Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Toxic India

Unseasonal rains were wreaking havoc down below as my plane descended into Hyderabad, India. As I exited the airport, the heat and humidity for October was insufferable. For a moment I thought I had landed in the wrong city. I had grown up here and had never felt this way, especially in the month of October when the heat normally leaves and the cool air settles in. As I got into my taxi and made my way home, my driver was relaying how difficult commuting had become as cloudbursts would flood city streets with little notice, making them impassable. As we got off the overpass, and joined the river of choking traffic, what he was saying became apparent. The roads were in atrocious condition as a result of incessant rain, and as the traffic crawled, the plight of urban living in India was on full display. In a place where rain is normally a blessing as it cleanses the air and brings relief to parched land, people were praying for it to go away.

As I arrived home to be greeted by my parents who I had not seen for over an year, the discussion quickly turned to the rains. Our fifty year old house standing on three foot wide limestone walls was soaking in water from the wet onslaught. Next morning I visited my neighbor who was disinfecting her home after a foot of water mixed with sewage and storm run off had inundated every room. Was this climate change showing itself or just an anomaly, one could not tell. But my neighbor was exhausted complaining that this was the fourth time she had had her home flooded this month and she was at her wit’s end.

October is festival month in India. Dushera and Diwali are the two major Hindu festivals that are celebrated with much pomp and flare in much of the country. Being home for Diwali is always special. As a child I would look forward to this festival all year as you would get new clothes, and the house would come alive with oil lamps, marigolds, colorful floor patterns, mango leaves and the aromas of delicious home cooked savories. But what would excite me most, was the burning of firecrackers, which was the highlight for any child. Some sparklers, flowerpots, loud bombs and red cracker garlands and an assorted cornucopia of toxic smoke releasing delights would do the trick. I even suffered third degree burns on my thumb as a ten year old, but that did not deter my passion for this activity around this time.

Fireworks were never cheap, and in some ways letting them off in a poor nation was tantamount to burning currency. I began to come to this realization later in my youth as the act of burning fireworks during Diwali seemed to be getting a little out of hand. With India's economic boom came a rise in disposable income. And Diwali soon became a time to show of your status by burning more fireworks than needed. This time around it seemed like things had reached a tipping point. Last year New Delhi had to be shut down for three days after Diwali, as the air had become so toxic that it was considered unsafe for children to go to school.

So this year the Indian Supreme Court banned fireworks in New Delhi in an attempt to avoid the dire conditions that had brought the city to a halt last year. New Delhi's air is already ranked one of the worst in the world and they hoped this would make a difference. While many were supportive of this action, there were others who saw this as an attack on their Hindu pride and their ability to exercise their religious freedom. There were ministers and intellectuals on the right who were opposing the ban vehemently with absurd logic. Neighboring states were inviting the Delhi residents to come over to their land to exercise their birth right of burning fireworks to their heart's content. On Diwali day, the ban had little effect. It was barely enforced and New Delhi was engulfed in a smog of toxic air.

Down in Hyderabad, my house was invaded by smoke as my neighbors exercised their right to burn fireworks for probably our whole neighborhood. From my terrace I could see the sulfur rise like a ghostly cloud obscuring the view of the grand marble temple on the hill. And the next day I had the worst headache I can remember that lasted the whole day, which I could only attribute to the air that surrounded me. While being home for Diwali was joyous, somethings in my city had steadily and irrevocably changed. I had little hope that things would reset even though many in the media were shouting hoarse about the deteriorating state of affairs.

Just about then the Lancet Study made headlines. India accounted for about 28 per cent of an estimated 9 million pollution-linked deaths worldwide in 2015. It also topped the list of deaths linked to polluted air (1.81 million) and water (0.64 million). Most of the pollution-related deaths were reported in low and middle income countries, and in rapidly industrializing nations such as India, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Madagascar and Kenya. Most of these deaths were due to non-communicable diseases caused by pollution, such as heart disease, stroke, lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

While stuck in a perilous traffic jam in my non-air conditioned minuscule Maruti 800 (a tin can of a car from the 1980s), I saw large Jaguars, Mercedes Benzes and BMWs pass by. Then there were buses packed with passengers exploding out in steaming humid air. Families on two-wheelers with helmets and handkerchiefs on their faces, clamored to get ahead. Three-wheelers, called Auto-rickshaws, tried to squeeze through, all while the traffic crawled in a state of utter chaos and frenzy as people honked their horns with the hope that some noise would have an impact. Having grown up here I was used to this daily din as people trudged to their destinations like this, with little or no choice. But I had not seen it this bad before and as more and more cars entered the streets, the clamor was predicted to only get worse. As a solution the city had initiated the construction of an overhead metro system with the hope of relieving some of the congestion below. With ten years and counting, the delayed project was not only causing the traffic mayhem, but the prospect of it addressing this urban calamity seemed suspect.

I was in India this time, also to screen a film I was part of, titled Holy (un)Holy River. The film tells the story of the mighty Ganges and its current predicament. Highlighting the over damming of the water and the industrial and religious pollution the river faces on a daily basis, the film makes the argument that this holiest of holy rivers, can one day cease to exist if things continue the way they have been for the last fifty years. The river has reached its limit and by all scientific measure is a polluted waterway. By shining a light on the state of affairs the film reveals the urgency that is at hand, and calls for urgent action or suffer the consequences of a physical sacred river becoming a mythological one, much like its counterpart, Saraswati. During a question and answer session after a screening in Bangalore, an audience member said the film shows all that is wrong with the river, but offers no solutions? To which I answered, as a filmmaker my job is to shine a light. Solutions have always been there and there are many proposed that people in power are aware of. But I am beginning to become pessimistic as I see little or no action at the governmental level. The problem is now beyond individual action that placates one’s conscience.

While India is turning toxic due to rapid urbanization and industrialization, this scenario is not unique to this nation alone. It is only more "in your face" here. The west polluted itself, got rich in the process and then cleaned itself up to a large extent. Poor nations like India do not have that luxury or the time. Rich nations like America still continue to pollute the environment with emissions and excessive use of chemicals. The current administration in America has chosen a path of regression. By pulling out of the Paris accord and succumbing to lobbyists and reversing all the progress made by the previous administration, they are assuring that big chemical companies like Dow Chemicals continue to profit by putting American lives at risk.

While there is great pristine beauty left on this planet, there is little doubt that humanity by its very existence is turning it toxic. While living in urban India is injurious to health, one only has to travel a few miles outside the ever-expanding city limits to touch and feel what fresh air tastes like. But even there on close observation one will find human toxicity in the form of pesticides and other pollutants that are used to grow food to feed the teeming masses.

So where do we go from here? The climate is changing, humans are set in their ways, and governments are in a state of denial and in the business of creating growth and jobs to win elections. And still we are asked to be optimistic and have faith in technology, and that there will be "big solutions" to these gigantic existential problems. But do we really have the time?

James Baldwin, the great author, thinker and conscience of his time was once asked, if he felt optimistic about the plight of his people (with regards to racism and segregation) in America. He responded, "I am alive, therefore I have to be optimistic".

It is what it is.