“Where’d the sun just go?”
Kim and I are watching as picturesque a sunset as we’ve ever seen when something strange happens. It’s a cloudless sky, but as the sun nears the horizon line, it vanishes. Something suddenly swallows it up.
“Did that happen because we’re not at sea level?” I ask Kim. A dubious hypothesis, but she indulges me.
“I’m not sure… Is that a thing?”
“I don’t know. Let’s look it up next time we have WiFi.”
Then it hits me.
“Oh… Maybe it’s pollution.”
On the spectrum of environmental awareness, I count myself among those who are very conscious of our changing climate. But before coming here, pollution in India was a stray concept floating around my brain, untethered to reality. Now, after weeks of covering my mouth and nose to avoid exhaust fumes, of shielding my eyes from the smoke of burning trash, of watching smog obscure the sun, the pollution here has become all too real. So, I decided to couple my firsthand experience with some old-fashioned research and learn more about the environmental issues India is dealing with as a result of its rapid growth.
Because the consequences of air pollution are the most globally detrimental, we’re quick to equate how polluted a region is with how clean its air is, but understanding a country or city’s effect on the environment is not as simple as measuring its air quality. You also need to analyze ecological impact in terms of noise, water, and land pollution.
Recently I wrote about finding India to be a sensory overload — the astonishing bustle of an average street, how much noise is generated by all the moving parts. At the time, I didn’t realize that what I was describing was not simply an inescapable truth of India. I was describing noise pollution.
I could tell that many cities here were loud — it was impossible to miss — but I had no idea that in many places the level of noise is actually injurious. The Center for Science and Environment finds the typical volume of a commercial area in New Delhi is around 100db, with the volume of residential areas reaching as high as 90db. If you and I were to sit across a table and chat casually, the volume of our conversation would measure about 65db. Prolonged exposure to sound measuring above 80db can damage your ears permanently, and even brief exposure to sound at 120db can cause deafness.
Not only do people seem to accept this racket as a fact of life here, but they actively contribute to the city growing even louder. Their lifestyle practically demands it. Traffic laws are almost nonexistent, requiring drivers to honk to alert others to their next move. Bumpers everywhere read “PLEASE HONK,” or “USE HORN.” Car manufacturers even customize cars with louder horns specifically for the Indian market. And then there’s the fireworks piece of the puzzle. Fireworks are now integral to wedding celebrations and sports victories, and there are no laws dictating where or when they can be set off. They explode at all hours of the day, adding yet another layer to the already chaotic soundscape.
One expects a city to be noisy; it’s the thumping cadence of industrial development. But it’s a horse of a different color for residents to be threatened with permanent hearing loss on a daily basis.
Water pollution is a little stealthier and requires more of a scientific effort to detect. Usually water pollutants remain hidden except to the scientists who test the samples. That is, unless your water visibly resembles sewage… In that case, you probably have an inkling that your water is polluted.
Unfortuately, this is the situation in many parts of India. Untreated waste has been emptying into India’s rivers at an increasing rate since industrial development took off in the early 1980s. Only 30% of urban waste is treated before it flows into the rivers here. The Central Pollution Control Board recently measured 290 rivers in India and concluded that 65% were too polluted to support aquatic life. The Yamuna River, the second longest in India, is now so dirty that it is considered officially “dead.” Terrestrial life is taking quite a hit, too. About 370 cities and towns line these strangled rivers and depend on them for drinking water and irrigation purposes. Even filtration isn’t proving effective; toxic residue has been found in bottled water and in soda.
At the moment the government is not taking any major steps to clean waste water. Until that happens, 38 million tons of untreated waste per day will continue to dump into India’s rivers. Last week I mentioned the bathroom situation here somewhat flippantly; I should’ve realized that defecating into a hole in the floor unconnected to a septic system is only the tip of the water pollution iceberg.
Land pollution, however, has not eluded me in the slightest. Actually, the places that haven’t been covered in trash have been the anomalies. I may have become accustomed to maneuvering around cows, but I’ll never get used to having to navigate my way through garbage. I always have the urge to pick it up — but there’s nowhere to put it. I’ve seen only a handful of public waste bins during my two months here.
Municipal solid waste, unsustainable agriculture, and active deforestation are mostly to blame for India’s land pollution. This toxic trifecta has hit this country with full force as a result of industrialization. 45% of India’s land is now degraded. For the 45,000 plant species and 91,000 animal species that call India home, this is more than a staggering statistic; it’s a death sentence. About 10% of these beautifully diverse species are now endangered.
Forests are being continuously destroyed to create space for industry (and a population of 1.28 billion people.) The rate of agricultural expansion has left little time to update farming machinery, and farmers are in the habit of using poisonous insecticide to treat crops as a cheaper alternative to organic options. Garbage disposal methods are certainly lacking; many people just set their trash on fire. I can’t even estimate how much plastic is being burned per day in unassuming little piles on the side of the road.
Which brings me to air pollution, the quietly corrosive catalyst for climate change. The burning of trash is only one small drop in India’s air pollution bucket. As of 2015, the air here is more toxic than anywhere else on Earth.
The pollutant matter that creates smog is called PM10, particulates that are <10 microns in diameter in the form of smoke, dirt, or dust. An increased level of PM10 in a city’s air is dangerous, not to mention a visible detraction from natural or urban beauty. A sea of PM10 is what engulfed the sun that day Kim and I watched it disappear. But particulates <2.5 microns in diameter, PM2.5, are the fellas we most need to worry about. Airborn PM2.5 particulates are toxic organic compounds or heavy metals that are small enough to penetrate our tissue; if we inhale enough of them, they nest in our lungs. A high level of PM2.5 in a person’s body significantly increases chances of cancer, and can even trigger a heart attack or a stroke.
The World Health Organization conducted a study this year wherein they measured levels of PM2.5 in 1,622 cities. 13 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are now in India. According to WHO’s measurements, levels of PM2.5 in New Delhi are consistently 15 times what is considered safe. But zones with lower levels of PM2.5 can’t just sit back and relax; gaseous pollutants (sulfur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide) are at such high levels here that they are equally as dangerous as particulate pollutants. Suffice it to say, many of India’s 660 million city dwellers are living in an unrelenting state of environmental emergency.
Such poisonous living conditions are mainly the result of India’s low standards for fuel and vehicle emissions. Cities and towns are crawling with rickshaws that run on diesel, and people are forced to set dung on fire to create a flame for cooking or heating. Standards for factory equipment are equally inferior. Many activists say that just forcing factories to clean their chimneys would significantly cut back pollution.
Currently, India is 3rd in the world for carbon emissions, and the rate of pollution is showing no signs of slowing down. Delhi’s air pollution has actually risen 20% since 2000. This is not only a disastrous state of affairs for India, where pollution-related causes are responsible for more than 1.6m deaths per year. The amount of carbon that these actions release affects us all, as India’s atmosphere is woven into the greater fabric of our ozone layer.
Although much of this damage is irreversible, there is hope of change. Green initiatives are beginning to pop up, especially in India’s wealthier states. Organic fertilizer is being generated from waste, metro systems are being constructed, and monitors are being installed to more closely track emissions. The National Green Tribunal has been active since 2010 as a judicial body that specifically hears environmental cases, and the National Air Quality Index was finally established this past April. Wonderful NGOs like the Center for Science and Environment have their own pollution monitoring labs and share data with the public via sites like the India Environmental Portal. But now, the central and state governments need to respond to this data and instigate actual changes in policy. Clearly the programs that have been in place up till now have not been effective enough. The Central Pollution Control Board has been around since 1974, so… any day now.
I spent several days educating myself on this grim situation. When I finally emerged from my research and rejoined the real world, I stopped by the common room to say hello to the other backpackers staying at my hostel.
“What’d you do today?” asks Matt, a 20-something traveler from Australia.
“I was here most of the day, actually. I’ve been doing research on pollution in India.”
Matt knits his brow and takes a sip of his beer.
“Okay… How’d that go? Care to throw out any facts?”
I search around my mushy brain for the statistic most indicative of all my findings.
“Did you know that 13 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are now in India?”
Matt shrugs and takes another sip of beer.
“That’s development, though. Look at history. Developing cities are always a mess. Eventually they get it together.”
On the heels of an already disheartening day, Matt’s statement just about puts me over the edge. That kind of mentality is the most virile perpetuation of the pollution problem. We aren’t facing crowds of picketers shouting “KILL THE EARTH,” or “WHO CARES ABOUT THE PLANET;” we’re facing people who think that development is an acceptable excuse for devastation. It’s not. Until we can get everyone to understand that — from government officials, to voters, to illegal aliens — our climate will only see destructive change.
These environmental issues didn’t appear overnight, and they won’t be solved by morning. But we can’t keep explaining away carbon emissions by citing “breakneck economic growth,” or pointing to overpopulation to justify uncontrolled waste.
We all live under the same roof of Earth’s atmosphere, and we need to help each other find sustainable ways to develop so that we don’t do further harm to our innocent planet. At this time, as an American tourist without a formal education in environmental conservancy, I’m not sure what I can do to contribute to India’s well-being; I live in a world where we recycle religiously and plant trees in our free time and still barely make a dent in helping our earth. But I intend to continue my research and at the very least promote the dissemination of this kind of knowledge so that we can all be more aware of what’s happening to our home. It’s great that we have public solar-powered charging stations in the UK; now let’s figure out how India can get some toilets.
© 2015 Cath Shelton. For a complete list of sources, click here.