10 million people in Mumbai alone live in slums. That is more than the entire population of Sweden, all living in tremendous poverty. Because there are over 1.3 Billion people in India, all competing over a limited capital, about anything can be found or done in India of one has the funds.
The poverty that this large population creates is suffocating at times. It also results in foul smells and rancid waterways that make privileged western travelers want to vomit. But this is everyday life for the majority of India. Riding on a train that has too many people and not enough space, the stench of India can penetrate the stuffiest nose. Stagnant water releases the worst odor of all as the rains move litter and pollution into all of the low spaces that can trap water. These pools are the often worst color of blue and appear oily. However, the population seems almost immune to the rancid smells. Moreover, they contribute to them daily by throwing their trash all over the streets and peeing wherever seems fit.
The state of the environment in India is terrible. Even the most polarized members of the Political Right would amend their views on the Clean Water Act after smelling a river in India. Unfortunately, the vast majority of residents in India are powerless when it comes to ameliorating the state of their environment. Furthermore, they are exposed to environmental toxins daily as they bathe and do laundry in the polluted rivers. It is heartbreaking to see children playing, so carelessly, in water that most would fear to touch. But this is the every day reality of billions.
Urban environments do have a diverse amount of species, ranging from Monkeys to Buffaloes, and the occasional Elephant or Camel. Yet they lack green spaces. Moreover, if there are green spaces, they are behind barbed wire fences and out of reach to the average person. The Taj Mahal is located in Agra, one of the dirtiest places on the planet. The town has a rancid smell everywhere and the people are terribly impoverished. The lawns of the Taj Mahal are almost as green as a middle class suburb in the U.S., yet the children are fenced out and play on the lifeless banks of the river. How can such beauty exist in the middle of so much poverty?
I’ve been thinking hard on solutions. Being moved near tears several times this month by watching the suffering of India I can’t help to feel helpless for them. But how does the proliferation of sustainability work? As I was flipping through my passport and reading famous quotes to curios India’s, I came across one by Dwight D. Eisenhower saying “Whatever America hopes to bring to pass in the world must first come to pass in the heart of America”. This then made me think about sustainability in relation to industrialization. Although it took western countries hundreds of years to get where we are, places such as China have been able to ride that wave and industrialize in a much shorter period of time. This is likely to hold true with sustainability. As we focus on elevating poverty and environmental injustices inside the United States, places such as India will have the ability to follow suit.
But is this enough? After having this thought a man casually threw three plastic water bottles out of the train window, a common occurrence. Maybe educational programs aimed at the younger population will lead to the slow, yet steady decline of litter. Or maybe moving away from plastics in the West will do the trick. A more immediate plan would be educational. The vast majority of Indian youth have access to smart phones and use social media. Maybe this could be a platform for grassroots activism and alleviation from the bottom up? Educational posts by popular figures on the horrors of micro plastic and the benefits of recycling programs could be some sort of step in the right direction.
Could India use the state of their environment as a way to alleviate poverty? It could be possible that massive cleanup programs would ameliorate the poverty and provide both jobs and health to an entire nation. There is no shortage of workers India. It seams as if everyone is looking for a way to make a few bucks all hours of the day. Why not create capital out of trash? Chinas recent decision to cease their importation of recyclable trash could be used to India’s advantage. By creating (state or private) recycling plants or trash incinerators that convert the trash into goods and energy, India could create jobs and clean up their streets, thus improving health nationwide. After doing so they could insure that these jobs last by importing recyclable trash. Such as the connection with industrialization, these technologies could be modeled after Chinas, and improved by the brilliance of Indian engineers, to be more efficient and clean.
I am not saying that this would be easy, nor is it a panacea. Furthermore, a lot of the goods that are polluting India came from the influence of Western civilization. However, from what I have seen, there is no shortage of willingness. Persons of the lowest socioeconomic status already collect plastic bottles on the streets. The willingness at that level is there. A lot of Indians complain regularly about how dirty their country is, so the public is likely to support such a program. What I do not know, and what is likely to be the most difficult piece of the puzzle, is who would initiate such a program.
India is the closest country to anarchy that I have visited. Hell, there aren’t even stoplights. My only interaction with a police officer was getting shaken down for 5…. no 50 rupees (after he saw how much I had in my wallet) for braking a rule no one knew about and likely didn’t exist (the cash went right into his pocket and he enthusiastically shook my hand and told me to have a nice day afterwards). Moreover, the majority of India’s authorities are tied up in boarder disputes with China and Pakistan, something that deserves its own polemical blog post as northern India is a place that hosts the refugees if Tibet.
I’m leaving India with a lot of questions and thoughts that I would love an answer to. The love I’ve experienced here has touched me, yet the poverty and environmental hardships keep weighing down my spirits. After having my shoes and wallet stolen within two days, arriving and leaving Agra, I’m ready to leave India. However I don’t think that India will leave my mind for quite some time.
Please note: some of the smells are necessary for the charm as it is beautiful seeing animals coexisting with humans in urban environments. This is in no way meant to be critical of India’s people, nor government, for I know little regarding the political climate of India. This is simply a look at India through an environmental point of view.
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