Anantapur District, southern India.
India’s entrance into world markets has meant bigger profits for multinational corporations and cheaper shirts and software for Western consumers.
It is also helping to brew a dark stew of air pollution that may bring widespread drought and hunger to South Asia.
Mile-and-a-half-thick “atmospheric brown clouds” composed of sulfates, nitrates and old-fashioned soot now blanket most of the subcontinent and the northern Indian Ocean from October to May each year.
Visible from space and from Earth as a dull haze, the clouds choke off precipitation by shading and cooling the ocean, while retaining moisture rather than releasing it as rain.
Most ominously, says an international team of scientists led by the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.N. Environment Program, the brown clouds may weaken the offshore weather system that brings monsoon rains to South Asia.
These scientists’ models project that droughts in the region could go from the current two to three years per decade up to six or more years per decade, imperiling the food supply of almost 2 billion people.
Since the early 1990s, the doors of India’s economy have swung wide open to foreign investment and trade, fossil-fuel consumption has accelerated, and the brown clouds have swelled.
India’s breakneck growth of recent years has been fueled by $57 billion in foreign investment since 1991 — $38 billion of that since 2000 — and exports that reached $20 billion to the United States in 2006. The foreign investment total for all the years before 1991 was less than half a billion dollars.
Western corporations that do business in India are cheering the growth not from the sidelines but from the playing field. They overlook the murky clouds belched by electric power plants — more than half fueled by coal — and by a crush of gas and diesel vehicles that grows by the thousands every day. Efforts to pass and enforce Western-level pollution standards have fallen far short of what’s needed.
Most of the boom’s gains have gone to a relative few. Statistics and the naked eye confirm that the gap between scattered pockets of prosperity and vast expanses of deprivation is growing.
In pre-boom 1990, India ranked among the bottom one-third of countries in the U.N. “human development index,” which measures people’s chances of achieving a long, healthy life and decent standard of living. In 2006, after years of rapid economic growth, India ranked even lower in that bottom one-third.
The new economy’s fruits may not have been shared widely, but its environmental ravages certainly have. Among the worst of those, urban air pollution has increased respiratory illness among rich and poor alike. And brown clouds could tip rural areas from chronic hardship into drought-stricken crisis.
“Trickle-down” economics never works as advertised. In India, it may mutate into “down-to-a-trickle” economics.
The district of Anantapur is the most drought-prone in southern India. Home to 3.6 million people, it would be hard-pressed to withstand a weakening of its already-meager monsoon.
I recently visited one of dozens of villages in Anantapur where farmers, assisted by India’s nonprofit Rural Development Trust, are building extensive water-harvesting earthworks around fields and hand-digging 40,000-gallon ponds to catch rainwater for irrigating small plots of fruit trees.
In teams of 15 or more farm families, they are breaking out of a two-decade trend toward cash-crop peanut monoculture and diversifying their agriculture with nutritious, drought-resistant crops they can both consume and sell, like millet, sorghum and pigeonpea.
For now, the ambitious projects are keeping them just ahead of drought and economic peril. But in the future, brown clouds could blot out all they’ve achieved.
We in the United States are in no position to lecture Indian policy-makers on the evils of extravagant fossil fuel consumption. But the brown-cloud route to the future wasn’t the only one on India’s map.
The subcontinent is woven with the planet’s largest passenger railway system, which uses much less fossil fuel to move people than the automobile. India ranks third in the world for solar power generation and fifth for wind power. Those and other such strengths could have been built upon.
Instead, the new, global India is steering its economy down the smog-choked road to wealth traveled so enthusiastically by the 20th century industrial powers. But this time it may be a highway to hunger.
STAN COX is a plant breeder and writer in Salina, Kansas. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.