India’s Amazing Pollution Story

Our latest post appeared in the Indiaspora blog, reproduced below. Join us on May 7, 2013 for Blacksmith’s Benefit for India.

An Undesirable Export

Recently, the nonprofit I work with received a letter from a man who said he was writing to us as a “last resort.” He was asking for help dealing with toxic pollution in his neighborhood in India, half a world away from our offices in New York. This exchange reflects what pollution is – a problem with no boundaries.

On May 7, Blacksmith Institute will host its first ever Benefit for India to raise awareness and support for pollution cleanup work in India. The event, to be held in New York, will serve as a rallying point for the Indian American community (and their friends) to direct help back to India. Why? Because pollution in India is not just an Indian problem. Pollution is a global issue with worldwide ramifications. While pollution affects those living or working near the source of contamination the most, it also travels, affects the global economy, and accelerates the deterioration of the environment for everyone. This is why pollution in India should be our concern as well.

According to the World Bank, by 2020, India’s water, air, soil and forest resources will be under more human pressure than those of any other country. With over a billion industrious people all striving to make a living, India must find a way to sustain its economic growth without exposing its residents to the deadly health impacts from pollution.

Children are especially at risk. Young developing minds and bodies can be devastated by prolonged exposure even to low doses of pollution, resulting in I.Q. losses and a battery of other lifelong ailments. About 1,000 Indian children reportedly die of pollution-related illnesses every day. At the current rate, India could lose a whole generation, and part of its future, to pollution.

But there is good news.

“The India story is truly amazing,” says Karti Sandilya, the guest of honor at the Blacksmith Benefit for India. “Within the next few years, ten of India’s worst polluted sites should be dealt with.”

“These are large sites that Blacksmith assessed, compiled in an inventory, and shared with the Indian government. The government has set up a fund to clean the ten worst sites” explained Sandilya, the former US Resident Director of the Asian Development Bank and a Blacksmith advisor.

“But there are still many small polluted sites in India and that’s where India Americans can help,” says Sandilya. “If they can channel resources and support to India through Blacksmith, we can start tackling the thousands of small sites scattered all throughout the country.”

Small sites perhaps like the one described by our letter-writer. He believes a battery manufacturer situated in the middle of his densely populated neighborhood is responsible for the daily pollution. He writes about obnoxious smells spewing from the factory’s chimney, and he says his family, including a ten-month old baby, has difficulty breathing. To make things worse, he fears the factory is expanding and he feels that there is nothing he can do about it.

“Does the law permit this kind of polluting?” he asks.

Well, the answer is no. Under India’s Environment Protection Act of 1986 and other regulations, the storing and manufacturing of hazardous chemicals is not permitted inside a densely populated area. But due to weak enforcement of regulations, we believe that what our letter-writer is experiencing is not unusual.

Factories in India often pollute with little consequences, while many small, informal mom-and-pop operations, which are responsible for much of the pollution, fly under the radar. These small operators have little incentive or resources to clean up their act.

For example, many Indian families recycle lead-acid batteries, the kind found in every car or truck, for a living. They break the batteries by hand in their yard, and smelt the toxic lead they collect in their kitchens. Even if they understand that their families are being poisoned, few will or can stop the practice because it is their livelihood. And that problem is getting worse.

“People who have bicycles now have scooters, and those who have scooters now have cars. So there are lot of batteries all over country,” says Sandilya. “Every town has underground battery operations. Only half of all batteries in India are recovered and recycled by the battery manufacturers with some kind of controls. 50% is done by backyard operators.”

The other big problem is tannery waste. Many Indians, including children, work with toxic chemicals in tanneries with few safeguards because for them, making a living, even in the most poisonous surroundings, is better than not making a living at all.

And so, toxic pollutants have permeated the Indian landscape, especially the waterways, where untreated industrial waste is often dumped. Add to this the estimated 32,000 million liters of untreated sewage that flows into the country’s rivers every day, and you have a “ticking health bomb.”

The Indian pollution story is not that different from what is happening in China, and what has happened in the U.S. and in Europe. Industrialization brings pollution but it is a problem that can be solved using lessons we have learnt globally.

For example, Blacksmith is working to get pollution scrubbers used by manufacturing plants around the world installed in factories in India to stem the flow of toxic waste. In Muthia, Blacksmith used worms to “eat” up toxic heavy metals from some 2,750 tons of industrial waste dumped in this village in Gujarat. Vermiculture is a low-cost technique that can be easily replicated at toxic hotspots around the world. In Kanpur, Blacksmith introduced elements into the groundwater to trigger a reaction with the toxic hexavalent chromium pollutant, causing it to bind to rocks and preventing it from contaminating water. This is a technique that has been used successfully in various countries for years.

So May 7 join us in New York to help fight pollution in India. All of our lives are intertwined across borders through economies, culture, families, and friends. This is what the letter-writer in India understands. He is not alone. We can all help by sharing and supporting solutions and ideas. In India, change has already begun with the upcoming cleanup of the ten large polluted hotspots. Now help us tackle the rest. More information about the event can be found at www.blacksmithbenefit.org.

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