the Covid-19 issue is behind us?
The concern discussed herein is about the chemical and contaminant laden vegetables, fruits and other edibles that are being sold in the market. Today, this scourge is causing great damage to the health of the citizens, with consequent impact on their productivity at work, their financial condition in view of additional medical expenditure; their quality and longevity of life.
On one side we perhaps have the untrained and unsuspecting farmer who uses uncontrolled dosages of fertilizer and pesticides to grow vegetables and fruits, oblivious of the damage the residual chemicals in his produce are causing to the health of his fellow citizens. On the other hand, we have the unscrupulous who inject harmful growth promoters, chemicals to increase shelf-life, ripen fruits using harmful chemicals and inject sweeteners, all to meet market demand and increase profit. Under both scenarios, the customer/citizen is the sufferer.
The government of Assam is committed to work towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). Goal No. 3: Ensure Healthy Lives and Promote Wellbeing for all at all Ages. The government therefore is morally bound to act against the aforesaid practices that detrimentally affect human health.
The government is surely aware as to what is required to be done to meet market demand. It, however, needs the desire and the will to act in a holistic manner to achieve this objective without doing harm to the consumer. Some actions could include bringing more acreage under cultivation of market determined vegetables and fruits.The Agriculture Department would need to offer guidance to the farmers on cropping pattern, training on usage of fertilizers and pesticides etc. Moreover, technology, including Artificial Intelligence (AI) usage must aid the farmer on issues like area-specific rainfall information, training on latest agricultural practices including use of appropriate quantities of fertilizers and pesticides for pest control/management and water conservation etc.
Making available real-time data on prevailing prices in target markets would be essential for the farmer to get a fair return for his labour. A cluster-based farming approach would facilitate aggregation of produce for moving to the market or for value addition at lower input cost. Establishment of cold chains, including refrigerated trucks and cold storages must be planned along major routes of movement of perishable vegetable and fruits in order to reduce wastage. This would require ensured power supply along the path of the cold chains. Thus, involvement of the power ministry would also come into the frame. Hence, inter-ministerial planning and coordination would be necessary. Effort must be made to ensure that the farmer does not have to resort to unhealthy practices to make an honest livelihood.
The paddy fields of large parts of upper Assam lie fallow after harvesting just one paddy crop. The acreage of such land would add up to several thousand hectares. Could farmers not be encouraged to grow crops like mustard as a second crop in these fields? It is a less water intensive crop. It is a pity that Assam, whose citizens largely use mustard oil as their cooking medium, does not have its own home grown brand of mustard oil.
With greater availability of mustard seeds, surely some farmer producer company or entrepreneurs would step up to do the needful. The people of the region certainly could do with unadulterated mustard oil to grace their kitchens.
The mustard value chain offers a lot besides the oil, from employment opportunities in the oil extraction mills that are expected to come up to the use of the cake as fertilizer and cattle feed. All the northeastern states and possibly some neighbouring countries could be the market for their produce. This is just illustrative of the opportunities that could be thrown up while embarking upon this journey to bring to the table good, healthy food.
It is of utmost importance that the government takes immediate action to check this malaise of chemical laden and adulterated food items being fed to its citizens. The government must have the resolve to put an end to this harmful practice and put in place a system of quality check to ensure that farm and other products coming into the market must meet established quality standards.
Products failing quality standards must be summarily seized and destroyed in order to create a deterrent against unscrupulous and harmful practices. Of course, there is always a danger of such systems denigrating into another avenue for making unearned money by some corrupt personnel involved. To check this, a system of cross-checking test results and monitoring corrective actions through an independent and autonomous body must also be put in place. This is certainly within the realms of possibility if the government is serious about weeding out corrupt practices. Moreover, whither is the Hon’ble Prime Minister’s (read BJP’s) clarion call to make the North Eastern States of India organic?
Certainly, organically grown vegetables/fruits and chemical laden stuff cannot be complimentary! Surely, the present government is aware of this.
There is a clamour for improving the healthcare delivery infrastructure and systems in the state. There is no debate on the need for this. However, it is equally, if not more important, to see that people remain healthy. And it is the government’s responsibility to uproot unscrupulous and harmful practices that strike at the root of good health of the citizen. Here the role of a vigilant and active civil society cannot be over emphasized!
Another initiative that needs to be considered very seriously is that our school curriculum be amended to include time and attention to developing responsible future citizens with expectations of financial and other returns like respect, only from the dint of one’s own enterprise and hard work and not through gratification and other dubious means. This must be drilled into children at their formative age so that it becomes an integral part of their DNA. This, perhaps, could be the defining weapon in the war against corrupt practices.
The effort called for, as can be seen, would require a multi-ministerial approach involving the agriculture, health, power and education ministries. A holistic, strategic plan and with determined intervention would be the key to success. It is sincerely hoped that the present government is up to the task.
Covid-19 has created a new realization and has generated a new resolve among all sections of society - people, industry members, farmers and importantly the government. One could perhaps look forward towards a new Assam claiming its rightful place as one of the most progressive and prospering states of the country.
(With 38 years of rich and diverse experience in Energy & Sustainability areas, the author retired as Executive Director of IOCL. The views expressed in the article are his own)