Down To Earth(SEPTEMBER 16 - 30)
1. DROUGHT, LAND DEGRADATION AND MERCURY POLLUTION
GS-3: Conservation, environmental pollution and degradation, environmental impact assessment.
- Deficit Rainfall:
- On September 1, 2021, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) announced that the monsoon this year was well within the normal range, with a deficit of just 9%. The weather agency went on to assure that by the end of September, the last month of the four-month-monsoon season, the overall rainfall will be comfortably “above normal”.
- Despite “normal” rains, almost 90 per cent of the districts remain drier than usual even as the kharif (summer) crop season is underway, suggests the latest Aridity Anomaly Outlook Index released by IMD for September 2-8, 2021. Farmers across 10 states and Union Territories are battling drought-like situations.
v The index monitors agricultural drought, a situation when rainfall and soil moisture are inadequate to support healthy crop growth till maturity, causing crop stress.
v The index, released week-on week, shows the dramatic increase in the aridity levels this monsoon season. Of the 733 districts in the country, only 30 are currently nonarid.
v India’s only real-time drought monitoring system, developed by the Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar, Gujarat, showed almost 28% of the country was under drought.
- India recorded a deficit rainfall in July and August, the most crucial period for sowing kharif crops. August has been the driest month in the current monsoon season with 24% less rainfall than the normal. As a result, sowing was completed only on 104.3 million hectares (ha) till August 20, according to the data with the Union Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare.
- As on September 6, Gujarat had received a cumulative deficit rainfall of 41%; 32 of the 33 districts reported less rainfall. Odisha has received 29% less rainfall till September 6.
- Drought Declaration:
- State governments are responsible for declaring a drought, as per the Manual of Drought Management, 2016, released by the Union Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare.
- As per the manual, state governments are responsible for providing financial assistance during moderate droughts. Only in the case of a severe drought, the state government can receive financial assistance from the National Disaster Response Fund under the Union Ministry of Home Affairs.
- The decision to announce a drought is dependent on how much unrest is being reported within the state and not on the rainfall and soil moisture pattern.
- A drought can be identified on the basis of five categories of indices: rainfall, vegetation, water, crop and others such as socioeconomic or developmental factors that might help understand the impact of the droughts.
- The relevant data needs to be collected through a network of monitoring systems that the state government should set up “at the smallest administrative unit levels”.
- In addition, agencies of the Union and state governments need to “streamline and strengthen data collection systems for drought variables” and create Standard Operating Procedures for data collection.
- The rule book says the declaration of kharif drought should not be done later than October 30 and the rabi drought by March 31 of each year.
- Almost 30% of the country’s land mass is undergoing degradation, suggests the Desertification and Land Degradation Atlas of India, released in June this year by the Indian Space Research Organisation.
- The report, made public this August, defines degradation as a decline in productivity in terms of biodiversity and economy due to various causes including climate and human dominance.
- Degradation in dryland regions is called desertification. While almost all states have reported an increase in such wasted land in the past 15 years, the most rapid increase has taken place in the biodiversity-rich northeastern states.
- Close to 98 million hectare an area almost three times the size of India’s largest state Rajasthan has already been degraded.
- The report, in a way, highlights the stiff challenge India needs to overcome if it wishes to achieve its target of becoming land degradation neutral by 2030, as announced by the Prime Minister in September 2019 at the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification. The country also plans to restore 26 million hectares (ha) by 2030.
- While the world has always known about the presence of toxic mercury in the oceans, it believed the atmosphere was the primary source of the heavy metal that poisons fish and other marine life.
- Researchers at Yale School of the Environment, US, claim rivers are the real culprit, and that they flush more than 1 million kg of hazardous mercury into oceans each year.
- The estimate is threefold of that suggested by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Global Mercury Assessment, 2018, which highlights that rivers are an important but overlooked source of the global mercury cycle.
- Just 10 rivers account for 53% of mercury deposited in coastal oceans every year.
- Coastal oceans, which constitute 0.2 per cent of the entire ocean volume, receive 27 per cent of the external mercury input. These deposits, over time, get released into the open ocean.
- This is worrying since coastal oceans account for 30% of the global oceanic primary production and 60 per cent of the total economic value of the oceanic biosphere, as per a 2013 study published in Nature.
- Legacy mercury refers to historical releases of the metal due to human activities, which continue to circulate in the atmosphere and get stored in the soil.
- How mercury rides rivers to reach the ocean:
- Stage 1: Mercury is released by natural processes (volcanoes) or human activities such as mining, coal production. Historical releases (legacy mercury) also present in soil.
- Stage 2: Mercury is deposited into the atmosphere and river bodies through air-water exchange, heavy rainfall. Soil erosion also releases legacy mercury into rivers.
- Stage 3: Rivers dump mercury into coastal oceans and then into open oceans. Mercury is a neurotoxic substance that causes 250,000 intellectual disabilities a year.
- Alarm for India:
- The researchers attribute two reasons for the high yield of riverine mercury in the Ganga- Brahmaputra river basin: legacy mercury and intensive coal combustion in the country.
- Chlor alkali plants that use mercury cell technology were a major source of pollution, but the country successfully shifted to cleaner membrane cells in 2012.
- Indian coal has higher mercury content than that of other countries. And it lacks a robust system to check mercury emissions in power plants.
- As per the Food Safety and Standards (Packaging and Labelling) Regulations, 2011, every pre-packed processed food product sold in the country must be labelled with nutritional information.
- To ensure that consumers are able to easily see and interpret the nutritional information on food packets, an expert committee established by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), the country’s food regulator, proposed a labelling system in 2014..
- The WHO defines FOP labels as “nutrition labelling systems that are presented on the front of food packages in the principal field of vision; and present simple, often graphic information on the nutrient content or nutritional quality of products, to complement the more detailed nutrient declarations provided on the back of food packages.”
- The Codex Alimentarius Commission, an international food standards body established jointly by who and the Food and Agriculture organization (FAO), mentions that “fop labelling is designed to assist in interpreting nutrient declarations”.
- Countries such as Chile, Brazil and Israel have laws to push the packaged food industry to adopt FOP labelling. They have used FOP labelling as a measure to fight obesity and NCDs.
- In 2018, FSSAI released the draft Food Safety and Standards (Labelling and Display) Regulations, which for the first-time proposed FOP labelling for packaged food in India. The 2018 draft required food makers to place the information upfront—on the front of the pack—and highlight all the nutrients that exceed thresholds in red.
- A working group of FSSAI prepared thresholds* for fat, salt and sugar in Feb-April 2021. These are highly relaxed than what FSSAI had proposed in earlier drafts and shows the food industry has been working behind the scenes. The report is now on hold.
- FSSAI working group thresholds for total sugar and saturated fat are much higher than those in countries that follow global best practices.
- FSSAI working group thresholds for total sugar and saturated fat are highly relaxed than limits proposed by the food regulator in its earlier drafts of labelling and display regulations.
- What should be done for consumers to make healthy food choices?
- Countries have tried different labelling formats, but warning labels have emerged as the most effective in guiding consumers to make healthy food choices.
- Front-of-pack labels must include information on nutrients that make food injurious to health. This should be distinct from the details on the back-of-pack.
- There should be a warning about the specific nutrient that is present in excess amount in a product and provide binary information.
- The information should be conveyed using tools such as colours, shapes and graphics. They do not leave consumers confused with a glut of information.
- Summary indicators should also not be considered. They will shift the focus away from nutrients of concern and fail to inform consumers about the nutrients that are high or low.
1. The nutritional details on our food wrappers hide more than they reveal. Justify your answer. What should India do to make customers more aware?
2. Discuss the regulatory framework and challenges involved in enforcing food safety and standards in India.
3. While cumulative rainfall has been largely normal, the erratic nature of the monsoon has triggered a drought-like situation in most parts of the country. Explain.
4. India needs a separate policy for rainfed farmland that should promote ways to save the top soil and its nutrients. What according to you are the steps needed to promote to save the top soil and its nutrients?
5. Indian coal has higher mercury content than that of other countries. And it lacks a robust system to check mercury emissions in power plants. What are the reasons for the lack in the system? How can it be strengthened?
1. What are the impediments in disposing of the huge quantities of discarded solid wastes which are continuously being generated? How do we safely remove the toxic wastes that have been accumulating in our habitable environment? (GS-3: 2018)