India: poverty, population, and pollution

Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, in speaking of environmental decay, has said that poverty is the worst pollution. An Indian journalist explains why. It was in the late '60s that a hue and cry was first heard in India about the growing problem of environmental pollution. In certain suburbs of Bombay at that time children and adults were experiencing chronic bronchial trouble, and even potted plants were turning yellow before their time. Fertilizer units in nearby Trombay and in other parts of the country were found to emit smoke poisonous to humans, animals, and plant life. Since then, ''environment'' has become a familiar word in the vocabulary of most educated people in India.

For some, progress and pollution have become synonymous. But this is an oversimplification which overlooks the fact that industrial advance and modern methods of agriculture need not always go hand in hand with environmental decay. The same technology that can help the economic and industrial development can, and indeed has, found ways and means of ensuring that the air and water resources near an industrial complex remain free of pollution.

Also, what is almost invariably overlooked is the fact that primitive living conditions, which may have served reasonably well in a society with a far lower population density, have become unworkable today. The steady influx of people from the rural to the urban areas and the development of city slums have aggravated the problem. Municipal committees are unable to provide such basic facilities as clean drinking water and an effective sewage system to large segments of the population even in the major cities.

The problem of pollution is thus enmeshed in the multifarious problems faced by a society where hunger stalks the shadows of tall factories with taller chimney stacks.

Poverty pollutes in hundreds of insidious ways. But we will first examine the more dramatic forms of pollution from mills and factories of which there seems to be a growing awareness today. Indeed, very recently, the Union government has set up a full-fledged Department of Environment to go into various aspects of environmental degradation. Industries, agricultural projects, irrigation networks, and power projects will all have to obtain a clearance from this department from now on.

Power stations, especially in the bigger cities, seem to be responsible in the main for heavy pollution of the atmosphere. A detailed study found that there was a dangerous concentration of suspended particles (aerosols) in the air over Bombay city. Among them was carcinogenic Benzo (A) pyrene, a particle that contains benzene and hydrocarbon. Lead from automobile exhausts and mercury, cadmium, and arsenic from thermal power units which burn coal, were also found in large proportions. According to Dr. K. G. Vohra, head of the Radiological Protection Department of the Bhabha Atomic Research Center in Bombay, control of all these substances should be the subject of very high priority research.

In the capital city of New Delhi, too, fly ash from the chimneys of the local power stations used to smother entire localities, depending on which way the wind blew, until very recently. Also, although the height of some of these chimneys has been raised, the pollution problem has not been solved. During a debate in Parliament earlier this year, one member of Parliament described it as a ''disgrace.'' Another, from the ruling party, suggested that industrial units be given financial assistance by the government to implement pollution requirements mandated by law.

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