Pumping in diseases

  • 29/11/1994

THE recent outbreak of falciparum malaria in non-endemic areas in Rajasthan has underscored the link between development projects and the damage they cause to the human environment. Public health experts as well as social workers have pointed out that the fuse for the disease's flare-up lay in the well-meant Indira Gandhi Nahar Project (IGNP) that cuts through the state. Sadly enough, the IGNP is evidence of the disturbing fact that India's planners and administrators seem to implement mega irrigation projects with their blinkers on.

The Rs 4,000-crore IGNP, with its 445-km-long main canal and thousands of kilometres of distributaries was conceived as the lifeline of the Thar. But it brought a baggage of miseries, although there is no denying that the canal made parts of the parched Thar enviably green.

But seepage from the canal and unplanned flood irrigation caused waterlogging; the availability of excess water encouraged farmers to switch over to alien agriculture practices. For instance, in many areas, the local rugged varieties of jowar and bajra were elbowed out by wheat and cotton, which thrive on intensive irrigation, fertilisers and pesticides. Sheets of water in the fields and pools in construction sites became new breeding grounds for mosquitos; water-diluted DDT dumped wholesale in the fields immunised mosquitoes against this staple insecticide of the malaria control programme. The migrant labour force, hired for the canal's construction, moved around in villages and labour camps, contributing to the problem by introducing the pathogen and and carrying it to virgin sands. It became a classic case of "irrigation malaria".

Malaria and other diseases associated with extensive irrigation projects have been a major problem in developing countries. One of the best-documented cases is that of Egypt's Aswan High Dam, where there was a 40-fold increase in the incidence of schistosomiasis, an infection caused by blood flukes and spread by freshwater snails. Recent irrigation projects in Sri Lanka resulted in malaria running riot in project areas. In India, Rajasthan is not the only case in point. Due to the Upper Krishna Irrigation Project, the incidence of malaria in Karnataka increased by a factor of over 250, according World Bank studies. River basin development projects in Punjab and Haryana rendered new area endemic to malaria.

Worse, the World Bank's 1985 Staff Appraisal Report pointed out that malaria, schistosomiasis, and filaria could jeopardize public health as a result of the Sardar Sarovar Project. A 1992 study sponsored by the World Bank pointed out: "The project area and nearby villages had a high level of malaria with the killer type (Plasmodium falciparurn) exceeding 30 per cent and deaths from malaria have been reported since 1990."

The report, quoted by the Independent Review Committee chaired by the Bradford Morse Independent Review report noted that with the onset of peak construction, the rate of malaria increased 6 times, and falciparum by two-and-a-half times. However, now that the problem seems to have come to stay, there is little alacrity being shown by those in positions of authority.

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