Highways and Malls

On an Air Deccan flight from Chennai to Mumbai my fellow passenger talked optimistically about the Indian economy. The GDP was up another 8.4 percent. Mobile phone subscribers doubled in the previous year to 150 million. “In a family of four you will find six mobile phones,” he said excitedly. That’s more than in the United States, I mused.

Our host in Mumbai, CEO of a fabric manufacturing company, was equally optimistic. He predicted confidently that the high growth rate will continue for at least the next 10 years.

It depends on whom you ask, though. The autorickshavala who drove me from Powai to Malad said he starts work at 5 a.m. and gets more fares now, but finds that he has to work harder to make ends meet. There is no sukoon anymore, he lamented.

But signs of rapid growth are everywhere. There’s continuous new construction everywhere. New eight-lane highways criss-cross Mumbai. Huge department stores and shopping malls with multiplex cinemas have become hangout destinations for the young upwardly mobile.

When you step out of the air-conditioned comfort of the malls, though, the crowds, traffic, noise, and dust overwhelm your senses. I despair about the pressure of population on the environment, the water shortage, the galloping demand for energy, the noise pollution, untreated sewage and industrial effluents flowing into rivers.

But the state of the environment is not all bad. The air in Delhi is cleaner since a 1998 Supreme Court ruling mandated that all public transportation vehicles in the capital be run on CNG; since then other cities have followed suit. New rapid transit systems are coming up in Chennai and Mumbai. I notice that the new roads in Mumbai are paved with porous materials, allowing rainwater to permeate through.

Arvind and I walk on the wide, inviting side-walks in the Hiranandani Complex in Powai to his cousin’s home where we are invited for lunch.

Arvind’s niece Radhika is back from school after an exam in environmental science, or EVS as she calls it. She seems doubtful about the utility of EVS. When we try to persuade her about the value of land management, water conservation, and organic farming, she starts completing our sentences about pesticide poisoning, recharging the groundwater aquifers, and vermiculture. She continues in her deadpan voice about the Beej Bachao Andolan, and the lessons learned from reforestation with eucalyptus.

EVS is a required subject in high school, and Radhika clearly understands the issues. I feel reassured.


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