Rio once more

India's biggest environmental problem is poverty. But, this is not what you will hear from the small army of Environment Ministry officials when they arrive at the United Nations green summit in Rio de Janeiro in a few days. What we will hear from them are mostly the usual buzzwords that so litter the discourse on environmental protection. A particularly Indian skill is the ability to absorb babble and spout it as if it were an original idea. So there is a lot of talk in environmental circles about sustainable development and climate change. It makes no difference to the horrific, possibly irreversible, damage done to our forests, rivers, cities and villages because what we need is a reality check and not buzzwords and eco-babble.

If our Environment Ministry had noticed that it is the average Indian's desperate search for the bare necessities that have caused the maximum environmental damage, we might by now have started to get somewhere. Forests have been cut mostly because those who live near them are too poor to buy fuel. Rivers and other water bodies have been polluted because cities and towns along their banks are either too poor (or too corrupt) to afford to treat sewage before it is poured into them. And, as for the conditions in which most Indians live, allow me a description.

Before sitting down to write this, I drove through the Mumbai suburb of Mankhurd. It looked like a human settlement rising out of a landscape of garbage. Children, stray dogs and cats and huge rats burrowed in the garbage and shops rose out of it. In the narrow alleys that led to the hovels that pass for human dwellings, small children squatted along the open drains. The stench was indescribable. After Mankhurd, I drove into villages on the edge of Mumbai and living conditions were marginally better but every village I passed had emptied its garbage onto the national highway to Goa.

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