India faces the unique challenge of dealing with both obesity and malnutrition

One Indian in every five is obese, according to a 2013 study in the renowned journal The Lancet. Most of these people live in cities, where rapidly changing lifestyle is contributing to an “obesity epidemic”.

An obese person, as defined by the World Health Organisation, is anyone with a body-mass index (BMI) that is greater than 30. BMI is a person’s weight in kilograms divided by the square of his or her height in metres. Although this measure is not perfect – for instance it sometimes fails when used on sportspersons – it is a good approximation to warn most people of the potential dangers.

When two worlds meet

Obesity, like smoking, kills slowly. It increases the risk of being affected by type-2 diabetes, coronary heart diseases, breast cancer, bowel cancer and even stroke.

And India faces a further, unique challenge. While obesity is a growing problem, the country is yet to deal with malnutrition and undernourishment. In fact, the 2014 Global Nutrition Report found that most developing countries are facing all three problems at the same time. The number of obese around the world has increased to 210 crores and the number undernourished and malnutrition remains at 200 crores.

The lack of nourishment leads to stunted growth, affecting bodily strength and mental prowess. Their poor immune system makes them easy victims to infectious disease such as diarrhoea, which is a leading cause of death among those under the age of 5.

The combined economic burden of obesity, undernourishment and malnutrition is probably greater than 5% of the gross domestic product (about ₹ 6 lakh crores). And any problem at this scale can only be tackled when both government and citizens rise up to the challenge.

A bag of tricks

Good proportion of the blame lies in people’s choices. Exercise and diet, especially done together, are effective to deal with obesity. Everybody knows that, but few people manage to get off their couch and leave high-calorie snacks unopened. Simple psychology hacks, such as making your goals public or setting them with your partner, can work. Group exercises or community centres can also help deal with the urban population’s addiction to a sedentary lifestyle.

Governments can help too, but they don’t have a single magic trick. Instead they need to rely on implementing many policies, each of which has been shown to have a small positive effect. These include healthier school meals, taxing high-calorie food and drink, and better physical training. For each rupee spent on implementing these obesity controls, the government is bound to receive many times back in economic benefits.

The poor don’t fair better on their own either. For instance, when they earn some spare cash, villagers choose to buy a TV or a mobile phone – a status symbol – rather than feed their young better food. Worse still, malnutrition trains the body to hoard fat, so when the poor eat calorie-rich food they become more prone to obesity as adults. Bad choices can become good ones through grassroots movements.

To be sure, malnutrition is not just the lack of food. India has enough to feed all its population, if it fixes its distribution network. It is more a problem because of lack of proper food.

Some governments can show others the way. In Maharashtra, for instance, stunting in children under 5 fell from 37% in 2006 to 24% in 2012. Factors that helped: economic growth, poverty reduction, nutrition programmes and better female education rates. The latter is interesting because uneducated women tend to give birth at very young ages, their babies tend to be underweight and fail to thrive. Simple education programs can also make them aware of the family’s nutritional needs, helping them make better choices. Women empowerment may be an empty political promise, but it can truly work.

First published in Lokmat Times. Image by filandfiloi under CC-BY-NC-ND license.

Curious Bends – air pollution, menstruation, self-admiration and more

1. The air that Indians breathe is dangerously toxic

“Last year the WHO assessed 1,622 cities worldwide for PM2.5 and found India home to 13 of the 20 cities with the most polluted air. More cities in India than in China see extremely high levels of such pollution. Especially to blame are low standards for vehicle emissions and fuel. Nor, for different reasons, are rural people better off. Indoor pollution inhaled from dung-fuelled fires, and paraffin stoves and lights, may kill more than 1m Indians a year. The WHO says the vast majority of Indians breathe unsafe air. The human cost is seen in soaring asthma rates, including among children. PM2.5 contributes to cancer and it kills by triggering heart attacks and strokes. Air pollution is likely to cause vastly more deaths as Indians grow older and more obese. Indoor and outdoor pollution combined is the biggest cause of death, claiming over 1.6m lives a year.” (5 min read, economist.com)

2. In India, girls almost never talk to their coaches about period problems

“In a country where menstrual blood is widely considered impure and inauspicious and barely 12% of women have access to sanitary napkins, how do sportswomen in physically demanding sports deal with menstruation and its taboos? How much do periods impact their games? Anju Bobby George, India’s long jump champion from Kerala, won three golds, two silvers and two bronzes at major international competitions between 2002 and 2007. And she is convinced she could have added two more medals to her kitty if it had not been for menstruation.” (6 min read,scroll.in)

3. Wealthy Chinese kids are twice as likely to be nearsighted as the poor

“East Asia’s high levels of childhood myopia, also known as nearsightedness, has long been a mystery: It affects as many as 90% of urban 18-year-olds. Researchers have identified possible causes including intensive studying, less time spent outside—even the Chinese language itself. And now a new study has made the mystery even stranger.” (2 min read, qz.com)

4. Mongolians have decided the country’s future by text message

“Mongolians received a text message last week. It asked them to reply to vote for one of two futures for the country: budget cuts and economic austerity, or the controversial expansion of copper and gold mines, which could bring in billions of dollars in foreign investment.” (2 min read, qz.com)

5. When Indian scientists can’t show humility, what can you expect from its politicians?

“India’s most famous and highly decorated scientist is C.N.R. Rao, a Fellow of the world’s most prestigious scientific academies, and a recipient of his country’s highest honour, the Bharat Ratna. Some years ago, an admirer decided to lobby the Bangalore Municipality to name the circle outside the Indian Institute of Science (of which Rao had been director) after the great man. Now circles and roads are normally not named after living people. But here was C.N.R. Rao in the flesh, actually present when a circle named after him was being inaugurated.” (7 min read, telegraphindia.com)

Chart of the week

“No one knows how long the change will take. Lots of bright ideas exist for tackling air pollution. Their widespread implementation, however, depends to a great degree on how much the public makes a fuss about inaction. As lorry drivers might say, honk please.” (More on economist.com)

Asteroids are fascinating – not just because they can destroy humanity

Look up in the night sky, if you are lucky you might be able to see Vesta, the only asteroid—among millions that lurk between Mars and Jupiter—bright enough to be visible to the naked eye from the Earth. Given their dull (non)appearance in the sky, it is no wonder that the first asteroid was only discovered in 1801 when relatively powerful telescopes started to be built.

However, in the two centuries since, we have learnt a lot about these celestial bodies. They could prove to be both a curse and a blessing. A curse because they could bring about the end of human existence, and a blessing because they could be the launchpad for building human colonies in outer space.

The definition of an asteroid has changed over the years, but today we know them as small bodies found in the inner solar system. Asteroids can also be called failed planetesimals—tiny fragments that had the potential to grow larger under the influence of gravity and become a planet when the solar system was being formed billions of years ago, but couldn’t.

Living on a pale blue dot

We now know that these “failures” pose a high risk to life on the Earth. Only last week a half-kilometre wide asteroid passed by the Earth. If it had hit us, it could have caused human extinction. Fortunately it was about 1 million km away, which is three times the distance between the Earth and the moon. But the risk is real. In the past one such asteroid impact was responsible for extinction of dinosaurs and an older one caused even more destruction and made all the oceans boil.

4927597266_275e355960_oThe good news is that, with enough warning, we already have the technology to deflect asteroids. But the bad news is that we may not get enough warning, because there are thousands of asteroids—some of which could be on a collision course with the Earth right now—that we have not yet discovered.

This threat has spurred some to take matters in their hands, rather than wait for government agencies to do the work. The B612 foundation, for instance, is planning to launch a private space mission in 2018 that will discover and track hundreds of thousands of such asteroids.

If you can’t beat ’em, profit from ’em

Leaving the stories of doom behind, asteroids are fascinating for another reason: they hold clues about the formation of our solar system. For instance, according to theory, when the Earth formed into a planet, the process would have been too hot to have left any liquid water on the surface. So the current hypothesis is that water-rich celestial bodies, such as comets, brought the water when many crashed into the Earth during its early days.

A current space mission, called Rosetta, to the comet 67P recently tested this hypothesis. It found that the water on that comet was not of the same composition as that on the Earth. So if not comets, then the other celestial body that could achieve this feat are asteroids. This hypothesis will be tested by the Hayabusa-2 mission, launched in December by the Japanese space agency, when it will land three rovers on the asteroid 1999 JU3, and also collect and return a sample from the asteroid back to the Earth in 2020.

Even if they aren’t the source of terrestrial water, asteroids could be habitable, or at least resource-providing, stations for human colonies in outer space. And this isn’t just a crazy idea. Two private companies, Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, are currently working on projects to mine asteroids. They aim to harvest not just water, but also metals such as iron, nickel, platinum and palladium. Apart from the moon, few celestial bodies can boast of having such a close relationship with humanity.

First published in Lokmat Times. Lead image by ESA and ATG media lab. Asteroid image by Emily Lakdawalla (under CC-BY-NC-SA).

Wear masks and plant trees—air pollution is killing us

India ranks 174th on air quality among 178 countries, according to the 2014 Yale Environmental Performance Index. Particulate matter in the air of 180 Indian cities was six times higher than the standard set by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Indoor and outdoor air pollution are now the third and fifth leading cause of death in the country, causing more than a million premature deaths ever year.

The main pollutants in the air are sulphur dioxide, ozone, various oxides of nitrogen and particulate matter of different sizes. Breathing polluted air slowly leads to diseases that affect the lungs, the heart and even the brain. That pollution causes these diseases may not be immediately evident, but the WHO’s large data collection points unequivocally to the causal link.

All shook up

What is probably more troubling is that the problem has suddenly got worse. The number of deaths caused in India by outdoor air pollution has increased six-fold since 2000. A number of factors have contributed to this rise: reliance on and increased use of coal-powered power plants, growing number of vehicles, improper urban planning and poor enforcement of regulations.

Just like clean water, clean air is a public utility and governments have a duty to ensure that these are available to its citizens. Central and state governments have been making some changes, but they haven’t helped much. In Delhi—judged by the WHO in May 2014 as the city with the most polluted air among 1,600 cities across 91 countries—the government has tried to implement various schemes, such as the use of natural gas for public transport, but without much improvement in air quality.

Air pollution has a negative effect on the economy, too. According to the World Bank, its ill-effects cost India ₹ 3.3 lakh crores annually, which is 3% of the gross domestic product. Not enough is being done to address the problem.

A little less conversation, a little more action please

I believe the problem is so huge that it is too late to wait for government’s actions to protect our health. Fortunately, there are steps that citizens can take to deal with air pollution, which can significantly increase the quality of the air we breath.

If you or someone you know burns wood for the purpose of cooking or heating water, you could improve your health by stopping or altering this practice. Most cookstoves of this kind do not burn the wood efficiently, releasing very harmful particulate matter. If you cannot afford to replace wood with natural gas for cooking, the cheaper option would be to buy a subsidised improved cookstove available from government outlets.

The easiest way to deal with outdoor pollution is to wear a mask. Look for N95 masks which are relatively easy to find and fairly cheap. Whatever mask you buy, ensure that it covers your nose and mouth fully, because any air gaps will render the effort ineffective. Masks are not as uncomfortable as they look, but they are definitely not stylish. Yet, by wearing a mask, you are not just taking care of your health but also making a public display of protest against the government whose duty it is to ensure that air quality be improved.

The final thing you can do to deal with outdoor pollution is to plant trees, specifically outside your house. A recent study by scientists at Lancaster University showed that a line of young birch trees outside the house can cut particulate matter entering the house by half. Trees are also highly effective when planted along busy roads, because they can absorb not just carbon dioxide but also ozone, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide.

For too many years we have taken the air we breath for granted. We have ignored the risk that the tragedy of the commons could afflict this abundant public utility. Let’s hope we can fix it before it’s too late.

First published in Lokmat Times.

Curious Bends – Warren Anderson, handheld malaria detectors, ancient Indian science and more

1. Warren Anderson, who faced one of history’s worst industrial disasters, is dead

“After he became chairman and chief executive in 1982, he improved productivity and sales, and acquired several companies, including STP Oil. Ecologists said Union Carbide began shaking off the reputation as a polluter that had long dogged it. Mr. Anderson ruled over an empire with 700 plants in more than three dozen countries. Then came Bhopal. For the first time in his life, Mr. Anderson couldn’t sleep; at one point he holed up for a week at a hotel in Stamford, Conn. He and his wife, Lillian, spent evenings reading newspaper articles about the tragedy to each other. When they went to restaurants, he was afraid to be seen laughing because people “might not think it was appropriate,” he told The Times.” (5 min read, The New York Times)

2. A handheld device that detects malaria in 30 minutes

““The algorithms we have developed run on a smartphone-like platform and do this evaluation automatically. It doesn’t require the intervention of a skilled technician. While the qualitative test results can be known instantaneously, quantitative parasitemia levels are assessed and displayed in about 30 minutes,” said Gorthi. The scientists also believe that this portable handheld device can be modified for diagnosing other diseases as well.” (3 min read, LiveMint)

3. Modern food retailing has struggled to win customers from India’s old-fashioned merchants

“In large part it is because supermarkets are not a compelling draw in terms of price and service. Most shoppers in India buy dairy products, vegetables and fruit either daily or every two to three days, and the traditional trade has a lock on these frequent purchases, according to research by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG). Its hold weakens a bit (and the appeal of supermarkets correspondingly tightens) on rich consumers and for less regular purchases: packaged foods; soaps, detergents and other groceries; and staples, such as rice and grains (see chart). But in general even affluent consumers prefer traditional stores, because they are closer to home, are usually open longer and offer credit to familiar customers. Many will deliver free of charge.” (6 min read, The Economist)

4. The Prime Minister and early Indian science

“Mr Modi’s claims are an inversion of the logic of faith; he is asserting that the supernatural, in this case the elephant-headed god, Ganesh, is not an instance of divine magic but the consequence of human technology. He is, if you like, offering us a secular explanation for a deity in the Hindu pantheon. If this is a reasonable characterization of his claims, then the closest parallel to the Prime Minister’s thinking is to be found not in the religious beliefs of other political figures, but in the speculative theories of Erich von Daniken. Von Daniken was an enormously successful Swiss writer in the 60s and 70s who wrote a series of best-selling books based on a single conceit: the idea that the artefacts of ancient civilisation were littered with signs that pre-historical human societies were raised from their primitive state by intelligent extraterrestrials” (7 min read, NDTV)

5. For ‘Clean India’ to work, the country needs to solve its waste disposal problem

“In addition, Delhi’s four landfill sites extend over 164 acres, when the current requirement is nearly four times the available area – 650 acres, according to a 2011 report by the Central Pollution Control Board. “Even if people learn to dump their garbage at the dhalaos [a small garbage dump typically servicing a few streets of a neighbourhood], how will that help if thedhalaos can’t be emptied, since there are barely any space left in landfills,” Narain asked.” (4 min read, Scroll.in)

Chart of the week

“The death penalty divides public opinion in America and has mostly ended in Europe. But around the world, the number of places that carry out capital punishment and the number of people killed is rising. Executions took place in 22 countries last year, according to Amnesty International, a human-rights lobby. In America there were 39 executions—more than the known number of executions in Yemen, Sudan or Somalia. Countries whose gallows had been left unused for long periods put prisoners to death, notably Indonesia (for the first time in four years), Kuwait (in six years) and Nigeria (in seven years).” The Economist has more.

Countries which carried out the death penalty in 2013

Curious Bends – sugarcane cultivation, Ebola in India, the cost of sanitation and more

“Even earlier than Nehru, Professor C.V. Raman saw the spark in her and made her a Foundation Fellow of the Academy. Years later, in 1957, she was elected to INSA — the first woman scientist elected to any of the science academies in India. She was also awarded the Padma Shri in 1957. Having led a full life, she breathed her last on February 4, 1984. Think about it; every time you bite a sugarcane, or a lump of gud or vellam, you are enjoying the fruits of toil of Barber, Venkataraman and Janaki.” (5 min read)

2. How would India handle an Ebola outbreak?

“That’s why in Nigeria’s largest city Lagos, where the majority of the country’s 20 cases were discovered, authorities urged people not to urinate or defecate in drains, dump sites and open spaces. The move is perhaps one reason why Nigeria has successfully contained the epidemic, with no new cases since Sept. 8. In India, around 600 million people defecate in the open. A lack of toilets and in some parts a cultural preference for going outdoors would make it almost impossible for similar public health advice to have the same effect.” (8 min read)

3. Five reasons why India’s first mental health policy is impressive

“Desai believes it is commendable that the policy goes beyond treatment of mental illness to prevention and promotion of mental health, but hopes that the Action Plan keeps Indian cultural contexts in mind while implementing policies for prevention and promotion. “While talking about policies for treatment of mental ailments, there is reasonable uniformity in approach,” said Desai. “But when it comes to personality development and seeking happiness, the Action Plan must keep cultural aspects in mind.”” (4 min read)

4. What is the true cost of sanitation?

“This is just a snapshot of what it will take to achieve sanitation that delivers on the promise of public health and personal dignity that we as a society seek. Are we prepared to bear this true cost? Let’s just take the Rs.12,000 subsidy the government has promised those who will construct toilets. There are 111.10 million households that would need toilets. That totals up to Rs.1.34 trillion for the toilet construction alone. It becomes easier to choose when we look at the true cost of not providing safe sanitation to all. A study by the Water and Sanitation Programme and others has estimated this at 6.4% of GDP of India in 2006. Not included in this is the cost of wasting the fertilizer and soil regeneration value of the human waste of a billion people.” (6 min read)

5. Featured longread: A new statistical law that’s popping up everywhere for unknown reasons

“Systems of many interacting components — be they species, integers or subatomic particles — kept producing the same statistical curve, which had become known as the Tracy-Widom distribution. This puzzling curve seemed to be the complex cousin of the familiar bell curve, or Gaussian distribution, which represents the natural variation of independent random variables like the heights of students in a classroom or their test scores. Like the Gaussian, the Tracy-Widom distribution exhibits “universality,” a mysterious phenomenon in which diverse microscopic effects give rise to the same collective behavior. “The surprise is it’s as universal as it is,” said Tracy, a professor at the University of California, Davis.”” (12 min read)

Chart of the week

“When the price of black gold falls, businesses and individuals cheer but oil-exporting countries suffer. According to research from Deutsche Bank, seven of the 12 members of OPEC, an oil cartel, fail to balance their budgets when prices are below $100. Last month Venezuela, a particularly inefficient member of the cartel, saw its bonds downgraded. One non-OPEC member in particular is in trouble: Russia. Economic growth is already poor. Further drops in the oil price could be very painful. After all, oil and gas make up 70% of Russia’s exports and half of the federal budget.” The Economist has the full story.

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Image by Adam Cohn.

Curious Bends – Hudhud, fewer cyclone deaths, population control and more

“The difference in the number of fatalities between Cyclone Phailin and the Uttarakhand cloudburst is instructive here. Both storms happened last year, yet Uttarakhand left more than 5,700 dead and millions affected. Although Phailin would also affect millions, its casualty count was kept to double digits. A big part of this was simply that there was no advance warning about the Uttarakhand cloudburst, while the Met department and local authorities had been tracking Phailin for weeks.” (4 min read, scroll.in)

How supercyclone Hudhud got its name

“For years cyclones that originated in the north Indian ocean were anonymous affairs. One of the reasons, according to Dr M Mahapatra, who heads India’s cyclone warning centre, was that in an “ethnically diverse region we needed to be very careful and neutral in picking up the names so that it did not hurt the sentiments of people”. But finally in 2004 the countries clubbed together and agreed on their favourite names.” (3 min read, bbc.co.uk)

Central government officials’ attendance record is now public. Thanks to Ram Sewak Sharma.

“The website is a near-complete digital dashboard of employee attendance — it logs the entry and exit time, among other things. The entire system is searchable, down to the names of individual central government employees, and all the data is available for download. And with that single step — making the entire platform publicly accessible — the government has introduced a level of accountability and transparency that India’s sprawling bureaucracy is unaccustomed to.” (5 min read, qz.com)

Indian women pay the price for population control

“23-year-old Pushpa, narrates a similar tale of pain. The nurse at a public health facility inserted her with an IUD after she delivered her first child. Her consent was not sought. The procedure was done after getting the consent form signed by her husband, a daily wage labourer who had studied up to Class V. He wasn’t explained what an IUD is and what the form was for.” (13 min read, tehelka.com)

After 67 years of independence, India gets a mental healthy policy

“Dr Harsh Vardhan pointed out that earlier laws governing the mentally ill, the Indian Lunatic Asylum Act, 1858, and Indian Lunacy Act, 1912, ignored the human rights aspect and were concerned only with custodial issues. After Independence it took 31 years for India to attempt the first enactment, which resulted another nine years later in the Mental Health Act, 1987. But due to many defects in this Act, it never came into force in any of the states and union territories.” (3 min read, pub.nic.in)

Chart of the week

“The survey of 44 countries, a quarter of them in Asia, shows that economic optimism has followed economic growth: eastward. The continent with the highest proportion of respondents believing their children will be better-off than they are is Asia, with 58%.” (2 min read, economist.com)

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Image by Stuart Rankin