`We borrow the earth from our children'

SPOILT SANCTITY: The river Ganga is polluted by domestic and industrial wastes

SPOILT SANCTITY: The river Ganga is polluted by domestic and industrial wastes   | Photo Credit: - PHOTO: SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

Protection of the biosphere and biodiversity is relevant to all of humankind

THE GREAT leader of the Native American Suquamish Tribe, Chief Seattle (after whom the city is named) was a scholar with great love for his land and people. He said to his white conquerors: "Teach your children what we have taught ours, that the earth is our mother. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. The earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the earth. Man did not weave the web of life; he is merely a strand in it. We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children."These words were said over a century and a half ago.Recently, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) spearheaded a global contract called the Universal Declaration of Bioethics and Human Rights, which has since been adopted by its member countries.

Not a day too soon

The declaration goes beyond the Hippocratic oath that doctors take before their practices, and covers not only healthcare professionals but policy planners and governments as well. In effect, it is a 28-article-long reiteration of what Chief Seattle said, and does not come one day too soon. >For those interested, a search on the Google search engine, using the term Universal Declaration of Bioethics, provides the entire text. Since Seattle's days, biomedical sciences have made spectacular progress, and many of the advances made here have a direct bearing on how we treat patients, families, communities and the earth itself. It has thus become important that biomedical professionals be taught a course on bioethics in their curriculum so that they can learn to abide by its tenets in their professional lives.To this end, UNESCO has put together a group of experts from around the world to design a curriculum in bioethics for medical students and related professionals, and I happen to be a participant in this group.

The learning objectives

Based largely on the Universal Declaration, this course has 17 units, to be taught in about 40 lectures or so. The learning objectives are to learn how to recognise an ethical issue, how to reason about ethical issues, how to identify ethical dilemmas and how to make ethical decisions. The course contents include the meaning of human dignity and rights; what benefits and what harms a patient; autonomy and individual responsibility; how informed a patient is before giving consent to be treated; the respect we should have for human vulnerability, personal integrity, privacy and confidentiality; equality, justice and equity; non-discrimination and non-stigmatisation while providing service; respect for cultural diversity and pluralism; solidarity and cooperation; social responsibility and health; sharing of benefits; protecting future generations; and the protection of the environment, the biosphere and biodiversity. Notice the last two points, which make special mention of the environment around us, and of our coming generations. These points are relevant not just to healthcare professionals alone, but to all of humankind. These require society at large, legislatures and governments to be involved and to pay special heed. Sadly, while the governments of about 190 nations have signed to honour the Declaration, many of them do not seem to. Look around us. The U.S. government wants to deface Alaska by digging for oil there, and also refuses to believe in global warming. Japan, Russia and some Scandinavian countries want the ban on whale-hunting lifted, knowing full well that the ban has been imposed to save the majestic marine mammal from extinction. Then we learn about the steady depletion of the tropical rain forests of the Amazon. As the song laments: "When will they ever learn?"

Government dithering

Look closer to home. The government is pushing ahead with the Sethusamudram Project, even as environmentalists and several scientists warn us of the loss of precious coral reefs and associated marine life forms. Soon after the asbestos-laden ship Clemenceau is turned away from the Alang Shipwrecking yards, thanks to environmentalists' pressure, another of its kind is permitted in. The river Ganga, held sacred by millions, is polluted day in and day out by domestic and industrial wastes. Yet the government dithers about the modes of implementing its own Ganges Action Plan (started almost fifteen years ago). The government's intentions are honourable, the money has been set apart and yet the follow-through is taking years. The sanctity of the river, in the meanwhile, continues to be debased. One Chief Minister wanted to deface the ambience around the glorious Taj Mahal with bricks and cement, to build a shopping mall, before the courts stopped it. Are these acts ethical? Are these what we want to leave behind for our children? Sadly, while just about every political leader and government around the world professes commitment to guard the environment and concern for the future generations, most of them have not lived up to their promise. In this regard, what the Israeli Parliament (the Knesset) has attempted to do is admirable and worthy of a similar action by India (and indeed many other nations). Called the Israeli Commission for Future Generations, it was created by law as an inner parliamentary entity. Its role is to overview each legislative process, with special regard to long-term issues, and to attempt to prevent potentially damaging legislation from passing in the Knesset. This commission is given the authority to initiate bills that advance the interests of the future generations. It is also entitled to provide the parliament with recommendations, and the opinions and recommendations of this commission have to carry a scientific character, be detailed and include comparative research.

Does an admirable job

We in India have a powerful agency called the National Human Rights Commission, with the distinguished Mr. Justice Anand as its Chairman. This commission does an admirable job in safeguarding human rights. Is this not time for us to strengthen it as Israel has done?By doing such a strengthening, and providing it with even stronger teeth, we would have gone a long way in upholding all the Articles of the Universal Declaration of Bioethics and Human Rights, of which India is a signatory. Recall what Chief Seattle said: we do not inherit the earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children. D. BALASUBRAMANIAN


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