India’s growth can zero out all the world’s environmental measures
Nigambodh Ghat is the place where the Hindu god Brahma bathed in the Yamuna River and regained his memory. Today the river runs thick as snot. Nigambodh is one of the busiest outdoor crematoriums in Delhi. Fifty pyres a day, every day. The ashes are dumped in the river.
Despite India being badly overcrowded, many Hindus still favour the traditional funeral pyre. This is noteworthy since there will soon be more people than trees in India. The ratio is 1:3, and falling.
This winter day, Nigambodh Ghat reminds me of the abandoned Pripyat amusement park just outside Chernobyl. The large idols in fiberglass look faded, the reflective pools are empty, as are the collection plates. The government is trying to persuade Indians to exit the in the Western way with gas: ash in a jar.
The Hindu Antyesti, or burial rites, vary with caste, age gender and region. I look at a dozen men sitting in a row and chanting from the Vedas. It is so strangely timeless that I lose track of time—until a young man sits down next to me.
“Do you see? I don’t know how to sit there without getting bored?” Vihab Kumar is spending a gap year away from Canada. He says he has been sent to India to connect with the family, but his stay has so far been a mixed experience.
“My grandfather wants me up at five o’clock every morning to meditate.” I grin and ask if vacations are different in Canada. Kumar continues: “And the ridiculous thing is that my grandfather isn’t very religious; he’s a banker. It is only when I came over that he became very religious.”
Kumar is a millennial and shares this generation’s self-confidence in finding faults with the world they are to inherit: “Religion has the wrong answer. In Hinduism, the gods intervene to save the creation from human abuse, but Delhi is choking on pollution without any sign of divine intervention.”
He believes Hinduism creates a cultural resistance to prioritizing the environment over economics, because “Hinduism is more important as a cultural identity than as genuine belief.” The man who is next on the pyre is a relative of Kumar’s. “Who?” I ask. “Don’t know”, he answers—an unknown uncle.
Behind the cremation spots, I meet a resident holy man, Aghori Baba. In spite of their frightening appearance, which the sadhus encourage by smearing themselves in funeral ashes, Aghori Baba is a gentle soul, full of humour. He smokes hash from a clay pipe in giant lungfuls and giggles when I ask if it is wise to burn corpses when the air in Delhi is so foul? “Just as fire turns wood into ash, the fire of insight consumes the tribulations of karma.” I don’t understand, I relayed. He bobs his head and hiccups: “Neither do I.”
The Aghorahs renounce sectarian identities and common sense. Their wild lifestyle, which includes eating human flesh from the pyres, is supposed to obliterate the divide between the sacred and the unholy, the mother of all dichotomies, because dualism is believed to stand in the way of realization.
But not all contradictions are imagined. The Yamuna River flows into the sacred Ganges where Hindus drink and bathe. Yamuna water tests have found 1.5 million fecal bacteria per 100 milliliters—hundreds of thousands times more than the recommended limit for swimming.
An Austrian woman I met a few years ago was so smitten by Indian spirituality that she waded into the Ganges. After weeks in hospital in Delhi, Frau Warta was flown to Vienna where her abdomen became part of the medical record books. She had apparently contracted the worst urinary tract infection in Austrian history.
The river is still considered cleansing. Travel writer Eric Newby wrote in the book Slowly Down the Ganges (1966): “To bathe in it is to wash away guilt. To drink the water, having bathed in it, and to carry it away in bottles for those who have not had the good fortune to make the pilgrimage to it is meritorious.”
In 2014 Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised to clean up the Ganges as part of the Swachh Bharat initiative for a cleaner India. Much has been done, especially in reducing open air defecation, but the promise that Ganges will be clean by October 2, 2020, seems unrealistic.
Nigambodh Ghat shows why there is reason to worry about India. The populous country has made a plunge into modernity with appalling environmental consequences. The Ashogis shock worshipers more by the fact that they drink water from Yamuna than that they are drinking it from a human skull.
City of Smokers
My local fixer, Surash Beriya, is studying information technology in the Karol Bagh part of Delhi, but he cannot afford a laptop. He takes me to the family home in the slum, where five live in a shed. The family migrated to Delhi when life as smallholders in Uttar Pradesh became too difficult.
The father’s chai stand sustains the family, but Surash is working to pay for private lessons for the younger sisters. He knows that education is the way out of poverty, but the nine- and 12-year-old sisters struggle with recurring lung infections and need the extra lessons just to keep up.
Of the world’s ten most polluted cities, nine are located in India. Much of the year, Delhi is a health hazard. One day in the streets is equivalent to smoking 44 cigarettes, according to the Berkeley Earth Science Research Group model. What is certain is that when you blow your nose in Delhi the handkerchief turns black.
In spite of the fact that Surash’s family home is in an alley, it is very clean. We drink tea and swap jokes with the mother who, with a matron’s dignity, ensures that everyone is served in the right order and that the little girls behave. But she asks me to listen to their lungs. They are wheezing.
According to a new study by researchers at the University of British Columbia and the Health Effects Institute, Indian children have shortened their lives by an average of 30 months due to a combination of outdoor air pollution and the use of fires for cooking indoors.
The authorities’ environmental measures are implemented slowly. India is a democracy, something Surash believes makes it difficult to take obvious steps such as getting rid of the exhaust-belching rickshaws. “This is not China. The authorities regulate, and Indians find new ways to abrogate.”
He points out that this is a country where the Internet is governed by the Indian Telegraph Act of 1885. “There is no such thing as steered development in India; no one controls the development.” This is an important point. Many assume that India is centrally governed, a false premise.
Growth means emissions. There are only a few countries that can affect global climate on their own. First is the United States, then China, and lastly India. India’s greenhouse gas emissions doubled from 1980 to 1995 and doubled again to 2019. Climate researcher Navroz K. Dubash predicts that today’s figures will double again by 2030, at the latest. India is currently ranked fourth in the world in CO2 emissions, right behind the European Union. With an economic output roughly equal to that of the United Kingdom alone, the country’s emissions are higher than the whole of Africa and South America combined.
In relation to the country’s population size, emissions of carbon dioxide are still relatively small: 1.6 tons of carbon per person, per year is about the same as China’s emissions in 1980, when the hyper-growth of free market communists took off. Also like China, India in practice chooses fossil fuels for fast and predictable energy. Heavy industry and generators are growing. Most vehicles run on gas. In much of the country, biomass (cow dung and trash) is used for cooking.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has set a growth target of 8 per cent annually. If India uses the same amount of energy per unit of GDP in 2035 as it does today, it will become the world’s biggest contributor to the growth of greenhouse gases. Unlike other major polluters, India refuses to set any date for when the country’s emissions would peak and begin to fall.
This reluctance to commit to lower emissions comes from the fact that economic growth is needed to combat poverty. More than 250 million Indians live under the World Bank’s extreme poverty limit, and a similar number lack power. But there is little to suggest that the West can reduce its emissions adequately to compensate for growth in India.
It is remarkable how little the highly developed Indian civilization has affected Western civilization. Pankash Mishra claims in the book Age of Anger that the Hindu nationalists borrowed a Western growth model and its “notion of painless improvement.” Mishra’s story is one where India, since independence, has put an Indian varnish on Western ideologies such as nationalism and communism, but is nonetheless moving inexorably away from its distinctive civilizational path and toward globalization, meaning Westernization.
This helps explain how a continent that so long seemed to be held back by its culture, traditions, and history suddenly no longer seems to appreciate what was previously regarded sacred. The temples fall into disrepair, the rivers are poisoned, and the old is bulldozed to make room for the new.
“Juggernaut” is one of the few Hindi words that have found their way into English. The word is used to describe a merciless and unstoppable destructive force that demands submission. Originally, the juggernaut was a giant ceremonial wagon used at festivals to honor the god Vishnu. Vishnu was the one who said “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
The first European description of the Juggernaut was written down in the 15th century by the Franciscan monk Odoric of Pordenone, who described Hindus, as a religious sacrifice, throwing themselves under the wheels of the carts to be crushed to death. The Juggernauts of old have not been preserved, but the name adorns the bar at the hotel where I meet Samir Saran, head of the Observer Research Foundation, an Indian think tank based in Delhi. It is mid-day but the reddish-hued sun is unable to break through the smog, so the lamps are lit.
“India is the crux,” he says. “Three quarters of the country has not yet been developed. 1.3 billion people will seek a Western lifestyle. If it can be achieved in a climate-neutral way, we save the planet. If we do not, we will destroy India and perhaps even the planet.”
Saran says he has tried to create engagement among the student community, but with little luck: “Young Indians are committed to progress. They believe the environment is something that can be fixed later.” I ask him whether the poor air quality might motivate them.
“Less than you should think,” replied Saran. “The authorities are trying,” he says, listing a series of environmental measures, but development is proceeding independently of the regulations. India is in danger of being crushed under the wheels of globalization, the modern Juggernaut.
India recently concluded a series of parliamentary elections which the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party-led NDA coalition won handily. Over the course of the campaign, the two major candidates for Prime Minister, the BJP’s Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi of the Indian National Congress, talked a little about the environment and more about growth, work and security. Lord Nicholas Stern, a leading expert on climate and India, told the Guardian that if action is not taken India will account for much of the world’s future emissions and make it “very difficult” to meet the international goal of keeping temperatures from rising more than two degrees Celsius.
In 2018 a UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report warned that a 1.5-degree increase in global temperatures could “disproportionately affect disadvantaged and vulnerable populations through food and water insecurity, higher food prices, income losses, lost livelihood opportunities, adverse health impacts, and population displacements.” India would be among the nations most affected by these problems. The report concludes that global carbon pollution should be cut in half by 2030 and reduced to zero by 2050 to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. To meet these goals, India will need to find a new development model based entirely on clean energy rather than just adding green energy measures to coal, which currently generates more than half of the country’s electricity.
And that will not happen by itself in one of the world’s fastest-growing and fastest-urbanizing economies. India is investing heavily in solar energy. It had committed to achieving 40 percent of solar electricity production by 2030, and that target has now been sharpened to 60 percent renewable energy by 2027. The World Bank has made $625 million available for this shift—far too little.
Ester Boserup (1910–99) was a Danish economist who specialized in the economics of development. Her experience, including from India, helped shape her theory that the relationship between population growth and food production is impacted by innovation.
People, like all populations of plants and animals, compete with each other for the resources of the earth. But what happens when the resources are insufficient? For a long time, the agreed answer was the one Tomas Malthus arrived at in “An Essay on the Principle of Population” (1798). In ecological terms, Malthus claimed that the human population was in danger of growing beyond the capacity of nature to sustain it. The result, he warned, would be man-made disasters that would kill a great many people.
Boserup challenged the belief that a population’s size is kept down by the amount of food. She claimed human ingenuity would cause the food supply to keep pace with the needs of the population. Over the years Boserup has been proven right on this point time and again. We are an innovative species.
Does the same apply to the global climate? Will man’s ingenuity save us from the forewarned crisis? The answer lie, to no small extent, in India.
Published in The American Interest on 26.05-2019