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11/06/2007

From Bombay with smog

Kiran Nagarkar affords a lung-clogging view from Bombay.

About a year ago, the Minister of Environment for the state of Maharashtra declared that it would be a good idea to sell the last four or five substantial public open spaces like the Race Course, the Oval and others left in the city of Bombay, (or Mumbai, as it is now called) and develop them as real estate. It was an idea not even Heller or Vonnegut could have surpassed in their most manic-satirical mode.

Bombay is my city. It is a fine case study of the head-in-the-sand syndrome. As with any metropolis, there are two Bombays: 'Bombay One' for the affluent and the 'Other Bombay' for the poor. The 'Other' is of no consequence except during elections when political parties promise it the earth and the moon so long as they are voted to power.

It is by what an individual, city or country aspires to that one can judge its mental health. 'Bombay One' seems to be a victim of schizophrenia, and suffers from a fractured sense of reality. As the purported powerhouse of the Indian economy, 'Bombay One' has bought wholesale into the current theology, self-delusion, or whatever you wish to call it, propagated mostly by the West, of India Shining, India Booming. The leading English newspaper in the country has been claiming through its pages and every other medium that in its sixtieth year of independence, the subcontinent is not only 'poised' (on the brink of the abyss? my italics), but this is the year of India. Hallelujah, the golden age is upon us.

Here's how golden: this winter, the smog was not the usual annual grey curtain; it was a block of dirty concrete that started at times a couple of metres from where you stood and stretched five miles into the sea and all the way to the sky. The major part of the credit for this seasonal cement installation must surely go to the hundred thousand new cars that roll down the streets of Bombay every year, not to mention the near-doubling of air traffic and the industrial sprawl that has converted distant townships into the city's satellites. Lung diseases and infections have risen between thirty to forty percent. The good news continues: for the first time in the history of metropolitan Bombay, there will be no power for industry one full day every week in summer. The residents of Bombay too will discover the joys of power-cuts for the first time. Land prices in the last year alone have risen by twenty to thirty percent. Add to that, we are assured that very soon the sea will start reclaiming vast tracts of Bombay.
Bombay One now has a new role model. It desperately wishes to emulate another city: it wants to be Shanghai 2, a city whose very existence is unknown to the 'Other Bombay'.

Geographically, Bombay is a tiny tadpole clinging to the western littoral of the subcontinent. Its land mass is 437.71 sq. metres. Estimates vary but the Wikipedia takes an informed guess and puts its population at around 18 million. Shanghai's population is 16.41 million while its landmass is 6,340.5 sq. kilometres. Bombay is already considered the world's most polluted city. In ten years, it will also become the most populated one.

There's good reason for 'Bombay One' to feel a disconnect between itself and the 'Other' so far. When there's an acute water shortage, 'Bombay One' will continue to buy its supply from tankers. When the power cuts become operative, it will buy power, whatever the cost. When the sea starts a massive land-grab project, it will move into the sixty-storyed high-rises that the government now permits.

But soon, sooner than later, even the rich and privileged will find that they too must face the day of reckoning. There's only one earth and only one atmosphere. Like it or not 'Bombay One' and the rest of indifferent India, the American neo-cons, and the Chinese who don't subscribe even to the wan and emasculated Kyoto Protocol must breathe the same air as the Other Bombay. We can continue to blame the developed world, especially America, for its rapacity in consuming the earth's resources, but it's a little late for finger-pointing.

Unfortunately Scarlet O'Hara's favourite phrase, 'I will think about it tomorrow' will not rescue any of us. Because the earth has run out of tomorrows. Because for better or worse, we are in this together.

Last and final chance, my friends, it really is now or never.

*

The article, written in English, originally appeared in German in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on April 14, 2007.

Kiran Nagarkar is one of the most significant writers of postcolonial India. His first novel, "Seven Sixes are Forty Three," was a critical sensation when it was published in 1974. Other works in clude "Ravan and Eddie," and "Cuckold" (1997) winner of the Sahitya Akademi award. He has recently completed his latest novel, "God's Little Soldier." See his article "The last station" on the recent bombings in Mumbai.
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