Thursday, March 18, 2010

Side Topic: Pollution in India

(This post is about India, but I forgot to post it. Written when we were in Mathura.)

The pollution here is really starting to get to me. The air is nasty: there is continual haze, as I'm sure you've noticed in many of the photos, and it is very irritating to my nose and throat. The sacred rivers are too polluted to safely swim in, by many orders of magnitude. The cities are in desperate need of a sewer system, including treatment. There is raw sewage flowing in ditches and streams through the cities. There is garbage everywhere. The organic matter is mostly eaten by the stray monkeys, dogs, cows, and kept goats and chickens, and turned into eggs, milk, meat, and manure (some cow pies do get set to dry, for fuel presumably, but much of it just remains on the street as filth). But the plastics pile up. There seems to be no cultural understanding of trashcans. We see them in some areas, but they do not appear to be used. The tap water is not safe to drink. There is also a smell of sulfur a lot of the time, not sure from where.

The dogs make me sad. There are tons of stray dogs all over the place, but they don't act like dogs in America. I've never been one to appreciate it when a big excited puppy jumps up on me and tries to lick my face or smell my crotch, but I know what a happy friendly dog acts like. Here, rabies is a big problem. And the treatment/prevention is very expensive (compared with local means anyway). Dogs are treated with suspicion, and that means they are treated very badly to teach them to keep their distance. It's sad to see dogs behaving so unlike dogs.

And then, of course, there is the poverty. Like I said in another entry, I am impressed by some of the shelters that these people build for themselves, and in many ways the self-sufficiency they seem to demonstrate is inspiring. But the filth they are living in is so awful, and I'm sure very unhealthy. And I do not think there are any educational opportunities for those children to lift themselves up.

I'm finding myself thinking a lot about what I read in "Down to Earth: Nature's Role in American History" about sewage and removing animals from the city. I want to re-read the sections about how the cities got much cleaner and healthier by removing the animals, but how it also undermined the livelihood of the urban poor, who relied on pigs and chickens to convert waste into food, and produced a big waste disposal problem when there were no longer animals to eat the garbage. It seems like sanitation and waste management have been ever increasing problems since the dawn of human civilization. India, with it's huge population, extreme poverty, and imported technology for non-biodegradable waste (i.e. plastics), shows these problems vividly. If only the solutions were as clear.

While a modern sewer system and sewage treatment plants are clearly desperately needed and would do a lot, I think neither the Indian culture nor the Indian economy could support removing the animals from the cities at this point. I would like to think that it is possible to clean up a city without denying people the opportunity to keep animals to supplement their incomes/diets, but I really don't know. And something needs to be done about air quality... Don't know how much of that is vehicle emissions, and how much is just blowing dust.

Anyway, I'm not sure how much more of this horrible air I can take. We are talking about moving on from India early.

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