Down to Earth - - EDITOR’S PAGE -

WHAT DOES farmer’s de­spair over crop fail­ure have in com­mon with dengue fever, which is rav­aging Delhi and other cities of In­dia? Seem­ingly noth­ing. But dig a lit­tle deeper and you will find that in both cases vari­able and er­ratic weather is at the root of th­ese tragic events. There is an­other con­nec­tion: lack of govern­men­tal pol­icy, ac­tion and, quite frankly, cal­lous ne­glect that has made both events even more hor­rific and painful.

Last fort night, I wrote about the killing fields of In­dia, where unsea­sonal, ex­treme and de­fi­cient rain­fall had driven farm­ers to de­spair. It is clear that this vari­able weather is not a freak event, but points to the changes that are be­gin­ning to in­flu­ence our mon­soon life­line. It is equally clear that cur­rent poli­cies ex­ac­er­bate agrar­ian dis­tress.It is farm­ers who pay with their lives.

This fort­night, it is vec­tor-borne dis­ease dengue that is tak­ing lives. The most heart­break­ing in­ci­dent was of a child whom hos­pi­tal af­ter hos­pi­tal in cap­i­tal city Delhi re­fused ad­mis­sion. Dev­as­tated par­ents jumped off their roof. They could not face life any­more. Many more cases in Delhi and across In­dia have emerged.One ex­pla­na­tion for the vir­u­lence this year is that the mos­quito has a four-year cy­cle, and this is its peak year. An­other ex­pla­na­tion is that it is a dif­fer­ent serotype of the dengue virus; or that Aedes ae­gypti and Aedes al­bopic­tus, the two mos­quito species that trans­mit the dengue virus, have mu­tated and be­come more harm­ful.

But th­ese sup­po­si­tions do not add up to ex­plain the ex­tent of dam­age this mos­quito has done this year. Ex­pla­na­tion for that lies some­where else.One is this year’s strange weather. There has been pe­ri­odic rain, which is fol­lowed by days of in­tense heat. Down To Earth re­ports about global stud­ies that point to how risk of dengue in­creases in such sit­u­a­tions.

Unsea­sonal rain in Fe­bru­ary and March not only dam­aged crops, but also pro­longed the sea­son for mos­qui­toes. Cli­mate changes will make the en­vi­ron­ment con­ducive to mos­quito breed­ing, show all mod­els on im­pacts.But we just do not lis­ten.It is time we stopped de­bat­ing the C word. Cli­mate change is here in terms of weird weather events and its im­pacts will only grow as the run­away tem­per­a­ture, caused by our fos­sil fuel ad­dic­tion, con­tin­ues to spi­ral out of con­trol.

This is still only one part of our chal­lenge. The other rea­son be­hind dengue’s dead­li­ness is sheer mis­man­age­ment of health ser­vices and shock­ingly bad gov­er­nance. In Delhi, the cur­rent elected state gov­ern­ment is locked in a war with the other elected na­tional gov­ern­ment. In this game of one-up­man­ship the ca­sual- ty is gov­er­nance. Such en­vi­ron­ment is not ideal for any real de­vel­op­men­tal ac­tion. What thrives in­stead is mean­ing­less pol­i­tics and a highly po­larised dis­course.

In all this, our health ser­vices are ne­glected.We have not in­vested in build­ing pub­lic in­fra­struc­ture to pro­vide ba­sic and now ter­tiary ser­vices. It is the most odi­ously oft-re­peated state­ment that In­dia’s in­vest­ment in health ser­vices re­mains one of the low­est in the world. The as­sump­tion is that the gov­ern­ment does not need to do any­thing; in­stead as peo­ple get rich, pri­vate health ser­vices will spread and more than ad­e­quately fill the void.If peo­ple can­not pay, then in­sur­ance com­pa­nies will step in and this will cer­tainly fill the void.But as the dengue cri­sis shows, with­out pub­lic in­fra­struc­ture, or at the very least pub­lic reg­u­la­tion to keep costs in check, peo­ple will die. To­day, to man­age this pub­lic health cri­sis, the gov­ern­ment has capped the price of lab­o­ra­tory tests and va­cated beds in pub­lic hos­pi­tals—sent other equally ill peo­ple home—to take care of the dengue epi­demic. This is no way to go about deal­ing with dengue.

All this will not work if we do not pre­vent diseases—in the case of dengue, clean our en­vi­ron­ment to make sure that what­ever the ad­verse weather changes the mos­quito does not breed. There is some ev­i­dence that dengue mos­quito, which ear­lier bred only in clean wa­ter is adapt­ing rapidly to our dirty en­vi­ron­ment. All this means, once again, that we can­not have piles or ponds of garbage and pol­luted stag­nant wa­ter.Our mu­nic­i­pal ser­vices can­not fail.We can­not fail.

And it can be done. Many years ago, our ex­per­i­ments with bio-vec­tor con­trol—in Puducherry and later in Kheda dis­trict of Gu­jarat—showed a dra­matic re­duc­tion in vec­tor-borne diseases.In th­ese cases, what was done was ag­gres­sive clean­ing of the en­vi­ron­ment to make sure there was no stag­nant wa­ter in drains and use of fish lar­vae to erad­i­cate the mos­quito. Ba­sic stuff.

Cli­mate change has only mag­ni­fied our al­ready ex­ist­ing risks, whether in the case of farm­ers or in the case of dengue.The grow­ing im­pacts of cli­mate change in terms of weird weather tell us that we do not have the lux­ury of time any­more. We need to get our act to­gether, and act. Fast.

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