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Clay-Pot Dictator!

Maneka GANDHI

Monday 28 June 2004, by GANDHI*Maneka

Laloo Yadav’s idea of high tea on trains is a recipe for ecological disaster

As soon as Laloo Prasad Yadav wrested the railway ministership from a reluctant prime minister, the first thing he announced was that kulhars or clay pots would be used for all liquid refreshment on trains. This caught the imagination of the media immediately and became the subject of many appreciative editorials. Unfortunately, instead of understanding the enormity of this new problem, the NDA reacted by saying that George Fernandes had thought of it first and so he should get the credit! There is no credit to be given to anyone. This is an environmentally disastrous decision and its impact will be seen very quickly on the poor as well as the land.

Let me explain.

Clay pots are made out of soil from agricultural land. They cannot be made out of sand or desert clay. They cannot be made out of soil from public lands because it is forbidden to use them for private purposes. Therefore, these kulhars will be made with soil from private agricultural land-the same land which is now being raped for brick kilns. No large farmer will sell any land to the clay-pot industry. Only the marginal farmer who owns one acre or less and earns less than Rs 10,000 a year is approached to "lease" his land. He jumps at the prospect of getting a lump sum of, say, Rs 60,000-1 lakh. That money is usually put to unproductive use. None of it goes into the bank nor is it used to buy cheaper land. The farmer usually spends it on weddings, motorcycles, upgrading his house. Within a year he is reduced to absolute poverty.

The leased land is excavated to the depths of 8 feet. The soil from here is taken to a kiln where it is baked. What is the impact of the baking process? The open kiln is by law supposed to have a chimney 100 feet high. Less than 40 per cent of the chimneys in agricultural India are of that height and most district commissioners do not know about this rule or do not enforce it. What is the medium of baking? From my own extensive surveys of brick kilns which will be used for kulhars now, the owners cut down government trees at night or buy trees from farmers. And it’s rarely poplars and eucalyptus as their burning value is little. In Uttar Pradesh and Bihar they include mangoes, jamun, semal, pipal. Irreplaceable trees. No brick kiln ever has any trees near it, they’ve long been fed into the fire.

What happens to the agricultural land around it? The soot from the chimneys settles over the neighbouring lands and crops start failing. It is a documented fact (and hundreds of small farmer agitations have taken place over this) that the yield of neighbouring fields goes down sharply. Orchards too register a marked decline in output. Nearby villages constantly complain of the particulate matter in the air and chest and eye problems become common.

Is the kulhar itself environmentally sound? Absolutely not. Once the soil has been baked, it changes its chemical composition. It cannot become agricultural soil again even if one were to take lakhs of discarded pots and throw them back into the 8 foot pit. Glass is made out of sand: with the same base of silica. But when glass has been made via exposure to intense heat, even if you smash it into little bits, does it become sand again? No. Nor do baked clay pots. What are the main items that come out of archaeological digs? Yes, 2,000-year-old pots. It will take several hundred years for these kulhars to disintegrate. Till then, wherever they land, they will prevent anything from growing below them. Like plastic they are not permeable. (It’s time some environmental myths were taken to task. Bundles of newspapers buried in the ground, for instance, will still be intact 50 years later).

When the marginal farmer has his land returned to him by the lessee, it is a deep stony pit. Perhaps he will take a loan from the bank and turn it into a fish farm.But fish farming in Uttar Pradesh (and everywhere else in inland north India) is a government-sponsored "industry" that has the highest rate of failure-over 90 per cent. It needs chemicals, properly maintained water, constant vigil and an immediate and nearby market. So he will then be forced into bankruptcy and lose even the house and motorcycle.

Will this make any poor person richer? No. The brick kilns in north India are already owned by well-off people. No poor person has anything to do with the kilns. There are only two capacities in which they are employed-those with horses or donkeys who carry the soil to the kiln (trucks carry the bricks out) and the labourers who feed the kiln and have very short lives. They’re covered with dust and soot and receive absolutely bare minimum wages.

In the kulhar industry, the potter gets the bare minimum per kulhar-about 25 paisa. Besides, the same transport and exploitative labour methods are used. So if the potter works really hard and makes 50 kulhars a day, how much does he earn? Rs 12.50. How much agricultural land will be needed for several lakh kulhars a day? More than 100 acres per day per state.

Can we afford to let Laloo, whose knowledge of anything except caste structures is non-existent, damage the rural economy further? The long-suffering railway ministry, which has by now lost its ability to resist any absurd decision by any of their ministers, has agreed to budget Rs 250 crore a year to buy kulhars. While all that money comes from your pocket, where will it actually go?

P.S.

in Outlook India, Monday, June 28, 2004.

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