India yet to tap the versatility of jute

It’s eco-friendly, economical, amazingly versatile and highly under-rated. It could be India’s answer to plastic bags and has its uses even in soil conservation. Jute, the Cinderella of textile fibres, is just waiting to be rescued from the anonymity of research centres.

“Jute has been able to withstand the onslaught of synthetic fibres and plastic,” says Dr SK Bhattacharyya of the National Institute of Research on Jute and Allied Fibre Technology (NIRJAFT) in Calcutta.

“But all that was in the past,” he adds. With plastic bags posing a big environmental hazard, the search is on for alternatives.

And this search should stop at jute, feels DR Bhattacharyya. For NIRJAFT has already come out with cheap disposable carrybags made from biodegradable jute fibres. The price of an average-sized bag could be as low as 20 paise, he claims. He says that the manufacture of these bags could be taken up by existing plastic bag making units with minimal extra investment.

NIRJAFT has come out with clothes, woolens, bedsheets, blankets and wall hangings—all made of jute. Sadly, the prototypes of most of these products are languishing in the research labs for want of better marketing.

In fact, handmade paper can be made from jute waste. This can give employment to thousands of people in the villages with very little investment.

But of special interest, say scientists, is the use f soil in soil conservation. Special blankets made of jute called ‘geotextiles’, are laid beneath a layer of soil. They have a great ability to conserve moisture, moderate soil temperature and stimulate rapid root development. They keep the soil and fertilisers together. They can even be used in canal linings to prevent soil erosion, says Dr BB Sarcar.

In fact nurseries can have jute bags for saplings instead of plastic bags. These can be buried straight into the ground and the bags will degrade into the soil in a matter of time.

Jute is cultivated in humid tropical countries only and India has a world market share of 41.8 per cent. In 1995-96, jute exports were worth Rs 234 crore. If we manage to carve out a niche market in jute products, this figure can only increase.

(This article appeared in the Hindustan Times newspaper on May 17, 2000)

Here, wastewater is food for fish, fertiliser for crops

What do you do with 15,000 million litres of wastewater dumped into rivers by towns and cities every day? If you’re in the Government, you set up a committee; if you’re an environmentalist, you cry foul; if you’re a cynical citizen, you call it a lot of plain muck.

But the Rahara farm near Barrackpore in West Bengal has embarked on a mission, which, if adopted throughout the country, could prove revolutionary in treating polluted water. Set up by the Central Institute of Freshwater Aquaculture, it looks rather like any other green, picturesque farm. Rahara, however, breeds fish in and grows vegetables with untreated wastewater.

What’s more, the costs at Rahara are a fraction of what commercial farming requires. The products are as safe and tasty as any conventionally irrigated farm.

Wastewater is actually rich in nutrients and highly favourable for phytoplankton (fish food). Water hyacinths are employed to bring down toxicity levels of the water.

The farm has successfully bred Bengali staples such as Rohu, Catla, Bata and even freshwater prawns in wastewater. The fish also rids the water of its polluting elements and renders it safe for release into rivers.

Scientists also that wastewater can be used to grow foodgrain, flowers as well as breed fish. Sewage water proves to be an alterative fertilizer for paddy. Medicinal crops like turmeric, ginger and garlic can also be produced.

It is a symbiotic system where the byproducts of growing vegetables can be again used for growing vegetables can be again used for production of fishes.
“In fact,” says Dr Maniranjan Sinha, Director of the Central Inland Fisheries Research Institute in Barrackpore, “water pollution is the least of our problems.”

However what does worry them is that the water level of most Indian rivers is going down. This has severely affected the supply of fish needed from rivers from time to time to avoid the consequence of chronic inbreeding. “At this rate, there will be no rivers in 20 years,” says Dr Sinha.

The institute is also working on air breathing fish that do not need freshwater to survive, such as Singhi, Magur, Koi and Murrels. They keep coming up to the surface to breathe and can survive in sewage water.

Surprisingly, they also have great nutritional value and are recommended by doctor for people recovering from illness.

Dr Sinha points out that such varieties of fish would be ideal for breeding in polluted rivers like Delhi’s own Yamuna, where there is hardly any freshwater left.

The river Ganga has become cleaner, though the decrease in the water level has resulted in the decrease in the number of fish in the river, says Dr Sinha.

CIFA claims that fish culture through sewage water is in practice in Russia, a number of Asian countries and many parts of Europe.

(This article appeared in the Hindustan Times newspaper on May 14, 2000)

Barren Island rich with wild goats

Meet Billy, the goat. Resident of Barren Island in the Andamans. (Barren Island is home to the only active volcano in the country). Billy has survived the volcano’s eruptions by migrating to the unaffected side of the island, feeding on its sparse foliage and surviving, no, thriving, on seawater. Yes, seawater.

Generically, Billy is a feral goat—nomadic, untamed—in barren Barren Island.

Dr SPS Ahlawat, Director of the Central Agricultural Research Institute in Port Blair, says few other animals have been known to withstand the vagaries of such harsh environment. And research on the feral goat could have wide reaching implications for the world in general and India in particular.

For one, the feral goat could be the answer to the livestock problems of drought-affected regions, where fresh water is in short supply. Secondly, research work on its kidney, which has adapted to the highly saline seawater, could yield rich results. (Drinking saline water can kill a human being in a matter of days). Finally, Dr Ahlawat says feral goats like Billy could be bred in “zero management farms” that can provide enormous quantities of mutton at next to no cost.

But how did Billy get on Barren Island in the first place? Some say his caprine ancestors were shipwrecked, circa 1800. Those with a more fertile imagination say Charles Darwin relocated Billy here for one of his experiments!

But if Billy is such hot property, why isn’t he world-famous yet? Dr Ahlawat sighs and says something that many scientists cite throughout the country: bureaucratic hurdles.

Thanks to the strict wildlife laws of the Andamans, it has taken him two years to get permission to take just one pair of goats off the island into port Blair. And the institute hasn’t made much headway with the limited progeny it has worked on. So, it will be quite some time before maverick Billy finds his way to dinner tables.


(This article appeared in the Hindustan Times newspaper on May 10, 2000)