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The Queen's Slip

When the Queen of England visited India in 1997, she made a couple of mistakes.  She requested a visit to Amritsar, where in 1919 the British General Dyer had ordered the killing of over three hundred innocent Indians.  Her request was denied.  So the Queen went to Delhi and said that Delhi was filthy.

The Indian reaction was mixed.  Many were willing to concede the point.  Others felt that as a guest the Queen had no right to criticize; or that the chief representative of India's former oppressor was hardly in a position to take the moral high ground.  She had Indian dust under her fingernails; but Queen Victoria had Indian blood on her hands.  The argument was as old as Independence; but it did nothing to clean Delhi.

Critics had long argued that countries like Britain have solved their environmental problems in part by exporting their polluting industries and technologies to developing countries like India.  They brought up the maquiladoras along the Mexican border with the United States.  They brought up the 1984 disaster at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, which killed about 2,500 people.  They brought up the steady movement of factories and plants from Britain to India, from Manchester to Bombay, once known as the "Manchester of the East".   Yet much of Bombay smells like the inside of a septic tank, and for reasons unrelated to globalization.  Its waterways are nauseating cauldrons of shit and piss simmering away in the tropical sun.  Mahim Creek, which passes through the shanties of Dharavi, Asia's largest slum, is a bubbling, lead-colored stew.  As of 1994, it could no longer support aquatic life during low tide.  There was no oxygen left.  The creek had become biologically dead.  Environmentalists believed that what killed it was the relaxation of environmental standards brought about by economic liberalization.  But surely overpopulation was a factor as well.

If you take the Harbor Line train from Dockyard Road north, you will pass through some of the most condensed slum areas of Bombay.  They go on for miles and miles.  A channel filled with gray waste-water comes right up to the shanties.  Naked boys evacuate their bowels on the tracks.  In Mazgaon I saw a boy pissing on the middle of the sidewalk.  A quarter of a million households in Bombay are said to have no access to lavatories; two million people have no toilet. 

Over one third of Bombay's citizens have no access to safe drinking water.  Rich people buy water filters or bottled water.  But if an Indian teacher, say, spent her entire monthly salary on nothing but bottled water, she would be able to purchase less than 300 liters:  10 liters a day.  So they boil their water instead.

Ailments arising from contaminated food or water are almost as common as the common cold.  One of my Indian colleagues got food poisoning on a couple of occasions.  Pallid, smiling weakly, she traced circles in the air with her index finger to indicate her dizziness.  She worked for most of the morning in defiance of her colleagues' advice.  Eventually she sprawled out on the staff room couch.  For the next two days she stayed home and took antibiotics.

Even bottled water can be dangerous.  I once opened a bottle of Bisleri, a brand so common that Bisleri is now a Hindi word for bottled water.  I poured it into a glass and took a big gulp.  Then I saw ants in the glass and on the lip of the bottle. 

India Today published an expose on the bottled water industry and found that its claims of purity were often specious.  And you cannot assume that your bottle has come from a factory at all.  I was told to crush my bottle after use, because some enterprising Indians refill the bottles with tap water and sell them as new.  As an Indian entrepreneur once told me:  "Anybody can make money in Bombay."

I once asked an Indian acquaintance whether the waste water of Bombay was treated.  "Sometimes," he said, his voice trailing off.  He estimated that 95% of the water went untreated.  He was wrong.  None of it was.  According to Jeremy Seabrook's 1996 book In the Cities of the South, "All sewers overflowed into coastal waters adjoining Bombay, which made them unfit for recreational use through the year."

This same acquaintance, a man in his mid-twenties, said that as a youth he used to swim in the waters off Breach Candy and Juhu Beach.  He would be crazy to swim there now, but some crazy people still do.  The cover of a recent photo collection, Picture Mumbai, shows a boy doing a backflip off a boat.  The water looks like an oil slick filled with trash.   Goa, a night-long bus ride south of Bombay, is seen as the nearest spot for safe beaches.  But even there visitors are weary. 

One day an American friend and I picked up a cab at the Hanging Gardens.  The cab driver was a talkative South Indian.  He seemed homesick.  "Mumbai," he queried.  "It is a nice city?  A clean city?"  I didn't know what to say.  "Sometimes," said my American friend.  "After the rains," I added.  But we had misjudged him.  He didn't want us to praise Mumbai; he wanted us to condemn it.  Bangalore, he said.  Now there's a nice clean city.  He was wistful.  

Breathing clean air has become a luxury.  Bombay's air is among the most polluted in the world.  Breathing it is like smoking a cigar when you've got a bad cold. Yet according to India Today it is only half as polluted as Delhi's.  And visible pollution, the clouds of black smoke coming from cabs and scooters, is less lethal than the invisible pollution coming from the factories and chemical plants.  Chembur, a suburb of Bombay, is called Gas Chembur.  According to Seabrook, Chembur racked up 36 deaths and 149 injuries due to chemical-related disasters in the years 1985-1988.   Wipe your nose on a tissue and the tissue will be smeared black.  Wipe the sweat from your brow and the back of your hand will be streaked with gray.  Your hair gets hard from the dust and grit.  Your eyes burn; you are always clearing your throat.  Your cab driver, who sits at street level most of the day, whose exhaust manifold leaks into his cab, will fall into a coughing fit.  The best way to cook food -- maize, nuts, chick peas?  Roast it or smoke it over an open fire.  Does it matter if very little of the smoke touches the food itself?  Not really. 

An Indian-American told me to get air-conditioning.  "Because it's so hot?"  I asked.  "No," he said, "because the air is foul."  And one of the few places where it is not foul is on the highest floors of the city's high-rise condominiums -- where the rich live.

That human beings can adapt to practically anything was one of the least palatable lessons of India.  I got used to the pollution.  I only wondered occasionally if I was taking years off my life.  (Average life expectancy for Indians is 63 years.)  But my Indian friends barely noticed anything.  A colleague told a story from the old days, when trains still ran on coal.  On one such train she accidentally fell asleep with her head out the window.  When she woke up her face and hair were caked with soot.  She thought this was funny.  One evening I mentioned to another friend that the headlights plowing through the wet, black smog would make a provocative photograph.  She shrugged, changed the topic.

According to Seabrook, Bombay produces 5000 tons of trash daily.  Sometimes people just throw it out the window.  In places the train tracks look like they have been systematically buried in trash by municipal vehicles.  Much of this trash is organic, so it decomposes.  That's good.  The smell of decomposition is not.  But an increasing amount of the trash is plastic.  Plastic bags of every color are seen flying through the air like birds.  Kids in the slums run after them as kids elsewhere would run after butterflies. 

Trash cans are hard to find.  You can walk a kilometer without finding one.  All the recycling is done by the poor.  And what is not recycled or dumped is burned:  wood, tires, leaves.  And now, with liberalization, come plastic Coke bottles, Kellogg's cereal boxes, redundant packaging. 

Car horns serve as the basic tool of traffic control.  As a car approaches an empty intersection it blasts its horn; as it speeds through congested streets it honks an insistent warning to pedestrians, to cows; as cars ascend hills they wail "Shave and a Haircut", an ear-splitting celebration.  Emissions control in Bombay is a pipe-dream; so are mufflers.  My flat would fill with the blatting of the Goods Carriers' engines, the grinding of their gears.  At street level, Delhi's noise approaches 50 to 75 decibels, close to that of an airport runway.  Bombay cannot lag far behind.

I walked with a friend along Juhu Beach.  There were children's rides, shoot-'em-up games, coconut water, pani puri.  To the north were cleaner spaces, massive coconut trees.  To the south, a supertanker had run aground on the rocks.  For a year municipal officials had bickered over what to do with it.  In the background was the provocative juxtaposition of a statue of Shivaji --  the Maratha leader who defended Maharashtra against the British -- and a Domino's Pizza franchise. 

We talked about India's future.  I talked about pollution.  She listened somewhat sadly.  But she didn't seem sad about India's fate; she seemed sad that I made such a big deal about pollution.  Like many Indians I knew, she was a blend of optimism and fatalism.  "It will get worse before it gets better," she said.  She had no program; she had faith.

She recommended an article written by the critic and humorist Jug Suraiya.  It was entitled "The Ones Who Are Like That Only."  I would read it only months later.  "We are like that only" was how Indians defended their seeming irrationality:  Indians who discontinued the production and sale of popular items, Indians who extended an already bloated bureaucracy, Indians who looked at Juhu Beach without indignation or sorrow.  But during the rains, she said, "you could see people all over, handing out milk to people who needed it, giving a helping hand."  They are like that only. 

Speaking of a time only ten, fifteen years past, an acquaintance would say, "Bombay used to be such a beautiful city."  Politicians and officials dream about making it beautiful again.  According to Seabrook, a former sheriff of Bombay pictured tree-lined boulevards, fountains, playgrounds.  "There will be no slums," he said.  "The streets will be clean with wide pavements unencumbered by hawkers.  People will stroll through pedestrian plazas.  The night will be brilliant with majestic buildings and fountains."

But how?  Raising public awareness is common, but sometimes farcical.  Signs dot Bombay's cityscape.  One sign at Chowpatty beach is tipping over, hidden by trees, and surrounded by trash.  It reads:  "Keep Chowpatty Clean".  Others include "Spitting Spreads Disease", "Please Don't Honk".  A campaign was started to make Indians police each other.  Billboards show dogs urinating on fire-hydrants; the caption reads:  "Cheee!"  (Yuck!)  If you see somebody spitting or pissing in the street, you are supposed to cry "Cheee!" 

In Himachal Pradesh, perhaps the most pristine state, environmentalism seems more in evidence.  Streets are lined with placards in Hindi and English with sayings like "Trees are the lungs of the cities."  But in Bombay, such sentiments have little force.  "Cheee!" will not clean Mahim Creek.  It won't improve emissions standards.  An army of conscientious Indians cannot stand at the seaside and warn off polluting multinationals with a chorus of "Cheee!"  The Queen's word, "filthy", however unwarranted, however supercilious, was more potent.

- The End -

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Published on 12/22/06

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