India Is Burning: How Rapid Growth Is Destroying Its Environment and Future

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The nation's emerging environmental calamity threatens to overshadow -- and undermine -- its phenomenal development.

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A woman picks through garbage next to a graveyard in Hyperabad / AP

When I first moved back to India, in the winter of 2003, after more than a decade in America, I never thought I would live in the countryside. My wife and I had been living in New York; we liked the energy, the nightlife and variety, of a big city.

We quickly discovered, though, that Indian cities were unlivable--crowded and noisy and polluted, they were no place to raise a family. So we decided to stay, with our two boys, in the countryside outside the South Indian town of Pondicherry, the area where I had grown up.

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We liked our new life. The countryside had its rhythms; it made us feel safe, far from the chaos of urban India.

Summers were dry and quiet, with a hot wind that emptied roads and public spaces. Winters were wet and then cool, monsoon downpours followed by a clear, clean light.

The familiarity, the predictability, were comforting. Everything else in India was moving so fast; in the countryside, seasons at least stayed constant.

Then one April the summer wind brought with it an unfamiliar guest: the smell of burning plastic. It started on a Sunday afternoon, a hint of bitterness, like something rotten in the air. I barely noticed. A couple days later my wife woke me in the middle of the night and said something was burning. This time the bitterness was unmistakable, a chemical taste in my mouth, a trail of roughness along my constricted throat.

My older son woke up, vomiting. We nursed him through the night. We told ourselves it was a stomach bug, something he'd eaten. But he'd eaten what we had all eaten, and as we stayed up with him, wiped his vomit and rubbed his stomach, comforted him, promised him it was nothing, it would pass, we couldn't shake the terrible feeling that it was in fact something very real--that he'd been poisoned by the air.

•       •       •       •       •

The smell invaded our house throughout the following weeks and months. It came from a landfill south of my home, Pondicherry's main garbage dump. Every day, almost 400 tons of garbage--plastic bags and shoes and rubber tires and batteries mixed with rotting fruit and meat--were carried there by tractors, and thrown in putrefying piles that emanated combustible methane gas.

The landfill was far from my house. It was almost two miles away. It had been there for over a decade, but I had never noticed it. Now, with Pondicherry growing, its residents getting richer, buying more, discarding more, the dump had swollen.

Over the years, hundreds of thousands of tons of garbage had built up. The dump was running out of space. The fires, some man-made, some the result of spontaneous combustion, were getting bigger. The smoke was getting thicker, and traveling farther.

To me and my wife, the situation was bewildering. For so long, we had told ourselves that we were happy with the bargain we had made by choosing to live in rural India. We had decided to raise our children in a place where the water was drinkable, and the skies clear at night. Now the world was crowding in. I was told that the dump was emitting furans and dioxins and other toxic chemicals. I was told that these poisons could lead to cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular and respiratory disease. And I was told, too, that children, with their undeveloped immune systems, were most susceptible.

What were responsible parents to do? We talked a lot about moving. "But to where?" my wife would ask. The landfills were everywhere, smoking heaps outside (and sometimes inside) cities, along highways, in fields and forests.

India produced some 100 million tons of municipal waste every year. According to the OECD, only 60% of this waste was even collected. A far smaller (almost nonexistent) amount was recycled. The garbage just piled up--and rotted, and smoldered, and polluted the air and water.

Sometimes, when I drove along highways lined with blazing garbage, when I passed through remote villages shrouded in smoke, it seemed like there wasn't a safe corner in the country. India, I began to feel, was burning.

•       •       •       •       •

Cover Image - Akash Kapur INDIA BECOMING.JPGIndia was burning--and, in a similar way, it was eroding, melting, drying, silting up, suffocating. Across the country, rivers and lakes and glaciers were disappearing, underground aquifers being depleted, air quality declining, beaches being swept away.

The numbers were astounding. According to a government report I read, almost half of India's land suffered from some kind of erosion. Seventy percent of its surface water was polluted. Earlier this year, a study conducted by Yale and Columbia universities concluded that India had the worst air quality in the world.

In the weeks and months after the garbage first started blowing into my living room, I came to see this terrible environmental toll as a form of collateral damage: it was the price the country was paying for its rapid growth, for a model of development that elevated prosperity above all else.

For years, India had been skeptical of environmentalists and their concerns. In 1972, Indira Gandhi, then the country's  prime minister, attended the first United Nations Conference on the environment, in Stockholm, and announced that poverty was the worst form of pollution.

It was a formulation that stuck. People I know who were involved in India's latent environmental movement during the 70s and 80s remember an uphill struggle. They were accused of elitism, and of being insensitive to the plight of the poor.

Environmentalists like to say that their cause needn't have a developmental cost, that environmentalism is a win-win proposition. That's not always true: sometimes, tough choices are required. Tradeoffs have to be made. This is true everywhere in the world (think of the United States' reluctance to impose a carbon tax for fear that it will stifle jobs), but perhaps especially in a poor country like India.

Increasingly, though, I've found myself thinking that after two decades of economic reforms, after a boom that has lifted millions from poverty, India has reached a stage in its growth where Indira Gandhi's old formulation is breaking down.

Today, economic development and environmentalism are no longer mutually exclusive. Experts estimate that, if it were quantified, the cost of environmental damage in India would shave anywhere from 2.5 to 4 percent off GDP. The nation's emerging environmental calamity threatens to overshadow--and undermine--its phenomenal growth.

•       •       •       •       •

On a cloudy day in November, I took a trip to the beach. It was a twenty-minute drive from my home, a sandy stretch of coconut trees and fishing villages that lined the South Indian coast. I had been going to that beach since I was a boy. I had gone swimming there with my friends, and I had gone fishing in catamarans with local fishermen.

Now, I wasn't going for a swim, or to fish. I was going because I had heard that large stretches of the beach were being swept away, disappearing into the ocean. Some years ago, the town of Pondicherry, farther down the coast, had built a new harbor. This harbor was supposed to spur development in the area. There was some debate about whether it had done that, but the harbor had indisputably blocked replenishing sand flows carried by currents from the south. Now the beach was starved of nourishment--another victim of the nation's single-minded quest for development.

I went to the fishing village of Chinnamudaliarchavadi. It was a village I knew well, but I was shocked by what I saw.  A stretch of sand that had once extended for at least a hundred meters was now reduced to a strip of no more than ten or fifteen meters. Trees were uprooted, and fences and compound walls were breached. At least one electricity pole had come down. Houses sat precariously above the waters; some, I was told, had already been swallowed.

Many villagers had moved away, left behind their thatch huts and gone inland, in search of higher ground. They weren't only leaving their homes behind; they were abandoning their livelihoods (and the livelihoods, too, of their parents and grandparents).

In a hut at the edge of the village, perched above the ocean, I met a widowed mother of two boys. Her name was M. Valli. She told me that every night, at high tide, the waters seeped into the single room of her hut where she tried to sleep with her children. The sound of the waves, she said, was "like an earthquake."

She showed me her hut. It was tiny, cramped, with only a bare minimum of possessions: a kerosene stove, a cardboard calendar on the wall, a couple pillows on the floor. She said the erosion was destroying her livelihood. She used to buy fish from fishermen and sell them in the local market; now, with the waters advancing, growing increasingly rougher and changing course every day, the catch was down, almost non-existent.

As I was leaving Valli's hut, one of her friends beseeched me to write about their plight. "If this continues," she said, "we're all going to die."

I walked farther up the coast. I sat on the sand, what was left of it, and I thought of just how little remained of the beach I had known as a boy.

So much was being swept away. So much was being destroyed. I knew it was part of the compact of modern India: In with the new, out with the old, all in the name of progress.

I welcomed the progress. But all the destruction seemed a heavy price to pay.

This post is adapted from Akash Kapur's India Becoming: A Portrait of Life in Modern India (Riverhead Books).

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Akash Kapur, the former Letter From India columnist for the International Herald Tribune, is the author of India Becoming: A Portrait of Life in Modern India. He has also written for The New Yorker, The Economist, The New York Times, and others.

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