When I first moved back to India, in the winter of 2003, after more than a decade in America, I never thought I would live in the countryside. My wife and I had been living in New York; we liked the energy, the nightlife, and variety, of a big city.
We quickly discovered, though, that Indian cities were unlivable–crowded and noisy and polluted, they were no place to raise a family. So we decided to stay, with our two boys, in the countryside outside the South Indian town of Pondicherry, the area where I had grown up.
We liked our new life. The countryside had its rhythms; it made us feel safe, far from the chaos of urban India.
Summers were dry and quiet, with a hot wind that emptied roads and public spaces. Winters were wet and then cool, monsoon downpours followed by a clear, clean light.
The familiarity, the predictability, was comforting. Everything else in India was moving so fast; in the countryside, seasons at least stayed constant.
Then one April the summer wind brought with it an unfamiliar guest: the smell of burning plastic. It started on a Sunday afternoon, a hint of bitterness, like something rotten in the air. I barely noticed. A couple of days later my wife woke me in the middle of the night and said something was burning. This time the bitterness was unmistakable, a chemical taste in my mouth, a trail of roughness along my constricted throat. My older son woke up, vomiting. We nursed him through the night. We told ourselves it was a stomach bug, something he’d eaten. But he’d eaten what we had all eaten, and as we stayed up with him, wiped his vomit and rubbed his stomach, comforted him, promised him it was nothing, it would pass, we couldn’t shake the terrible feeling that it was, in fact, something genuine–that he’d been poisoned by the air.
The smell invaded our house throughout the following weeks and months. It came from a landfill south of my home, Pondicherry’s main garbage dump. Every day, almost 400 tons of garbage–plastic bags and shoes and rubber tires and batteries mixed with rotting fruit and meat–were carried thereby tractors and thrown in putrefying piles that emanated combustible methane gas.
The landfill was far from my house. It was almost two miles away. It had been there for over a decade, but I had never noticed it. Now, with Pondicherry growing, its residents getting richer, buying more, discarding more, the dump had swollen.
Over the years, hundreds of thousands of tons of garbage had built up. The dump was running out of space. The fires, some man-made, some the result of spontaneous combustion, were getting bigger. The smoke was getting thicker, and traveling farther.
To my wife and me, the situation was bewildering. For so long, we had told ourselves that we were happy with the bargain we had made by choosing to live in rural India. We had decided to raise our children in a place where the water was drinkable, and the skies clear at night. Now the world was crowding in. I was told that the dump was emitting furans and dioxins and other toxic chemicals. I was told that these poisons could lead to cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular and respiratory disease. And I was told, too, that children, with their undeveloped immune systems, were most susceptible.
India produced some 100 million tons of municipal waste every year. According to the OECD, only 60% of this waste was even collected. A far smaller (almost nonexistent) amount was recycled. The garbage just piled up–and rotted, and smoldered, and polluted the air and water.
Sometimes, when I drove along highways lined with blazing garbage when I passed through remote villages shrouded in smoke, it seemed like there wasn’t a safe corner in the country. India, I began to feel, was burning.
India was burning–and, similarly, it was eroding, melting, drying, silting up, suffocating. Across the country, rivers and lakes and glaciers were disappearing, underground aquifers being depleted, air quality declining, beaches being swept away.