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Letter From India: Convenient Lies and Inconvenient Truths

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July 2007
Letter From India: Convenient Lies and Inconvenient Truths

Having recently elevated to a second floor apartment, I find myself face to face with treetops. It is a relief to see dust shrouded foliage sluiced this monsoon. Thus far my appreciation for greenery has been limited to its cosmetic appeal. I have never dwelled on the well-being of the ecosystem. Neither has my next-door neighbor—apparent by all the heat generated over global warming this past World Environment Day.

Participating in a children's activity on that day, where toddlers were asked to crayon a nature inspired masterpiece, my five-year-old drew a spectacular aquamarine ocean (we had vacationed in Maldives a few weeks ago). He then took a black crayon to desecrate the great blue and titled it "Ocean in Bombay." Along the Gateway of India—where I take my children for a view of the ships and yachts in the Arabian Sea—we observe people casually jettison junk, ranging from plastic bags with remains of a puja (for it is mandatory to discard items in flowing water) to old shoes. The average person does not think once before dumping trash overboard. "Why do people in Bombay throw kachra in the ocean? What happens to the fish that eat garbage?" I have no reasonable answer for my son's pertinent queries.

Perhaps a Hollywood blockbuster about kachra-munching mutant marine mammals will bring facts to the surface.

We are guilty of abusing nature. Newspapers carry photographs of melting Himalayan glaciers. The Times of India talks about measuring one's CQ (carbon quotient), Richard Quest on CNN is counting his carbon footprints.

Standing in my balcony I think of the overflowing landfills, polluted air, contaminated water bodies, uncontrolled procreation, depleting natural resources. I walk into my uber-luxurious apartment—numerous light bulbs are jostling with daylight, the flat screen is on standby, my cell phone is plugged in to charge since midnight, the washing machine has finished "whites only" delicate cycle (with just four shirts), and my baby's bottom smells foul.

"How many diapers and wipes do you use every day?" my environmentalist friend, a senior reporter with The Indian Expresses, questions. I am reluctant to answer, sensing the accusation in her voice. "The West mocks our ways—water instead of toilet paper, cloth nappies instead of Huggies—but there is wisdom in our supposedly archaic habits," she asserts.

We have successfully mastered foreign accents and cottoned on to Western ways of life. Gas guzzling cars overflow on our streets, domestic aid appliances overflow in our kitchens. Despite environmental concerns, rampant urbanization has taken root. Developers are planting buildings on every millimeter of land. Mumbai's landscape is particularly verdure-less. Green spaces are near extinct.

After having lived in the U.S. where people love outdoor activities, I realize we Indians seek constant shelter. It is always too hot or too cold or too wet outside. Apart from gully cricket or evening tea in a club garden, there isn't passion for much else. Perhaps that is why we are indifferent about al fresco public spaces like parks and zoos. In Atlanta we would picnic outdoors at least once a week. In Mumbai, lawns and playgrounds are too barren or busy for such leisure. I almost never feel the grass beneath my feet.

If every Indian switched to toilet paper, trees would become an endangered species. If winds of change turn India into the next China, greenhouse gases will asphyxiate our children. I believe there are tree huggers amongst us—like my environmentalist friend. Perhaps her small voice will become a chorus. And somewhere between primetime shows of Spiderman 3 and Ocean's 13, Gore's An Inconvenient Truth will find a matinee audience.

Yesterday, I was delighted to discover a bunch of "rookie-read-about-science" books on recycling (a concept introduced halfheartedly by the BMC, Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation) at a children's book fair. As we teach the next generation the wisdom in saving money, perhaps we could include a lesson on saving the planet.

It is time to shutdown my Apple.

BY REETIKA KHANNA NIJHAWAN


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