Thursday, February 2, 2012

31 Days and Drowning: Bracing for Environmental Cardiac Arrest

The first 31 days of 2012 have not been good for India. Report #1: India is drowning in its own sewage. Report #2: 42% of children under 5 are considered malnourished. Report #3: 68% of the nation’s milk is considered adulterated. And this last week the final blow, report #4: India has the most toxic air in the world. If this was a health report, the nation may anticipate cardiac arrest by summer.

Actually this last report is part of a greater report on the world’s environmental performance index or EPI. “Environmental performance index” sounds more like a report card, and actually it is a global environmental mark sheet, evaluating the overall environmental health and ecological status of 132 countries. And overall India ranks 8th… from the bottom and, as stated above, last in terms of air quality. So talk about getting hit while you’re already down. Why yet another blow at the start of 2012? Can India take multiple global pies in the face? Is this a national wakeup call or maybe just another toss in the hat with hardly a… “meh”?

graphic from

Well, all reports come with their spin. Take #1: Excreta in India’s rivers is nothing new and for multiple reasons this scientific fact does not seem to phase many people. I’ve personally interviewed many people and especially in conservative communities along the Ganges River. People readily embrace the science as well as drink the water. One boatman told me, “When I’m thirsty I just push away the garbage and take a drink.” This may seem like a shock to some people, but it’s not out of the ordinary for people to rebel against environmental science. Look at Americans and climate change.

Take #2: 42% of malnutrition is probably lower than before; it’s just that politicians are now making a case of it. In fact the EPI shows that India is improving in areas such as environmental health, though presently it is still not up to acceptable standards. The EPI report confirms a correlation between increased EPI and level of development. This may be due to improved health overall of people in developed nations. And in developing nations like India, though air pollution can reach up to atrocious levels, it is access to advanced medicines and treatment that keep the population alive.

Take #3: About milk… same thing… nothing new. Before this report came out, I saw a milkman come to my building, take a hose from my building’s faucet, stick it into his large metal milk container and fill it up half way full, effectively diluting his milk to a full container. This was all in broad daylight. Nothing new. Bihar which had 100% adulteration called the report false, while Delhi emphasized the fact that their milk was adulterated but not necessarily harmful. I don’t know what to do -- either laugh or cry.

And now to the final blow #4 about the EPI report: My final, sad and pessimistic conclusion is that it’s going to result in… “meh”, meaning not much public or even political outcry. I mean, is it a surprise? And even if it is, what can you do about it? (Note the attitude.)

And so I ask, “What’s all this mess about anyway? Why are we here?” Is it the corruption and useless politians? Is it neo-colonialism from America? Is it the World Bank? Is it over population? Is it the perceptual disconnect between scientific and religious understandings? Is it a poverty mentality of hopelessness? Is it just the growing pains of development we all need to go through? Is it all of the above?

Who knows? Who actually knows? No one, really. I mean, organizations throw billions in multiple directions and still (1) foul rivers, (2) malnutrition, (3) unsafe food and (4) toxic air. Still maybe it’s not an issue of things getting worse. Actually it may be just that all that we hear is the bad stuff. This leads me to think about Wangari Maathai, Nobel Peace Prize winner. Somehow she saw the nexus between land, water, food and the poor and put herself in the middle of that storm and calmed it down. I have doubts that she was a perfect messiah, but one thing that I can’t say about her -- she never said, “Meh.” And for that, I salute her.

Also see the life of Wangari Maathai in this video: Featured Video: Wangari Maathai

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