Passage to India

As the subcontinent grows in wealth, quality of life on the streets diminishes.

The traffic is relentless: limos, SUVs, sedans, small taxis built from motorbikes, and scooters jockey for position while a cow takes a leisurely stroll in the maelstrom. As we wait for the light to change, a disheveled young woman with a baby on her arm scratches on the window, begging for alms; a little girl displays her double-jointed flexibility as she performs cartwheels; a man appears with two mangy monkeys who dance on cue for a few rupees. All eyes are averted from the spectacle; everyone is looking for ways to find the best position in this dense jam.

In the shadow of a nearby wall—built to keep the wealthy protected in their classical and spacious bungalows—someone lights a fire on the sidewalk, trying to keep warm on the coldest day Delhi has seen in two years. Thousands and thousands of other fires are lit throughout this city of 14 million souls, a large portion of them living out their lives on the street—freezing on this morning in late December.

We’re heading to the Presidential Palace (pictured), the crown jewel of the government complex at New Delhi, which became the capital of India under British rule. Defined by wide avenues, verdant lawns, massive buildings, gates, and arches, this famous quarter, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens to symbolize the power of the Raj, can no longer be seen in its spectacular entirety. The smog is thick. It bites the throat and burns the eyes. I remember the Dickensian stories I read as a child about the London fog, which turned out to be the fumes of industrialization and coal fires. In Delhi too they call this pollution fog, as if it were a natural phenomenon with no other remedy than to wait for the sun to dry it up. But this fog persists throughout the day and night. And it will grow thicker and more poisonous as the city’s population nearly doubles by 2020.

Today some 600 new vehicles are registered in Delhi daily. And though here and there are billboards proclaiming the merits of “green development,” there is little evidence of anyone looking to solve the traffic and emissions problem, or the even more intractable issue of homelessness that leads to all those smoldering street fires.

The local newspaper runs a report about a university granting degrees in sustainability—a small ray of hope breaking through the choking smog. And as I think about India’s reputation for excellent education in technology and the arts, its unique architectural heritage and skillful craftsmanship, and the ability of its people to use materials frugally and strategically, I see them finding solutions to their transportation problems. But will they be able to put out the fires?

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