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.

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.