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Telangana Reflections: Three Months Later

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Three months after the eruption of Telangana’s latest independence movement, I want to take a few minutes to examine the issue at large. This dispute has caused so much fury and hatred on both “sides” that it’s easy to forget the genuine historical issues that lie at its root. Every two weeks or so, the students at Osmania University begin new demonstrations. The suicides have not ceased – in fact, they’ve accelerated. A bright young chemical engineering student, age 20, hanged himself a few days ago, leaving a note that specifically identified the delay over Telangana’s statehood as the reason for his death. He joins at least one hundred who have successfully killed themselves for this issue, and several hundred who have tried.

The many supporters of Telangana’s statehood with whom I’ve spoken invariably bring up the historical injustices their region has suffered. These date back to the pre-independence era, when the Nizam of Hyderabad, an “independent prince”, ruled Telangana as a fiefdom within the British Empire. The areas now comprising Andhra were under direct British rule, and as a result, those from Andhra gained exposure to the English language and institutions. This, of course, put them at a natural advantage after Independence, when India adopted an English administrative language and a government modeled after Britain’s.

India’s independence was a bloody, sorrow-filled affair that brought with it a raft of state-related problems, in many ways similar to Telangana’s present dispute. In 1956, the States Reorganization Act divided India along “linguistic” lines, wherein they tried to give every major language group its own state. Ironically, Andhra Pradesh was itself born of such a struggle, as the Reorganization Act largely sprang from agitations for a Telegu-speaking state, what later became Andhra Pradesh.

Any Telegu-speaking state would have to include Telangana, and so it joined the new Andhra Pradesh by what is now known as the “Gentleman’s Agreement”, which stipulated that Telangana be given a certain percentage of state spending with respect to population along with several other demands. Most notably, Telangana demanded – and got- an escape clause which would allow it to secede from Andhra Pradesh at any point it should wish. Later, Andhra tried to forget this aspect, but it forms the central part of Telangana’s legal argument for secession.

The Andhra Pradesh government violated the agreement before the ink dried. In not one year after the signing did Telangana receive any of the promised investment. The region was already “underdeveloped” with comparison to the Andhra region due to its separation from the British Empire and the pervasive corruption of its previous ruler, the Nizam. After centuries of feudal serfdom under the Nizam, Telangana found it had merely traded one oppressor for another.

The statistics bear this out. Telangana has received only 13% of irrigation projects in the state, and it faces discrimination in employment, education, health services, and many other areas. The average citizen of Telangana is noticeably worse off when compared an average citizen of Andhra.

In 1969, Telangana exploded into secession demonstrations that the Andhra police brutally suppressed, killing 300. And then began a long and humiliating list of “programmes” – the “Six-point plan”, the “Eight-Point programme”, etc – each valid only on paper. They essentially put the issue on permanent back-burner, allowing Telangana’s frustrations to slowly simmer for forty years, until now, when they again boiled over.

Irrigation is a major thorn. Telangana lies naturally on a plateau, and rivers tend to flow away from it. To add to that, the Andhra government built two dams that diverted away what little water reached Telangana. As a result, Telangana farmers find themselves at the mercy of the rains. Two or three years of uncertain rainfall, as they’ve just experienced, can utterly ruin them. The monsoons were three months late last year, and no one in India can afford the luxury of climate change denial. Each summer is hotter than the one before it. Telangana, being rain-fed, stands to lose the most. In many ways, this issue can be seen through a climate perspective.

Detractors of Telangana’s statehood generally employ “practical” arguments as to why it would be unwise to grant Telangana independence. Often, they refer, with no intended irony, to Telangana’s historical deprivation as a reason it “needs” Andhra to help it ‘develop’. I have even heard one vehement opponent claim that “they [people from Telangana] are just lazy – they don’t want to work and expect jobs to come to them.” Some level of overt discrimination is thus apparent, at least among certain circles – wealthy ones, I should imagine.

Others wonder whether Telangana will still rely on the fertile Andhra plains after it becomes independent, given the terrifying food inflation rate in India – a sore point to raise since a major aspect of this crisis is agrarian.

One also hears the problem of Hyderabad as a good reason this dispute ought to be evaded, or even ignored. Hyderabad is the capital of the consolidated Andhra Pradesh state, and it happens to be right in the center of Telangana. One reason why Andhra wanted Telangana so badly, many contend, is Hyderabad’s attraction as a capital. The Andhra region has no suitable city. And whether by deliberate planning or unconscious will, Andhra’s significant investment in Hyderabad (“colonization”, some would call it) became an unspoken claim to the land.

Hyderabad now stands as perhaps the fourth most-developed city in India, and it has attracted a surge of foreign investment. The city, hazy and overcrowded as it is, now sports dozens of shopping malls, every major fast-food chain, a “world-class” international airport, a burgeoning IT sector, four 5-star hotels, and a jet-set of American and European businessmen, promising to “do business”.

At various press conferences I’ve attended in my capacity as a newspaper intern I’ve heard Indian scientists, businessmen, and politicians, all talking about how Hyderabad knows no recession, how it will become a “world city” by 2015. Over the last two months, these pronouncements have had a tinge of worry to them. Everyone “knows” – or thinks they know – that if Hyderabad goes to Telangana, investment will be ‘scared off’.

One hears often how we must protect “Brand Hyderabad” at all costs. At press conferences and business luncheons, the Caucasian benefactors from America or Europe, those who write the checks, can be seen clucking their tongues in dismay. These protests are “bad for business”.

“Pragmatism” aside, however ,I think it should be clear that Telangana has suffered severe discrimination, and that they deserve some sort of redress for the historical disadvantage at which they find themselves. Further, they’ve been lied to, systemically, for more than forty years. Their anger is legitimate, and it cannot be deferred any longer. However, whether actual statehood is the solution to Telangana’s problems remains to be seen.

I admit my original reaction to these demonstrations was ignorant and uninformed. I saw this movement then as so much emotional nonsense – that even if Telangana had legitimate grievances (which, even at the time, I was beginning to suspect that they did) these pointless demonstrations distracted the political establishment from what should be the real focus of their endeavors: controlling India’s population, reducing the toxic brown cloud lingering above the subcontinent, ensuring equitable water and food distribution, and solving the land problem. I did not realize then that Telangana was agitating precisely for these things, albeit, only for themselves.

Written by pavanvan

March 15, 2010 at 3:08 pm

General Electric and the Unholy Contamination

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David Gargill from Harper’s gives us a harrowing account of decades of carcinogenic pollution from GE to the Hudson River, and its effects today (subscription only):

Before these “probable human carcinogens” were banned in 1977, PCBs [Polychlorine Biphenyl, a known carcinogen] were wantonly spewed from GE’s plants, and they continue to be detected at high levels in riverbed sediments and fish. For years, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation had abrogated its enforcement authority, unofficially sanctioning GE’s malfeasance. But pressure from several national NGOs headquartered in New York, as well as from Hudson-centric groups downriver from the plants, furnished a fresh impetus to act. Environmentalists had seized upon dredging the riverbed as the surest cure for the Hudson’s ills, and by the early 1980s the DEC warmed to the idea of doing its job, pushing for a dredging remedy to be paid for by GE. When the corporation and its unlikely allies in Fort Edward and Hudson Falls—company towns distrustful of bureaucracies—proved immovable objects for the state, the EPA stepped in, bringing the full force of the federal government to bear. In 2002, the agency issued a formal decision that called for dredging, ending GE’s overt resistance and getting the ball rolling (albeit in the manner of Rube Goldberg) toward the $780 million project that commenced this past spring. Over the next six years, some 1.8 million cubic yards of sediment containing roughly 250,000 pounds of PCBs will be removed from 490 acres of riverbed.

Written by pavanvan

March 11, 2010 at 3:15 pm

India To Spend Billions Cleaning Up Holy River

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I think I speak for many when I say: It’s about time.

VARANASI, India—More than a million devout Hindus bathed in the Ganges River Friday, braving the risk of terrorist attack, stampede and petty crime for the chance to wash away the sins of a lifetime and open the gateway to heaven after death.

But perhaps the greatest threat to the devotees who flocked to Haridwar, India, on one of the most auspicious days of the triennial Kumbh Mela festival, was the water itself.

The river is intensely polluted with sewage and industrial waste. Water-treatment facilities have been unable to keep up with India’s rapid growth, often held back by a shortage of funds and other resources.

Now, the spiritually cleansing waters of the Ganges are about to get some cleaning of their own. The Indian government has embarked on a $4 billion campaign to ensure that by 2020 no untreated municipal sewage or industrial runoff enters the 1,560-mile river.

Oh, the irony is not lost on India – but maybe now they can wash away their sins without having to wash away the raw sewage immediately afterward.

Written by pavanvan

February 14, 2010 at 8:30 pm

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Russia: Nuclear Dumping Ground?

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Greenpeace with some great original reporting:

Last night three teams of Greenpeace activists blocked a train transporting nuclear waste to Cherbourg, the heart of the French nuclear reprocessing industry. From Cherbourg it was due to be loaded onto the transport ship Kapitan Kuroptev, destination Russia.   We’ve taken action to tell them that “Russia is not your dumping ground.”

Six Greenpeace activists chained themselves to the railway, at two locations en route to the fuel reprocessing facility. A third team of Greenpeace activists placed a truck on the rails in the centre of Cherbourg, along with a banner saying “Russia is not a nuclear dumping ground”. The train came to a halt just 50 meters short of our activists. For delaying the transport of the illegal nuclear waste they were taken into custody by the police.

The blocked train was carrying 500 tonnes of depleted uranium, just a fraction of what has already been dumped in Russia. The French nuclear companies AREVA and EDF claim there is nothing wrong with these transports, that the material is not waste but a resource that will be processed in Russia, and returned to France as fuel. Unfortunately that’s just not the case.

France is running into the same problem we all will if we begin switching our electricity production from coal to nuclear. What to do with the waste?

Written by pavanvan

January 26, 2010 at 11:11 am

Lithium! We Need Lots of it

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Lithium is a key component in “hybrid” and electric car batteries, and is also extraordinarily rare. It’s already evident that not enough lithium exists to replace the world’s existing internal-combustion fleet (more than 1,000,000,000 automobiles and counting) with electric technology.

In a bit of divine irony (god does play dice) most of the world’s lithium lies under South America – mostly under Bolivia’s famous salt flats, with some in Argentina. Car manufacturers and would-be industrial giants (Japan and China) are already trying to corner the market.

Now Toyota wants in, and has reportedly signed a major deal with Argentina to mine its lithium:

A key supplier of Toyota Motor Corp. has formed a partnership to mine lithium in Argentina, securing greater access to a metal critical to the production of future hybrids and electric cars.The partnership, announced late Tuesday, includes Toyota Tsusho Corp. and Australian miner Orocobre Ltd. They will develop a lithium mine in northwestern Argentina, and the project is expected to cost about $100 million, Orocobre Chairman James Calaway said.

So next time you see someone driving a hybrid car, ask them where they got the battery. My guess is that the emissions from mining all that lithium more than make up for the gas they save themselves from burning. (And don’t forget all our electricity comes from coal anyway. You know that ain’t clean.)

Written by pavanvan

January 25, 2010 at 11:17 pm

24/7 Factories Can’t Meet Chinese Demand

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Bloomberg with a terrifying report:

Jan. 15 (Bloomberg) — Nissan Motor Co.’s factory in central China is making cars almost 24 hours a day, yet Pan Xiaowei still waited three months for her new Tiida compact to arrive at the dealership.

“It wasn’t like this a couple of years ago,” said Pan, 34, whose husband runs a property development company in Shandong province. “We used to buy and get a car straight away, and now you have to pre-order and wait.”

China overtook the U.S. last year as the world’s largest automobile market with sales surging 46 percent to 13.6 million, according to the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers. Nissan, Ford Motor Co. and Honda Motor Co. are running their Chinese factories at full capacity, with overtime and weekend shifts, and still can’t deliver enough cars.

“Based on our current growth rate and planning assumptions, the capacity of our two facilities will not be able to accommodate the expected future demand for our products,” Nigel Harris, general manager of Ford’s venture with Chongqing Changan Automobile Co., said in an e-mail.

This is not good. The article also mentions that cars are “ceasing to be a luxury item and are instead becoming a standard consumer product.” And there’s 1000 million of them.

Incidentally, China is already dealing with some major traffic issues, as the Daily Mail demonstrates:

I imagine they’ll be seeing more of this. A few weeks ago, The Nation ran a correspondence piece from Christopher Hayes in China entitled “The Great Leap“. In the opening paragraphs he lets us in on the magnitude of China’s automobile frenzy:

At a tour of a car factory in Chongqing, the guide from Chang’an Motors pointed to the boxy gray minivans rolling off the assembly line and, beaming, said, “There are 800 million Chinese peasants who need these cars!”

He’s right, of course. China “should not be expected to stay forever as a bicycle kingdom,” as Yu Qingtai, special representative for climate change negotiations, told us. But 800 million new cars–think about that for a moment.

Until we shake off this neo-imperial paradigm of “development”, I fear the “third-world” will forever be deceived into chasing an impossible dream, and irrevocably poison themselves in doing so.

Written by pavanvan

January 24, 2010 at 12:07 pm

India: Progress and Development

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Hyderabad is perpetually ensconced in a dim, grey haze. It penetrates every crevasse of every home, fills every lung, and obscures all vision beyond 150 meters or so. It flows, milky-white, from the nozzle of every vehicle (more than a million in Hyderabad alone), and stands as a testament both to India’s vaunted “development” and to the price she pays to attain it. Sitting atop a 5-story terrace one can view in three-hundred sixty degrees the dull miasma hanging low over the city, refracting the sunlight into a cloudy yellow glow.

And still they churn, the endless vehicles and their poisonous effluent. I am told that Hyderabad adds several hundred every day – and India as a whole, tens of  thousands. But it is hard to view such statistics with anything more than curious detachment. From day to day the crowds and pollution do not grow noticeably worse, and one can only meet the prospect of several million new cars by the end of the year with a dreary fatalism.

“What, are we not allowed to drive? Do we not deserve cars?” The civil servant, already receiving his share of bribes, asked with hilarious indignation. It was the same argument put forth by India and the other so-called “developing countries” at the Copenhagen conference. I have heard it often from apologists of India’s pollution, and I can hardly blame them. It is a terrible thing, to constantly be called a “developing country”, a member of the “third world”, to be looked down upon as a “backward nation”. These phrases have so entered the Indian psyche that I have even heard Indians referring to themselves, in all earnestness, as a “second-rate” people.

“Why should only America be allowed to burn carbon?”, he demanded,  “Do we not also deserve to develop? We are not your colony anymore that you may do with what you like! You cannot keep us in subjugation.”

It was an unanswerable argument. The only possible response – a vague gesture to the handkerchiefs one must clutch to their face in order to breathe – somehow failed to deliver the point. It would be difficult to explain that the sort of “development” India seeks is itself a Western construct, a bow to a new form of subjugation, that it implies a terrible poisoning of its “motherland”, oft extolled in song and poetry, but which in practice has been used as a giant latrine. It would be still more difficult to explain that India as a “developed” country is all but impossible, that we would require three Earths to give each of its 1,200 million inhabitants a car, and apartment, a flat-screen television and 3,000 calories per day.

But still one hears, from every podium: “By 2030 India will join the developed world.” Grandiose claims, but bless their hearts, they do give an impression of believing their own rhetoric. Do they know what it means, this “development”? Here one is obliged to start guessing – no one in a position to give a coherent answer seems capable of doing so. Taking aside the superlative definitions (“more steel production, more automobiles, more television, more money”), the unconscious consensus seems to be: To live as they do in the West. To have rebellious, well-fed children. To drive about in motorcars; and above all, to escape the crowds and corruption of the India they know.

“Once India is developed,” a wealthy banker informed me, “we will no longer have to look at that.” He pointed to a stinking open drainage ditch, running parallel to the road. It was rimmed with shanty tenements of cloth and aluminum – tents, really – where women did their washing in the fecal water and their numerous brood ran about naked as the day they were born. What did he think would happen to the ditch, to the people surrounding it? The ditch would be covered, of course, paved into a proper underground sewer. And the people? Well, perhaps they, too, would “develop” like this banker had; they would shed their rags, gain employment, move into a flat, buy a car (well, maybe a scooter), and join the middle class. Heaven is a world where everyone is rich. I’m sure many in India would be happy with a nutritious meal every day; but as India “develops”, their chances of getting even that begin to diminish.

Hyderabad is “developing” faster than most Indian cities and is now now considered an “IT capital of India. Shopping malls now tower where modest two-story houses sat only a decade ago. Several Indian IT companies chose to make their headquarters here (including, unfortunately, the Satyam ponzi-scheme) and the five-star hotels, of which Hyderabad now has four, sprang like mushrooms after the rain. The unceasing air traffic came to overwhelm Hyderabad’s ramshackle little two-runway airport, and, sniffing a “development opportunity”, it began expropriating land to build what would become India’s biggest airport. The facility at Samshabad opened in 2009 to great fanfare and adulation; encompassing more than 5,000 acres, it stood as the latest avatar of India’s “progress”. Hyderabadis speak with open pride of their beloved airport, of the “progress” it signifies, the “modernity” it heralds.

But what of that 5000-acre stretch’s previous inhabitants? I’ve asked quite a few people, but no one quite knows. Some say confidently, “that was government land” with the assumption that it had no inhabitants, while others say vaguely, “Oh, I’m sure they were somehow compensated.” None of the major newspapers focused on the villager’s situation, save for the Deccan Herald, which ran an article on June 24, 2000, when the airport was still being planned.

This article deserves to be read in full, but here is a taste of what went on (all emphasis mine):

About 1500 families of more than 10 villages near Hyderabad are spending sleepless nights. The people are faced with losing their homes, land and their livelihood as the government plans to acquire about 5000 acres to build the prestigious international airport in Shamshabad mandal near Hyderabad, abutting the Hyderabad-Bangalore highway. ”What is thisdevelopment? How is an airport useful to us?” asked Mrs Nagamani, mother of three sons, with tears in her eyes. Her village, Chinnagollapally, is one of the 10 that is going to be acquired. ”It is like mowing down a tree and making the birds homeless,” she said.

And another view:

Balaraj Goud of the same village said the only alternative open to them was to turn into rag-pickers, and then they would have to live with the ”sin” of displacing the present rag-pickers and depriving them of their livelihood. ”Perhaps the government should drop a bomb on us to spare us this trauma and then take our village for development,” Goud said bitterly.

At least the villagers received some remuneration, right?

The Shamshabad International Airport Land-losers Welfare Association points out that the government was dealing a double blow to the affected people. Not only is it displacing them, but offering a pittance of a compensation of Rs 45,000 per acre whereas the prevailing market rate is between Rs 160,000 and Rs 220,000 per acre.

On the bright side, at least the jet-setting businessmen, those gurus of development, will have a nice airport to land in, and a nearby 5-star hotel too!

Such examples abound. They are an inextricable by-product of “development” – at least, in the prevailing model – as inevitable as soot from a fire.

The dominant political slogan for the BJP a few years ago was “India Shining!”, to which Sonia Gandhi countered, “Who is India Shining for?” It was all meaningless political sloganeering, but Sonia’s response, I think, hit closer to the mark. At any rate, her party trounced the BJP in that election. But, having won, they turned around, as so often happens in politics, and began to advocate what they once denounced. India must shine after all – the world is watching. India was a land of problems, but those problems had a ready nostrum: Development!

Meanwhile, it is clear that as India “develops” its problems have tended to exacerbate, not ease. Social inequality is undoubtedly on the rise; where, before, the rich were merely well-to-do, now they command trillions of rupees, billions of dollars, while 500 million (almost twice the population of the US) still lives on less than 20 rupees per day. And more money inevitably means more corruption, something with which India has always wrestled, but which now threatens to swallow its fragile polity whole. The pollution in Hyderabad is quite characteristic of all Indian cities, and has begun to spread to the countryside. Trash now litters the entire 200 km stretch between Hyderabad and Warangal; the fields lay rotten and fallow, littered with so many plastic bags.

It is important to realize that these problems are borne of “development”, and they cannot be erased with yet more “development”. The pollution, the social stratification, the political corruption, the dilution of culture, the overpopulation – these are all the fruits of progress. Against them, what can one boast? That rich young men can finally buy Nike? That businessmen now wear suits instead of dhotis and travel first-class to New York? That 5 city-dwellers get a “European” flat for every 500 that sleep in the street?

“They laughed at him then, but Gandhi was a green thinker ahead of his time,” a wise coworker told me. And I wonder how many of India’s problems might have been avoided had they followed his prescriptions. In Gandhi’s numerous articles he consistently spoke out against mechanization, against the machine civilization, against cities, and even a centralized state. The India of his dreams was an exclusively rural country, “a village republic”, as he once called it, bereft of centralized politics beyond the level of a village council. I think Gandhi’s view of ‘development’ can be summed in his reaction to mechanized agriculture. “Show me a tractor,” he said, “that makes milk and fertilizer while it plows our fields.”

He was laughed at then, and even now evokes much derision among Indians. Predictably, the complaints against him are that he was “anti-development”, he “wanted to keep us poor”, he was a “selfish man”.  But taking aside his personal flaws (which, one must admit, were substantial), Gandhi stood as a nationalist, a defender against the corrupting influences of Britain (then the premier representative of “the west”), a pursuer of a vision of India which may have been flawed, but, in the sense which I think most would give the word, was at least “authentic”.

India today has transformed into nothing of the sort; it has shed whatever authenticity it one had and has settled, as if it already knew its place, back into an imperial role. With every Coca-cola sold, every pair of Nikes worn, India slips further  away from whatever independence it may have gained.

And looking now upon this wasted continent, half-developed, half-forgotten, one cannot help but feel despair. Unwittingly, India has allowed itself to become colonized once again!