Goa: Back to square one

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Work on bioenvironmental management in the state capital Panaji and in the tourist area of Candolim-Calangute has reached a dead-end, thanks to the uninterested stance of the Goa government. Completely ignoring past efforts, Goa is turning back to chemicals.

In 1986, malaria suddenly engulfed Panaji due to growing resistance in vectors to insecticides. Some 10 cases per year till the mid-1980s reached 6,732 cases in 1988. In 1989, mrc took up a community-based programme to tackle the spurt in malaria in Panaji - without chemicals. It focused on cleaning up various water collection centres from masonry tanks, swimming pools and overhead tanks to roof gutters. Instead of chemicals, microbes and tiny larvivorous fish were used to kill insects. Expanded polystyrene beads, which are synthetic, light and non-toxic, were spread on waterbodies to prevent mosquito breeding.Intensive campaigns led people to prevent mosquito breeding in barrels, tins, buckets, bottles, coconut shells and storage tyres.

"We observed that the community in general was very responsive to any call for self-action," mrc scientists recorded later. Considerable efforts were made to educate the municipal staff, members of the panchayats (village councils) and the public works department officials by door-to-door visits, exhibitions and training workshops.

The results were astounding. Malaria cases came down to 1,570 in 1991 in Panaji. But in 1993, there was an outbreak of malaria in Calangute-Candolim. The same strategy was adopted by the mrc in this area in 1994. Despite complete stopping of spraying of dichloro diphenyl trichloroethane ( ddt ) and fogging in the area, the number of cases actually came down within two years, explains Ashwani Kumar, mrc's scientist in-charge in Goa.

But Kumar points out that after the mrc withdrew from the Candolim-Calangute belt, the incidence of malaria went up from 263 cases in 1995 to nearly 3,500 cases in 1996. "In both the places (Panaji and Candolim-Calangute), the incidence had been conclusively brought down. It was expected that the state government would adopt the technology and implement it not only in these areas, but also in other endemic areas of the state," says Kumar. But this did not happen. "The bioenvironmental technology is very, very safe but demands very dedicated efforts and constant monitoring of work by field workers. It requires a lot of hard work," Kumar points out.

mrc's methods evoke criticism from medical officials and the state government. Senior politicians and bureaucrats question its actual contribution. Wilfred de Souza, Goa's health minister, when asked about the contribution of the mrc to Goa, asks rhetorically: "Do you think that it (malaria) has reduced in Goa? I think it's gone up." He is reluctant to credit mrc with being effective in the use of bioenvironmental methods to control malaria.

Goa, it seems, would prefer to continue with chemicals. The state government is now pointing to another "magic cure": deltamethrine, an insecticide that can do considerable harm. It is suspected to be a hormone disruptor. It is very toxic to aquatic organisms, particularly fish. Effluents containing deltamethrine should not be discharged in waterbodies and control of runoff is very important. The government started using it, and tried to convince citizens in Panaji that this was safe. The chief minister began by spraying his own house. But after an outcry in the media and reluctance from citizens, the municipal council has not used the bulk of the costly chemical.

There is another concern with deltamethrine. "It's costly. It's very costly. To fog Panaji twice a year will cost something like Rs 1.5 crore," acknowledges de Souza. In contrast, the total expenditure on bioenvironmental malaria control operations in Panaji from 1989 to 1992 was around Rs 30 lakh. In Candolim, it was Rs 15.5 lakh.

Then there are the allegations of the involvement of the pesticides lobby. Big corporates, such as Ciba-Geigy (Novartis) and Zuari Agro Chemicals (Birla group), have plants in Goa. Some media reports sought to link the government's deltamethrine acquisition policy with the business interests of the chief minister's son. One local newspaper editor, however, later reported that the chief minister's son had rung him up to deny any involvement in the deal.

With such a backdrop extending the mrc field trials to the larger social scale becomes a far more serious issue. Clearly, no one is really thinking about how to implement the change. Is it because change often faces resistance? Or is it because there are huge funds involved and 'vested interests' would like to see Goa continue on a costly, chemical-dependent strategy?