Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Sunglasses, caste violence and climate change

Acting as the self-obsessed superstar Saroj Kumar in the Malayalam movie Udayananu tharam, Sreenivasan demands that his costume should include 51 sunglasses, a different one for every scene.

Sunglasses have signified upward social mobility in Indian movies. It has endeared heroes to their fans. Rajinikanth not only wore sunglasses, but also did sleight of hand with it.

That simple eye protection, with coloured glass or plastic designed to cut off harmful rays from the sun, took a rather tragic role recently with the death of Ilavarasan, the dalit boy whose marriage to Vanniyar girl resulted in caste violence in Tamil Nadu. “They wear jeans, T-shirts and fancy sunglasses to lure girls from other communities,” S. Ramadoss, the leader of Pattali Makkal Katchi reportedly told the media months ago.

Among the three items listed by Dr Ramadoss, his anger seems to be more with the sunglasses, for he qualified it with “fancy.” With sunglasses being available from Rs 99 on the pavements of every urban centre in the country to those costing thousands of rupees in exclusive showrooms, it is difficult to know where he pegged “fancy”.

The political, social and economic churn in the country in the past two decades has ensured that more people can access aspirational products such as sunglasses. The political realignment after the anti-Mandal Commission protests in 1990 ensured that space was created for many sections that were till then unrepresented politically.

The economic liberalisation opened economic opportunities that were strengthened by the growth of the information technology sector. With the IT and IT-enabled services sector being ever-hungry for fresh graduates, students from smaller urban centres and from lesser-known colleges had access to employment. Once recruited into a reputed company, the graduate’s merit and street smartness were more important than where he/she came from.

This means that sunglasses are now accessible to anybody. What you feel about your neighbour’s son wearing sunglasses depends on your perspective – “look how well he has done for himself” or “look, he is getting too big for his boots.”

Missed out in all this is strong health and environmental angle to sunglasses. The adverse health impacts of ultra violet (UV) radiation from the sun was considered as an important point of discussion in Agenda 21, the global environmental action plan that was agreed upon at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held at Rio de Janeiro in Brazil in June 1992. It asked the global community to undertake research on increased UV radiation due to the depletion of the stratospheric ozone layer and develop actions to reduce the adverse health impacts.

In the two decades since the Rio Summit the global community has taken effective action to reduce the emission of ozone-depleting substances into the atmosphere. However, even with this decrease, the recovery of the ozone layer is not predicted till the middle of the 21st Century.

The World Health Organization (WHO) established its Intersun programme in response to the Agenda 21 recommendation, to provide scientific information and practical advice and guidance to reduce health risks due to UV radiation. WHO estimates that worldwide 12 to 15 million people become blind from cataracts annually, of which up to 20% may be caused or enhanced by sun exposure.

These numbers will increase as the stratospheric ozone layer continues to thin over the next decades, unless people become aware of the hazards of UV radiation exposure, especially from the sun. With 10% decrease in the total stratospheric ozone, an additional 1.6 million to 1.75 million cases of cataract are predicted worldwide every year.

Closer a location is to the equator, higher is the UV radiation levels. More importantly, Intersun studies show that darker skin provides no protection against ultra violet light affects on the eye and the immunity system. This means that Indians, and other populations in tropical countries, have a high chance of getting cataract due to UV radiation.

Intersun harmonised a global ultraviolet index (UVI) to measure radiation, starting from low (values of 1 and 2), moderate (3 to 5), high (6 and 7), very high (8 to 10) and extreme (11+). The UVI for Chennai in the first week of July 2013 – when Ilavarsan’s death had grabbed media and public attention – was 8 and southern Tamil Nadu 9. In mid-August the UVI had moved to 10.

Similarly, higher the altitude greater is the radiation, since the atmosphere becomes thinner to absorb UV. As a result, UV levels increase by approximately 10% for every 1,000 metres in altitude. Pilots and mountaineers have to wear sunglasses, not necessarily to attract girlfriends or boyfriends.

The UV radiation is only likely to increase in the years to come with climate change. Climate change is likely to result in more frequent extreme weather events, including extremely hot periods when the radiation would be higher. With increasing urbanisation there will be greater reflection of UV radiation by concrete and asphalt.  

The increase in greenhouse gases can lead to changes in the temperature and circulation patterns in the stratosphere, leading to decrease in ozone layer in the tropics and increase in the temperate and polar regions. Since the health of the ozone layer has an indirect relation to UV levels, this would mean increase in radiation in the tropical region – in which much of peninsular India is located – in the years to come.*

Actor Sreenivasan’s intention in the popular movie – for which he wrote the script – was to encourage the audience to laugh at his character’s vanity. Having transcended from a small-time actor to a superstar in a short time, Sreenivasan’s character uses his sunglasses to declare that he has arrived. He is an aberration and thus evokes laughter.

Instead, considering the impact of UV radiation in India, which is only going to get worse with climate change, there should be far more people using protective sunglasses. If more people use sunglasses it would be treated for what it is – a protective covering for the eyes – and not a status symbol. No caste leader will then be able to invoke it as a symbol for inciting violence.

* McKenzie RL, Aucamp PJ, Bais AF, Bj√∂rn LO, Ilyas M, Madronich S, (2011). Ozone depletion and climate change: impacts on UV radiation. Photochem Photobiol Sci. 10(2):182-98. 

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