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Nikkei Asia Prizes

China environmentalist, Vietnam doctor and India reformer honored

All three made contributions to fighting stubborn ills in their societies

From left, Nguyen Thanh Liem, Ma Jun and Bindeshwar Pathak appear at the awards ceremony for the 23rd Nikkei Asia Prizes in Tokyo on June 13. (Photo by Maho Obata)

TOKYO -- A Chinese founder of an online pollution database, a Vietnamese doctor who brings life-changing treatments to children and an Indian reformer who fights the curse of poor sanitation received awards here on Wednesday recognizing outstanding Asians.

The Nikkei Asia Prizes are given to individuals and groups in Asia that have made outstanding contributions to the region's development. This year was 23rd time they were awarded.

Chinese environmentalist Ma Jun, who won the business innovation prize, pointed to signs of success in fighting pollution in his country.

"In some of the rivers, fish are coming back for the first time in decades," he told the audience in Tokyo.

As founding director of the Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs, a nongovernmental organization, Ma has created indexes that measure the environmental conservation efforts of local and global companies operating in China.

"Massive industrialization and urbanization benefit millions of people, but the environment pays a heavy price," Ma said.

During his carreer as a journalist at the South China Morning Post in the 1990s, he realized the extent of the damage to China's environment, especially its rivers and lakes and the communities that live near them. "People must be informed first" to understand how serious the pollution is, he said.

After founding the IPE in 2006, Ma created comprehensive regional maps of water pollution in China, collecting information from authorities. He then began drawing attention to factories behind global information technology brands like Apple. The institute's Corporate Information Transparency Index assess the environmental management of these brands' supply chains in China.

The index has served as a tool for inducing companies to take action on pollution. Apple, which placed the lowest of about 30 companies ranked in 2010, is now the top performer in the group.

Vietnamese doctor Nguyen Thanh Liem, called the father of pediatric medicine in Vietnam, won the prize for science and technology in recognition of his work advancing health care for children.

"We can change the lives of many children suffering from what were said to be incurable diseases in the past," Liem said, showing a video of a girl with cerebral palsy who is being treated with stem cell transplants and is now starting to walk on her own.

Liem performed Asia's first laparoscopic surgery on a child. Commonly used on adults, the procedure involves making small incisions in the abdomen, but is more difficult to perform on children because their bodies are smaller, leaving less room to work.

Having learned minimally invasive surgery from French pioneer Philippe Mouret, Liem was determined to "bring pediatric endoscopic surgery to Vietnam" to reduce the need for major procedures that leave serious pain and scars. In 2014, he became one of pioneers in using stem cell transplants to treat serious disorders such as cerebral palsy. He now serves as director of the Vinmec Research Institute of Stem Cell and Gene Technology in Vietnam.

The winner of the prize for culture and community was Bindeshwar Pathak, the founder of Sulabh International of India.

Pathak's social action arose from his experience with the country's "untouchable" castes. He once saw people rushing to save a boy who had been attacked by a bull, but as soon as they heard someone yelling that the boy was an untouchable, the crowd left him to die.

"This tragic and unjust incident shook my conscience to the core," he said. Untouchables were relegated to cleaning human waste, and his concern became "how to rescue them from their inhuman occupation."

Pathak invented a composting flush toilet, known as the Sulabh toilet, for household use. Bacteria in the soil convert human waste into bio-fertilizer containing nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium that can raise agricultural productivity. In 1977, he invented technology for producing biogas from human waste to be used for lamp fuel or cooking. Throughout India, 1.5 million Sulabh toilets have built in homes and more than 9,000 in public lavatories.

These technologies are improving the lives of former untouchables, but Pathak said their benefits are not confined to India. "They can solve the problems of 2.3 billion people on the planet, especially in Africa, Asia, and Latin America where people have no access to safe and hygienic toilet facilities."

The Nikkei Asia Prizes were created in 1996 to commemorate the 120th anniversary of Nikkei's main Japanese language newspaper. Past winners include Manmohan Singh, who won in 1997 before becoming India's prime minister, and Bangladeshi social entrepreneur Muhammad Yunus, who was honored in 2004 and went on to receive the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for pioneering the concept of microfinance.

For more information on the award and past winners, visit http://www.nikkei-events.jp/asiaprizes/en/index.html

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