March 22, 2011
Landing in Delhi after fifteen hours on a plane, I was eager for fresh air. But as I walked out of the airport terminal, I was enveloped in a cool, yellow-tinged mist that made me cough and my eyes water.
“What is that smell?” I asked our tour guide.
“Oh, just the fog,” he said.
“But it smells like something is burning.”
“No, no. Just winter air. Always the same.”
Not wishing to seem rude, I fell silent. The smell was vaguely familiar. Then it hit me: Air pollution. I had entered a time machine. Memories crowded in, of the air trapped in New York City’s high-rise canyons and the blanket of smog suspended over Los Angeles. It had been years since I had breathed such noxious stuff.
No western traveler to India can help but be struck by its pollution. India is ranked as the seventh most environmentally hazardous country in the world. Lakes and rivers are clogged with garbage, plastic bags and bottles, metal junk, animal waste and raw sewage. India relies heavily on coal for its energy; everywhere in the surrounding countryside of Rajasthan, thick black soot pours out of the towering smokestacks attached to power plants, along with cement plants and brick kilns.
Delhi, where almost 1,000 new cars are added daily to the four million already on the streets, is choking in traffic and exhaust fumes. Vehicle emissions are responsible for 70% of the country’s air pollution. At times, the fog of pollution around Delhi is so thick as to be blinding; plane and train schedules are disrupted. Sunlight cannot penetrate to reach winter crops.
On my return to the United States, I talked to Richie Ahuja, EDF’s India program director. Ahuja was born in Agra, home to the Taj Majal. The pristine white marble of that splendid monument was turning yellow, due to air pollution, until in the late 1990s the Indian Supreme Court ordered more than 200 factories in the area to stop using coke/coal fuel under threat of being shut down.
When I told Ahuja that India’s pollution was overwhelming, he surprised me by his optimism. “I’m actually feeling very heartened these days,” he said. “People used to say, ‘Oh, the pollution, you get used to it.’ But now, there are many rumblings in the press, and in city streets, about how serious a problem it is. Even in tiny, isolated villages, people, especially women, are beginning to understand how pollution is connected to their children’s health.”
Ahuja believes that India can restore its environment and fight global warming by empowering rural populations, and specifically women. Indian local elected community leaders (Panchayats) — at least one-third of who by law are women — are demanding cheap, local solutions to global warming and deforestation. In January, EDF and our partners helped organize a meeting of 100 community leaders from remote villages who gathered to discuss the impact of climate change.
Change, in India, will come from the bottom up. The needs are many. EDF and partners are helping expand a program to install biogas converters in rural homes in Southern India in a project it hopes will become common. The converters transform animal waste into natural gas for heat, light and cooking. Using less wood reduces the deforestation that plagues India. The goal for this year is to install 30,000 converters.
Ahuja described a recent visit to some of the villages around Bagepalli, near Bangalore. “Before the biogas, the house would become so smoky before mealtime that the children had to go outside,” Ahuja said. “Now, the family sits together while the mother cooks, because the gas burns cleanly. The number of hospital visits is dropping. The women don’t have to go into the forests in the morning to collect firewood — which can be dangerous. They have time to make their children breakfast, and get them to school on time.”
India is changing fast. It is the only country where the working population will continue to increase in the next 25 years, as will its wealth. Already, educated young people are bettering their standard of living. Doctors in Delhi — who have documented a rising incidence of strokes among youngsters due to environmental pollution — are beginning to press the government for better controls.
How disheartening, then, to witness the continuing assaults on the environment at home. As I was leaving for India, some leaders in the U.S. Congress — with the support of industrial polluters — were ramping up a charge to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency. They want to undo the Clean Air Act by weakening EPA’s power to regulate dangerous emissions like the mercury, lead and acid gases from coal plants.
I have a fantasy of sending every pro-pollution congressman, lobbyist and executive on a bus to tour a country that has never enjoyed the benefit of strong anti-pollution regulation. As they hack black soot into their handkerchiefs, they will see for themselves how lucky all of us are that, since 1970, we’ve had the EPA to look after our air and water.
Our air still isn’t clean enough, as any mother with an asthma-stricken child will tell you. But it is so much better than it was. Congress’s reckless attacks on the EPA should spur every American to action.
As developing nations begin to tackle pollution, they look to the United States for what can be achieved. They know the price of filthy air — its exorbitant cost to health and economic growth. Have we already forgotten?
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