This Is Tamil Nadu

Priyanjoli Basu, a successful designer and dressmaker, flanked by her husband Varun (l) and close friend Dhruv Malhotra, at her apartment on the Chennai beach. Photo/Keith Schneider

CHENNAI, India – Unlike India’s other immense cities Chennai is a world apart. Tamil Nadu’s capital city does not have crowds of beggars trolling intersections like in Delhi. It is not nearly as traffic jammed as Mumbai. Its homes are well cared for, and many of its office buildings are new and Miami white, unlike the sagging and dilapidated built environment that describes Kolkata.

The most distinguishing feature, though, for an American journalist who has visited Indian cities and states across much of the country: Chennai’s tidiness. It’s unusual in a nation where thick blankets of paper and piles of bottles lie in the streets and alongside the highways. Household garbage, shoulder high, blocks alleys. The unkempt big cities and soiled countryside are like a metaphor for the bedlam that is contemporary India, an ambitious and crowded nation of 1.3 billion people.

Chennai is different. Quite a bit different. The city’s Bay of Bengal beaches sport garbage bins that people use. Municipal sanitation workers haul away accumulating refuse. The attention to appearances and street level hygiene is part of an unspoken culture of diligence and confidence that Chennai’s residents, well-to-do and poor, have built for themselves and their city.

Chennai’s residents know India’s fourth largest metropolitan region is on a roll. Jobs are plentiful. Incomes are rising. The city’s capable universities produce graduates that technology companies are anxious to hire.

A street merchant in Chennai, Tamil Nadu’s capital city. Photo/Keith Schneider

Chennai’s residents also know they exist in an “at any moment” geography of peril, almost all of it due to ecological torment. In the last two years Chennai has been blasted by a typhoon, drowned in a flood, and challenged by the worst drought in 140 years. People are unnerved, for sure. In January a student protest on Chennai’s main beach grew into a statewide strike and mass demonstration of grievances that attracted millions of participants.

But even during the week of active public dissent Chennai’s residents stayed so centered and cheerful that parents brought their children to protests just to witness how a great city displays its collective discomfort. On Marina Beach, Chennai’s primary locus of protests, volunteers guided cars to available parking spaces. Vendors offered cups of tea at no charge. An army of people, young and old, gathered up all of the bottles and paper and food waste that had been dropped in the sand.

The spontaneous demonstration during the Tamil harvest festival in January attracted all kinds of people to the city’s main beach. Photo/Keith Schneider

Straightening up after the party, an especially impressive display of public civility, is seen as a civic responsibility. TITN: This is Tamil Nadu.

At the end of each of my travels and frontline reporting in nations outside the U.S. I collect the various and intriguing threads — people, events , or cultural traits — that strike me as emblematic and distinguishing. They come together in “This Is” essays that I’ve prepared from India, China, Mongolia, Qatar, Panama, Peru, and South Africa. The idea is borrowed from a scene in Blood Diamond, Leonardo DiCaprio’s great 2006 movie about diamond mining during the civil war in Sierra Leone. Asked, while having a drink in an African watering hole, about a peculiarly confusing trail of events that made no sense, DiCaprio tells his mate: “TIA. This is Africa.”

In that same spirit, here are other points of interest from my latest trip to India. Continue reading “This Is Tamil Nadu”

India’s Economy Slows As Condition of Water, Land, and Cities Deteriorates

India's stifling bureaucracy, ruled by paper and graft, is an impediment to development. Here, the water department in Haryana. Photo/Keith Schneider
India’s stifling bureaucracy, ruled by paper and graft, is an impediment to development. Here, the water department in Haryana. Photo/Keith Schneider

At the invitation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, President Barack Obama arrives on Sunday in New Delhi, the first American president to honor Republic Day, the day that India’s Constitution took effect in 1950.

During the three-day visit, the president and the prime minister are expected to talk about trade, and technology, and diplomacy. There could even be some kind of statement on climate-changing emissions. India is the planet’s third largest producer of coal, behind China and the United States.

It’s not likely, though, that Prime Minister Modi will be as candid as he needs to be about India’s slipping economic development that’s due in no small part to the country’s worn and soiled condition. Nor can the prime minister be expected to acknowledge that a change in development strategy is desperately needed, one that recognizes the new conditions of this century, and fit what India is and can become.

Consequences of Runaway Development
As it is, the develop-at-any-cost approach that India has pursued for 35 years, an economic construct of the 20th century, has turned India into a mess in the 21st. During four long reporting trips to India over the last two years for Circle of Blue, trips that brought me to 11 of India’s 29 states, I found cities that are grimy. Water is wretchedly polluted. Air is among the dirtiest and unhealthy in the world. India’s countryside is a tyranny of garbage and litter. Roads are in terrible shape.

Doing business in India, especially for the foreign corporations Modi wants to lure to his country, is a test of personal and executive resolve. Two of the most significant impediments are India’s suffocating bureaucracy, and the shortage of electricity.

Indian governments still do most of their business on paper, literally walking thick files from one office to the next for signatures. Decisions on new buildings, mines, power stations, and industrial plants are inordinately slow. They’re also influenced by “chai pani,” tea and water, the not terribly well-hidden payoffs that agency personnel expect and business executives provide.

Electricity demand, meanwhile, is vastly outpacing supply. Brownouts and blackouts are endemic in almost every part of the country. India’s utilities last year produced 237,000 megawatts of generating capacity, less than a quarter of US generating capacity and about 20 percent of China’s. Ten percent of that electricity is stolen and 20 percent more is lost on India’s inefficient and old transmission grid. Four hundred million Indians, roughly a third of India’s nearly 1.3 billion people, live without electricity.

Coal dominates India's electricity production. Here, a plant under construction in Tilda. Photo/Keith Schneider
Coal dominates India’s electricity production. Here, a plant under construction in Tilda. Photo/Keith Schneider
Continue reading “India’s Economy Slows As Condition of Water, Land, and Cities Deteriorates”

This Is India — “Maybe Tomorrow”

Much of the world's tea is raised in northeast India. Workers pick tea leaves in a tea garden in Assam. Photo/Keith Schneider
Much of the world’s tea is raised in northeast India. Workers pick tea leaves in a tea garden in Assam. Photo/Keith Schneider

GUWAHATI, India — Beggars prowl the sidewalks of every city I’ve visited — American, Scandinavian, Arabian, Australian, Asian.

Still, there may be no more organized, encompassing, creative, and pathetic beggar culture in the world today than the one that operates in New Delhi, India’s capital.

With 25 million residents, New Delhi is the world’s second largest city behind Tokyo, according to the United Nations. Seven years ago Delhi’s Social Welfare Department reported that nearly 59,000 beggars roamed the city’s streets. More recent unofficial estimates puts the number at four times that figure or more.

By day, beggars work the city’s traffic-swarmed intersections in teams delineated by age, sex, physical infirmity, dress, and territory. At one corner beautiful little girls sweep through the traffic lanes, their eyes sad pools of practiced lamentation, beseeching drivers and passengers for coins. At another it’s little boys squirting through stopped traffic. Young mothers holding infants and wearing street-soiled saris of orange chiffon are common.

So are hijras, India’s transgender third sex. They are castrated men that dress and adorn themselves like women in makeup and jewelry. They shimmy and shake, bat their eyes, and extend large thick-veined hands, the grip of theatrical desperation.

When night descends, a different choreography unfolds. Beggar groups and families recede to their camps in parks, on the medians of busy boulevards, and underneath highway bridges. Mobile shelters made of tree limbs and plastic are erected. Cooking stoves are lit. Children are bathed and fed. Then Delhi’s dark places flicker on, one after another like a ground level constellation. The stars are the blue and white hues of tablet screens. Adults and children, sitting on blankets, gather in sizable circles to watch the digitized flames of their video campfires. TII. This Is India.

Orange producers in Arunachal Pradesh. Photo/Keith Schneider
Orange producers in Arunachal Pradesh. Photo/Keith Schneider

During 17 days spent in India — my fourth trip in two years — I noted other intriguing colors and distinctive textures that describe this great banquet of bedlam and paradox. I call it TII — This Is India. Enjoy.

Much of India's highway network is constructed by hand. Workers in Meghalaya use steel bars to break up the pavement, pounding the black top like warriors with pointed lances. Photo/Keith Schneider
Much of India’s highway network is constructed by hand. Workers in Meghalaya use steel bars to break up the pavement, pounding the black top like warriors with pointed lances. Photo/Keith Schneider

Continue reading “This Is India — “Maybe Tomorrow””

Meghalaya’s Coal Shutdown Is Leaky, Testing Authority of Law and Court

In plain view of the police and security forces, and in open defiance of a court order in April that shut down Meghalaya's dangerous and polluting coal mines, newly mined coal is unloaded along the national highway that serves as a coal transport staging area. Photo/Keith Schneider
In plain view of the police and security forces, and in open defiance of a court order in April that shut down Meghalaya’s dangerous and polluting coal mines, newly mined coal is unloaded along the national highway that serves as a coal transport staging area. Photo/Keith Schneider

JOWAI, India — On April 17, in a ruling that stunned miners, truckers, and owners in this region of black dust and rivers that run the colors of the rainbow, India’s National Green Tribunal ordered Meghalaya’s $US 650 million coal mining industry to shut down.

Nothing like it had ever happened to the coal industry in India or anywhere else. Ruling that Meghalaya’s globally unique ‘rathole’ box mines were too dangerous and too dirty to continue operating, the four-year-old court issued the first state-level closure of a fossil fuel industry in history.

Some 30,000 mine owners, 70,000 immigrant miners, and 6,000 coal truckers were forced to stop working in this heavily forested state in Northeast India. Virtually every business was affected in the state’s two big coalfields — here in the Jaintia Hills, and in the Garo Hills in the state’s southwestern region. Merchants complain of slower sales.

The shutdown generated protests and a huge march in May. The unrest grew so fierce that security forces fired into a crowd of demonstrating owners, miners, and truckers at one protest that killed two men.

Six months later, Meghalaya’s coal fields are like a dormant breathing beast — quiet for the time being, but also restive. Hundreds of empty six-wheel coal transport trucks are idle in fields, and parked behind truck repair shops. The makeshift miners’ camps that lay beside the national highway, built of scrap wood, tin, and blue plastic, are either gone or empty.

Meghalaya’s coal fields, though, also are astir with resentment and smoldering readiness to defy the court’s order. Regional government officials purse their lips and snarl about the Green Tribunal and its surprising power. The roadside coal loading transfer areas, like great parade grounds of packed dirt, are not nearly as busy as they were before the court order. Yet here and there, in plain view of the police and security forces, mined coal is unloaded into big black piles. At night, authorities told me, coal is loaded by hand into six-wheel trucks and transported to steel and paper factories in neighboring Assam or taken down the road to Meghalaya’s seven cement factories.

Defiance and independence from authority is a cultural virtue in Northeast India, a seven state region of indigenous tribes granted special autonomous authority by India’s constitution. Insurgent groups are active and well armed. They regularly confront the police and Indian military, and shake down business owners and truck drivers for bribes.

Meghalaya’s rathole box mines are a manifestation of the tradition of lawlessness. Cut from rock in neat squares measuring roughly 30 meters by 30 meters, the mines are typically 40 meters to 70 meters deep. At the bottom miners work on their knees in tunnels about one meter tall. Sweating in the focused light of small flashlights taped to their heads, they scratch at the coal face with picks and steel bars.

Deaths and injuries are common, and occur without penalty to mine owners. Pollution from acid mine drainage has ruined the state’s fisheries, and turns Meghalaya’s rivers red, blue, green, and orange.

Enforcement of the NGT’S shutdown order is largely the responsibility of district police. Mining and transporting coal is illegal under the court order and punishable as a felony with potentially long sentences and hefty fines.

Police resolve, though, to halt outlaw mining and trucking is episodic. Meghalaya, after all, is a region where mine owners and government authorities are close friends, and so many residents are dependent on coal sales for their living.

The April shutdown order affected virtually every business in Meghalaya's two big coalfields -- the  Jaintia Hills to the east, and the Garo Hills in the state's southwestern region. In Jowai's crowded market, merchants complained of slower sales. Photo/Keith Schneider
The April shutdown order affected virtually every business in Meghalaya’s two big coalfields — the Jaintia Hills to the east, and the Garo Hills in the state’s southwestern region. In Jowai’s crowded market, merchants complained of slower sales. Photo/Keith Schneider

Continue reading “Meghalaya’s Coal Shutdown Is Leaky, Testing Authority of Law and Court”

Earth Pushes Back – Hard

China's coal consumption, from mines like this in Inner Mongolia, is closing in on 4 billion metric tons annually, influencing dangerous new weather patterns in Asia and globally. Photo/Toby Smith
China’s coal consumption, from mines like this in Inner Mongolia, is nearing 4 billion metric tons annually, influencing dangerous new weather patterns in Asia and globally. Photo/Toby Smith

There’s nothing demur about Mother Earth these days. She’s fuming and pushing back hard. Very hard.

The Ebola emergency that began in West Africa and has since spread to two more continents has produced 5,000 deaths and is accelerating. Deep droughts engulf Brazil’s largest city and America’s largest state. Hurricanes drowned two major American cities since 2005. The 2013 Philippines typhoon killed 6,250 people. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami killed 228,000 people. A tsunami in the Pacific Ocean in 2011 killed 16,000 people and shut down Japan’s seawater-cooled nuclear sector.

All of these events illustrate Earth’s new temper tantrum and reflect two reasons common to its cause. The first is the massive population growth that is pushing mankind deeper into dangerous places to secure increasingly scarce supplies of water, food, and energy. In West Africa more people ventured into equatorial forests for land to grow crops and wood to heat fires. They unleashed a plague.

The second is how transportation, energy, food, water supply, and other public systems have been so weakened by disinvestment, mismanagement, and corruption that nations are not capable of summoning an adequate response.

In the case of the Ebola outbreak what was missing in West Africa was a competent health care system. The virus is loose now, spreading and dangerous.

The Earth doesn’t care. The Ebola outbreak is evidence of how nations are being pummeled by ecological emergencies that don’t seem natural — longer droughts, harsher floods, deadlier diseases, more severe insect infestations, earthquakes, tsunamis, and more powerful storms than ever before.

The tough droughts in Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, and in California are visible chapters in this new narrative. Disruptions in hydrological cycles have resulted in drier conditions across much of the planet.  Sao Paulo, a city of nearly 12 million residents that is twice as big as it was in 1980, was slow to recognize the severity of the shortage of moisture and did next to nothing to encourage water conservation.

The Earth is adding 80 million new people a year; 25 million from India alone. Here, workers making their way to jobs in New Delhi, capital of a nation of nearly 1.3 billion people that is twice as big as it was in 1978. Photo/Keith Schneider
The Earth is adding 80 million new people a year; 25 million from India alone. Here, workers making their way to jobs in New Delhi, capital of a nation of nearly 1.3 billion people that is twice as big as it was in 1978. Photo/Keith Schneider

Continue reading “Earth Pushes Back – Hard”