Environmental and wildlife filmmaker Mike Hari Pandey, who has won three Green Oscars for his documentaries, is more preoccupied with the state of the country's water resources and rural health now.
Pandey believes the three majors eco-hazards that confront India are water pollution, ambient air and environment pollution and rapid depletion of wildlife species.
"The condition of water in India is despicable. The water tables are falling and the ground water has been contaminated by heavy metals," Pandey said in a free wheeling conversation with the IANS at the Visual Arts Gallery in the India Habitat Centre recently. The six-foot tall, genial filmmaker with a wavy mane sounded agitated.
"The rampant use of banned pesticides has affected the water system and consequently the food chain. It has led to a sharp increase in birth defects and mental disorders among women and children," he said.
Pandey is taking a break from wildlife, his first love that earned him global recognition, to focus on his capsule "Earth Matters" - for national broadcaster Doordarshan - that talks about the impact of depleting natural resources and poor health awareness on environment.
"Did you know that 67 percent of our population is still ignorant about environment even after 60 years of independence?" Pandey disclosed.
"There is a great need for awareness in this country. If you look at the watershed areas in India from Sikkim to Pandhurna in Uttar Pradesh along the Madhya Pradesh border, you will find that nearly seven million children are suffering either from goitre or diseases caused by iodine deficiency. This is because common salts are not iodised here despite government rules that salt must contain iodine," Pandey said.
"People even wash the common cooking salt in some remote areas here thinking it will free the salt of grease. I recently came across a family of 17 children, all mentally retarded at Balkutia village in Pandhaurna in Uttar Pradesh. There were no doctors and no medical camps to help them. And the father was uneducated. Are we really concerned about welfare and awareness?" he was bitter.
Pandey hosts the popular vernacular environmental capsule "Earth Matters" on Doordarshan every Sunday. The programme, which has bagged four international awards, was given the Golden Giraffe, the highest civilian honour in France, in April 2008.
"The programme is immensely popular. It reaches eight million people in 150 countries. It is an interactive series that teaches people how to protect their environment," Pandey explains. He gets at least 4,000 letters each day that comprises 3,600 postcards from the villagers of India and 400 e-mails.
"Earth Matters" takes him to remote pockets of the country to sensitise people about environment.
He says the Yamuna river was 300,000 times more acidic than what it was when it descended from the Yamunotri glacier. "The level of mercury and lead in the river has risen by 500,000 times, leading to a spurt in diseases like Alzheimer's. Eighty percent of the water in the Yamuna comes from illegal sewage and factories along its banks pumping effluents. Look at the number of birth defects and physical deformities among children along its banks," he hit out.
Pandey paints a bleak picture of the Indian coast. "The fishing trawlers these days are fitted with open toilets. But faecal matter or human waste does not dissolve or decompose in salt water. It gets pickled, emitting methane and ammonia that heat up the seas," he says.
On an average, 20,000 trawlers comb the high seas in Virawal off the Gujarat coast alone. The environmentalist was in Gujarat a couple of months ago to sensitise fisherman for an "Earth Matters" episode.
"But don't stop eating fish," laughs Pandey. "The pickled faeces may breed salmonella and e-coli bacteria in fishes, but thankfully Indians fry and cook their fishes well before eating," he guffaws.
"Do you know what came out of the mythical Samudra Manthan by the gods?" Pandey suddenly turns serious. "The Amrit was the water that could bring the dead back to life."
But things are obviously different in today's world.
According to Pandey, contaminated water, consequent to warming of the seas and the resulting climate change, were taking a toll on the soil and air.
"Climate change has led to crop migration in India. The apple growers of the Himalayas are moving up to higher temperatures because apples have stopped growing in the lower reaches," he said.
What about wildlife? "All species are gradually becoming extinct, even the common sparrow," he says.
Pandey's affair with wildlife began as a child in Kenya where he stayed next to the National Wildlife Sanctuary in Nairobi. He won Green Oscars for three of his wildlife documentary films, "Shores of Silence - Whale Sharks of India", "The Last Migration: Wild Elephant Capture at Sarguja" and the "Vanishing Giants".