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

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.

Presented by

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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