Why India is one of the most polluted countries on Earth

news image

EVERYONE IN NAWAB COLONY can point to victims. Twenty-year-old Annisa, for instance, has the face of a Bollywood starlet, but limbs so withered she cannot walk. Raj, 13, shrunken and largely paralysed, is carried by his father like a large doll. Another teenage boy, Shyamlal, sits alone on a doorstep. He suffers milder palsy; at least he can speak and does not drool. A few steps away across some railroad tracks, what looks like a baby slumped on her mother’s shoulder turns out to be a patchily bald, terribly stunted three-year-old, who cannot hold her head up.

All are among some 961 cases taken up by the Chingari Trust, a local charity working with child victims of the worst industrial accident in history. Yet none of them was even born when some 40 tonnes of methyl isocyanate gas spewed out of the Union Carbide pesticide plant here, killing between 4,000 and 16,000 people. That was in 1984. The likely cause of their disabilities is not the gas, or its effect on their parents, but water from local wells soaking up the toxins that the factory began dumping in 1969. Abandoned abruptly, the plant has been awaiting clean-up ever since, leaching poisons into the ground. Only in 2014, on a judge’s orders, did Nawab Colony get piped water. But supply is often cut, so many still rely on the old hand pumps.

Official indifference to the 100,000 mostly poor people who live in this part of Bhopal says much about India’s wider failure to tackle pollution. The national government resides in a metropolis, Delhi, where residents inhale the equivalent of half a pack of cigarettes on an ordinary day, and two packs on a bad one. Suburban lakes and waterways in Bangalore, India’s high-tech hub, alternately foam with toxic suds (pictured above) or burst aflame: in January 5,000 soldiers took seven hours to douse Bellandur Lake, which drains the south-eastern part of the city. In Hyderabad, India’s pharmaceuticals capital, antibiotics are leaking into rivers, accelerating the development of drug-resistant microbes. Across India, more than two-thirds of urban wastewater goes untreated.

Nor is pollution just an urban blight. Skies across the vast, intensively farmed Gangetic plain are dimmed by the same mix of diesel and coal fumes as Delhi. The sacred River Ganges itself is unfit for bathing or drinking along its whole 2,500km length. Intensive coal mining has ripped out forests and spewed black dust across a swathe of central India. And in the long run farmers will pay even more dearly: global warming already affects the vital annual monsoon, generating local extremes of flash floods and sudden droughts.

Little and late

The Indian state has not been entirely asleep. It launched a plan to clean up the Ganges way back in 1986. Almost 20 years ago Delhi pioneered a switch by public transport to natural gas. The current government has accelerated the tightening of national emissions standards, boosted investment in renewable energy and increased incentives to stop farmers clearing fields with fire. At a meeting in Poland this month to monitor progress towards slowing climate change, India claimed it would meet the goals it set in the 2015 Paris accord ahead of the deadline of 2030.

Sunita Narain of the Centre for Science and the Environment, a think-tank in Delhi, says the worthy goals adopted by successive governments tend to lack teeth. “We have all the institutions and a lot of the right laws,” she says, “but where is the actual capacity, the personnel, the tools?” One example: the giant Sterlite copper smelter at Tuticorin in India’s far south, the subject of environmental complaints for decades. In May, outraged by a planned expansion of the plant, local residents mounted a mass protest. Police opened fire, killing 13. The embarrassed state government shut the plant. Had it been capable of properly regulating pollution, rather than winking at it or stopping production altogether, 5,000 workers might still have a job.

Too often, ill-conceived policies produce unintended toxic consequences. In a push for self-sufficiency, the government has encouraged farmers to grow rice. Water tables have duly plunged, prompting several states to oblige farmers to plant the thirsty crop later in the year, after the start of monsoon rains. This has pushed back harvests near Delhi to late October, when the wind drops. At the same time, new mechanical reapers leave more stubble. With only a short window to plant winter wheat, farmers resort to the quickest means of clearing their fields: burning. The smoke, which would disperse quickly in windier months, hangs and drifts.

Again wooing the farm vote, governments have subsidised diesel, on which most tractors and pumps run. So carmakers switched massively to diesel engines, which account for three-quarters of the motor fuel burned in Delhi, as well as for much of the carcinogenic grit that makes its air so dangerous. The government also favours coal for power generation, ostensibly to reduce reliance on imported fuels. But Indian coal has a high ash content, and the transport network struggles to bring it to power plants. The result is that India imports some $20bn of coal a year. Meanwhile, far cleaner gas-fired power plants are “stranded”, either unconnected to pipelines or spurned by electricity distributors.

This is one reason why India’s boast of meeting climate commitments is a sham. The goals it set itself are easy. One of them was to shrink the volume of emissions relative to GDP by 35%. But with GDP growing at 7% a year, this formula will allow it to triple emissions. India expects its power plants, already the world’s dirtiest, to consume 50% more coal by 2030.

Perhaps the biggest reason India has failed to get serious about pollution is that its politicians have, to date, been able to ignore its middle class. But that, at last, is shifting. “I do see change,” says Ms Narain. “The outrage has grown and is finally hitting home. But the action has yet to reach anything like the scale that we need.”

Read More