I recently returned to my childhood home in India with my siblings for a final walk down memory lane with my elderly mother. As expected, it was a powerfully emotional experience. But in ways unexpected, it brought home to me how our planetary fever — climate change — is inflicting a deadly fever on those least to blame for it.
One of our destinations on this trip was the city of Ludhiana, which houses one of the best medical schools in India, Christian Medical College. My father taught and practiced medicine there for many years. Ludhiana is in the Punjab on the border with Pakistan, and is one of India’s industrial and agricultural powerhouses.
Some of my earliest childhood memories include my father pushing me on our backyard swing, my nightgown billowing in the warm evening air. I remember him pushing me so high so I could see the flickering oil lamps in neighboring houses. I remember the pungent smell of the dung fires cooking the evening meals in hundreds of homes. The meow of wild peacocks in the fields behind our house, the flocks of chattering parakeets, the evening arguments of crows, the morning dove’s coos on hot summer days. I remember bougainvillea blossoms cascading around our porch in the sunlight, and carrots so fresh from the garden they were like candy. Most fondly, I remember the love of my Indian “ayah,” or nanny. Parveen, only 14 years my senior, helped my parents raise me.
As we stepped off the train from nearby Delhi, we hoped to relive many of these memories. But instead the sky was a gray pall, and the black dust of diesel and coal-fired power emissions coated our nostrils. No amount of filtering the air through our scarves could prevent us from coughing.
Ludhiana is now the fourth-most polluted city in the world, according to the World Health Organization. The water, too, has become contaminated by pesticides, heavy dyes, and other chemicals dumped by industry and leaching into the water table.
The World Bank ranked Ludhiana No. 1 in India in 2009 for creating a friendly business environment. We saw evidence of this at our hotel: foreign businessmen meeting in the lobby, negotiating business deals on couches and in corners, hovering over laptops. Well-heeled Indian women idled away the hours eating expensive lunches in the hotel’s restaurant, trading gossip and playing bingo.
This once relatively small industrial town has become a magnet for global markets — car parts for Mercedes Benz, BMW, and other automakers are produced here, as well as a good share of Asia’s bicycles and many other heavy industrial goods. Much, if not all, of that manufacturing is powered by coal. Read the rest of this entry →