June 27, 2018 @ 2:00 am

27 JUNE 2018 

Make or break?

In Bihar, the BJP will have to decide how to accommodate its allies’ competing demands

It makes no sense to save the worst for last. The allies of the Bharatiya Janata Party in Bihar, the Janata Dal (United) and the Lok Janshakti Party, have their own reasons for pushing for an early agreement on seat-sharing for the Lok Sabha election next year. Unless the BJP is willing to sacrifice some of the seats it won in 2014, it is unlikely to be able to accommodate the JD(U). The LJP does not want to be squeezed out of its six seats, and the JD(U) will not be happy if it is given seats solely on the basis of its performance in the last Lok Sabha election, when it won from just two of the 40 constituencies. For the BJP to retain all its current allies, it must consider contesting fewer seats than the 22 seats it won in the last election. That is not easy to do, and there is a real possibility of the alliance breaking on the seat-sharing issue.After frequently switching electoral partners, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar does not enjoy high political credibility despite his efforts to couch opportunism in idealistic garb. If he is unable to tie up the alliance issue, Mr. Kumar may well become isolated in Bihar. The BJP’s hand will only be strengthened the closer it gets to the Lok Sabha election, as the JD(U) will have fewer options. The national party may actually fancy its chances in a triangular fight as in 2014: leaving the JD(U) in the lurch might not be bad as a political tactic.

The JD(U) was the senior partner of the alliance in Bihar until Mr. Kumar broke away on the issue of Narendra Modi being named the prime ministerial candidate in 2014. But after its spectacular victory in 2014, the BJP feels it is on the ascendant in Bihar. Only a mahagathbandhan with the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Congress allowed the JD(U) to make a comeback in 2015. Political manoeuvres have allowed Mr. Kumar to continue as Chief Minister as he alternately took sides against communalism and corruption, but the JD(U) is no longer the largest party in Bihar. The demand that the alliance fight the Lok Sabha election under Mr. Kumar is but a faint stab at regaining the JD(U)’s pre-2014 primacy in relation to the BJP. But while the JD(U) wants an understanding to be reached without loss of time, the BJP would like to put it off to the extent possible. BJP leader and Deputy Chief Minister Sushil Kumar Modi sought to downplay the differences, saying “when hearts have met” sharing seats was no big deal. But if there is one lesson in politics, it is that cold calculations of the mind always trump spontaneous emotions of the heart. Even if the JD(U) forces a decision in the short term, the seat-sharing may not be to its satisfaction.

Tainted by uranium

The groundwater contamination across India must be probed, and safe sources identified

Reports of widespread uranium contamination in groundwater across India demand an urgent response. A study, published in Environmental Science and Technology Letters, has found over 30 micrograms per litre (mcg/l) of the heavy metal in parts of northwestern, southern and southeastern India. Drinking such water can damage one’s kidneys, and the World Health Organization prescribes 30 mcg/l as an upper limit. Unfortunately, the residents of the regions surveyed were using the contaminated wells as their main source of drinking water. These findings highlight a major gap in India’s water-quality monitoring. As the Bureau of Indian Standards does not specify a norm for uranium level, water is not tested regularly for it. This is despite the fact that evidence of uranium contamination has accumulated from across India over the last decade. A 2015 Bangalore study, for example, found uranium levels of over 2000 mcg/l in the southern part of the city. Other studies found levels of over 500 mcg/l in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. The Environmental Science paper adds new data to this body of evidence by sampling wells in Rajasthan and Gujarat.

The health effects of drinking uranium-tainted water merit special attention. A few small animal and human studies have found that the heavy metal damages the kidneys. The studies indicate that this is a chemical effect, rather than a radiological one, even though uranium is radioactive. But the chronic effects of uranium consumption are still unknown. Could there be, for example, a link between the high rates of chronic kidney disease (CKD) in India and uranium exposure? In a survey conducted between 2005 and 2010, an Indian registry found 8,385 CKD cases with no known cause. One cluster of mystery disease, located in Srikakulam district in Andhra Pradesh, has stumped epidemiologists for years. It is impossible to say if these clusters have anything to do with groundwater contamination, unless researchers look at it systematically. Anothercritical area of research is the mechanism by which uranium enters groundwater. The Environmental Science paper identified two types of terrains with heavy contamination. In Rajasthan and other northwestern regions, uranium occurs mostly in alluvial aquifers; while in southern regions such as Telangana, crystalline rocks such as granite seem to be the source. When groundwater is over-extracted from such soils, the researchers suggest, the uranium is exposed to air, triggering its release. These hypotheses must be explored, because they will help determine where to find safer water. This is what happened in West Bengal, where a decade of research revealed why the contaminant arsenic mainly occurred in shallow aquifers. Researchers found that a combination of geological and chemical triggers brought arsenic to the Ganga delta in the Holocene era, and then released it into the sediments from that period. Similar research across India’s uranium hotspots can uncover who is at risk, and how to protect them.

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