By Patricia Lee Sharpe
Jams. Not blackberry or strawberry or peach. Traffic jams. If a Kolkata cabbie can’t handle any other word of English, he can spit out, “Jam!!!” At which point he’ll switch off the ignition as he waits. And waits. Fender to fender, bumper to bumper, with other canary-yellow taxis, cars driven only slightly less aggressively and hulking buses pocked with the evidence of daily scrapes and collisions. And motorcycles. And put-puts. And man-powered, old fashioned rickshaws.
Imagine Kolkata traffic as one of those brain-teasing games consisting of 16 or more tiles, just one of which is missing. Using that bit of action space, the tiles must be shifted into a different pattern, with extra points for speed. Vroom! In Kolkata the cabbies make for the empty spaces as soon as they see them, and God help the pedestrian who gets in the way. I haven’t seen any fatalities yet, but close calls are frequent and harrowing.
Still, this is Kolkata, and protest marchers must be tolerated. This is true to a lesser extent elsewhere in India, too. If you have a grievance, you can vent it by taking out a procession. Plus you can throw the rascals out, legally, via regular elections. The need for political earthquakes is mightily minimized by democracy. Meanwhile, here’s The Telegraph’s advice for “roads to avoid today: RR Avenue for a rally; Metro Channel for
an All West Bengal Municipal Health Workers' Union meeting; Dorina Crossing for a students’ demonstration.
Kolkata sidewalks are as jam-packed as the streets, and the protocol for non-marching pedestrians mirrors the discourtesy among drivers on the road: me first. The best defense, on foot or behind the wheel, is learning the game, fast. And laughing. Lots of laughing. The Government College art students who created this mural for the hotel I’m staying at had the right idea. Humor. Not anger. (Blow it up. It includes all the Kolkata stereotypes and clichés.)
These end-to-end traffic jams that frequently turn into gridlock waste pricy gasoline and increase emissions of carbon dioxide, the worst culprit in the global warming scenario. Indian planners foresee agricultural disaster from a combination of drought and flooding, a non-paradox I won’t take time to explain. An early casualty, they predict: basmati rice. It may lose its fragrance, which would be a gastronomic tragedy of historic proportions. Other food crops will also suffer. Indian agronomists are working furiously to develop heat tolerant varieties of essential crops.
Meanwhile, here and now, on the streets of Kolkata, breathing involves exhaust fumes, not fragrance. Very bad for people with asthma! Kolkata’s mortality rate from respiratory problems must be horrendous. A huge park in the center of the city is often called “the lung of Kolkata.” From the neglected look of it, the city’s health is anything but good.
I went for an early morning walk on this maidan today, hoping for some relatively clean air. The good news: very little traffic. The bad news: another source of pollution. Trash fires. Little piles of dry leaves and damp litter smoking away. No wonder planes landing in Kolkata descend through an ominous orangy gray wafer.
A similar smog wafer hovers over Delhi, where the winter air is also less than salubrious, although it used to be even worse—trucks, buses, even cars, trailing foul black plumes of exhaust. No more, in Delhi or Kolkata. Only unseen poisons creeping out to throw a dismal gray veil over every surface.
Reform is possible, even in this beguiling land of pay-to-play and hyper red-tapism.
Buses fueled by natural gas or not (mostly not, of course), India tends to take a fairly hard line during international environmental negotiations. The intellectual argument is attractive. The West got to pollute for 150 years. Expecting India to meet new, more exacting standards so much earlier in the push for industrialization isn’t fair. In a way, it isn’t. But the Victorians hadn’t the foggiest notion about the dangers of global warming either. We do.
While Indian diplomats representing their country in Kyoto or Cancun stand on principal and resist the imposition of more rigorous limits on green house gas emissions, especially carbon dioxide, people in the big cities of India are gasping for breath, and Indian planners are trying to figure out how on earth an already stressed country will cope with rising temperatures. Like the U.S., unfortunately, India has a pollution lobby. In the short term there are profits to be made for a few.
So the people on the street—cough! cough!—will continue to suffer. And they will stop every so often for a spot of tea served up in simple little hand-shaped clay cups. Use and toss. Dust to dust. Which is a theological way of saying sustainable.