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DANGEROUS SHORES

Indian attitudes to environmental pollution range from blissful ignorance to criminal indifference. It took an unhealthy amount of judicial activism to make Delhiites breathe cleaner air. The government in West Bengal is still wondering whether clean air might be a capitalist conspiracy. Various forms of slow and quick death — carbon monoxide, arsenic, state hospitals — remain a perfectly acceptable part of the political status quo. It looks now that the sea at Puri — Bengal’s favourite getaway — might not provide the safest water for a rejuvenating dip. The Orissa pollution control board has found out that the seawater is becoming increasingly hospitable to micro-organisms which could do serious harm to the bathers. The reason for this is clear: untreated sewage discharge into the sea, mostly from the hotels in the area near the sea. The board has warned the municipality and the district administration that the situation could take on alarming proportions if steps are not taken immediately.

This then is considerably more than having to feel for fish and turtles; most Indians believe that there are more important things in life than being considerate to flora and fauna. But human lives are at stake here. Since most of the sewage comes from hotels and therefore contains a lot of human waste, pathogens of communicable diseases are being released into the sea. But, predictably enough, the matter is being treated with the familiar mix of ignorance, inertia and corruption. The local effluent treatment plant ignores the Supreme Court’s norms; through years of laxity, the pollution control board has effectively forfeited its powers to punish the negligent hotels and municipality; and the chairman of the municipality expresses nothing more than mild outrage at being made to think about the matter. The sea is simply too immense a problem to ponder. Last year, the Central ground water board found out that the ground water in Puri is also dangerously contaminated with domestic effluents. The phosphate level is high enough to cause hyperthyroidism and osteoporosis. When tourism meets corruption, the result is likely to be lethal.

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