Unbearable Lightness

When I first breathed the air of Hyderabad, a city in southern India, it was 1980. Both Hyderabad and India were regarded as "underdeveloped," in the language of that era. But hope was in the air.

The Green Revolution was staving off famine, and it would be more than a decade before thousands of farmers began committing suicide by drinking the pesticides that had bankrupted them. Smallpox was gone, and HIV had not yet arrived. Millions had reliable water supplies for the first time thanks to borewells, but underground water tables weren't yet being sucked dry. More and more of Hyderabad's rickshaw-wallahs were sitting at the controls of auto-rickshaws rather than pedaling themselves toward the grave, but the city's air had not yet turned deadly.

In 1982, I returned to the United States, leaving behind a Hyderabad that, like the rest of India, was looking for a way out of poverty without surrendering its economic independence. By 1996, when I once again came to live in Hyderabad (until 2000), Gandhian self-reliance appeared to be crumbling, and representatives of U.S., Canadian, and European companies were all over town, making joint-venture deals and trying to make them stick.

Not a part of that invasion force, I was in the city working for rupee wages -- cash, in a plain envelope -- while volunteering for a nonprofit institute and finding ways to overstay my visa. But as a fellow foreigner, I had plenty of chances to meet the business types. On arrival in the city, they were pumped up with high- and low-tech dreams, but most of them left, deflated, within months. At farewell parties that cluttered the social calendar, they would tell me, "You just can't work with these people. They are unbelievably difficult." I would suggest, to little effect, that maybe they just weren't ready to roll over, bow down, bend over backward, or perform whatever gymnastics are required of government and business people in more "business-friendly" countries.

And India's stubbornness has paid off. In recent years, the excesses of a few corporate giants like Coke have provoked ire from the Himalayas in the north to Kerala in the far south, but Western companies in the boming "information sector" are being compelled to share the spoils of exploitation with their Indian counterparts.

Hyderabad is one of the hubs of India's outsourcing revolution, with vast numbers of people now working in software development, call centers, medical transcription, and other mind-over-matter industries. If it's not your own job that was exported to Hyderabad, it may seem like a good deal all around: Western companies can improve their bottom line and charge their customers less; new Indian companies thrive; and Indian employees might see a boost in pay.

But the new incarnation of globalization that one sees today in Hyderabad, called the "weightless economy" -- economist Danny Quah's term for a country starting to traffic more in MP3s than in rice -- is taking a heavy toll on its people, air, water, and land -- right down to the bedrock.

That Was Then; This Is Then

I returned to Hyderabad yet again in the winter of 2002-03. Back in 1980, it had been a dust-brown and chlorophyll-green city, but these days, the business districts are almost completely smog-and-concrete grey in the daytime and lit up like Vegas at night. The internal-combustion engine holds Hyderabad in a grip tighter than that exerted by the long line of Nizams who ruled the city until the 1950s.

The cautious opening of India's economy has liberated enormous amounts of capital, both old and new. Today, despite the horrific traffic, you can easily reach any kind of clothing, jewelry, or appliance store, restaurant, coffee shop, pub, or, of course, car dealership without ever leaving a circular main route that traverses the twin cities of Hyderabad and Secunderabad. This central loop of new, black asphalt and still-unblackened concrete is trimmed with green plants, sodium-vapor streetlights, and billboards for cell phones that are guaranteed to "change your life." But a quick turn down any side street shows that, for most people, living conditions haven't changed significantly since 1996 or 1980. A trip across the river to the Muslim Old City of Hyderabad is a 20-year trip back in time, except that the air is much worse.

If you leave the attractive central loop of asphalt and avoid Hi-Tec City, home of Hyderabad's "weightless economy," on the city's western fringe -- the same old problems persist. Lack of access to water is now an annual crisis. Last year, both major reservoirs that supply the city with water had completely dried up at least four months before the start of the monsoon in June. The April-to-June summer sees fierce competition for electricity between TVs and air conditioners in Hyderabad and irrigation pumps in rice paddies far to the south and east. Meanwhile, sanitation systems are groaning. Air quality, as quantified on scoreboards at major intersections, is frighteningly bad.

Technology, High and Low

Indians, even middle-class people, live in very close quarters with the ecological consequences of growth and consumption. But it's the super-rich in both India and America who make the economic and political decisions that set the courses of their societies, and they can afford to accumulate capital with singleminded vigor while shielding themselves from even the smallest environmental insults. Partly as a result, ecological thinking rarely figures in the economic policies of either nation. Once in a while, prospects of ecological crisis might furrow brows in Upper Manhattan or Jubilee Hills (a suburb situated high above the dense haze of the central city.) But such crises are already killing people in places like Patancheru.

About 20 km west of Hi-Tec City, too distant to be seen from the top floors of its high-rise, high-bandwidth office buildings, lies Patancheru -- a village as I knew it in 1980, now both a city and a hellish industrial park. There -- as in Hi-Tec City -- sophisticated, often expensive products are born, but in a much less appealing way. Many of the companies operating in and around Patancheru (most of them Indian-owned) are manufacturing bulk pharmaceuticals or intermediate compounds to be exported to the West for processing into finished drugs, including antibiotics and chemotherapy compounds.

When "meth labs" are busted in small-town USA, officials are faced with a dangerous cleanup of highly toxic intermediate chemicals. Many legal drugs are made from nasty intermediate compounds, too, requiring companies either to take expensive precautions during manufacture or let the dangerous steps in the process be done by companies in countries like India. And in Patancheru, despite fairly strict pollution laws, factories continue to pipe their waste directly into nearby ponds and lakes.

In addition to the poisonous intermediates, the lakes are polluted with arsenic, lead, mercury, chromium, and various pesticides. Area residents say that a boy named Namdoor, a good swimmer, dived into one of the lakes and died on the spot. Nevertheless, with water shortages common, people often find it necessary to use water from the lakes for household purposes.

Individual states in India are encouraged to compete in making deals with companies, foreign countries, and development agencies. Hyderabad is the capital of a state, Andhra Pradesh, whose Chief Minister, Chandrababu Naidu, has become the World Bank's best pal and India's champion dealmaker. Last year, he out-hustled the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu, which was to have hosted a massive new PVC-plastic plant.

The Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board had banned the operation, citing the deadly chemicals that are the inevitable inputs and outputs of PVC production. Naidu was more than happy to step in and welcome the plant. But to win final government approval over environmental objections, the Indian company behind the project, Chemplast Sanmar, has recently had to develop a "public awareness campaign."

In 1980, most of the output of India's economy was biodegradeable, but today India has waded deep into the Age of Plastic. As if Hyderabad and other cities weren't already being buried under it, India has been welcoming waste plastic from around the globe, to be recycled along with mercury, batteries, old ships, computers, and incinerator ash. "Recycled" usually translates as "dumped." A journalist in Hyderabad told me that ships from European countries, governed by strict environmental laws, often dump under cover of darkness and in remote areas of India's seacoast, but U.S. waste is dumped openly, because America fears no laws anymore.

Anything that can be dumped just might be dumped. In 2002, a public outcry stopped the importation of World Trade Center rubble into India. At first, Indians were told that the shipments were just the usual sort of garbage that arrives regularly in Indian ports. As a result, more than 150,000 tons entered the country before the cargo's real origin became widely known. The intense reaction against dumping of the rubble had more to do with its karmic than its toxic content. Nevertheless, experts say that all remains of the WTC -- a nerve-center for the kind of "clean" economic growth that's fueled mainly by the global movement of electrons and photons -- contain some extremely dangerous compounds that were produced when its carpets, plastic construction materials and furnishings, computers, etc., were melted, pulverized, and incinerated.

It May Be Green, But It Still Has a Cost

To his credit, Naidu has invested heavily in parks and gardens around Hyderabad. They are open to all and very popular. But even the characteristics that we associate with desirable public and private urban spaces -- "well-lighted," "green," "freshly painted," "accessible," "clean" -- entail the consumption of resources and production of wastes.

Along the road to Hi-Tec City lies a square mile of prime real estate -- once a hunting ground for the city's ruling family -- that has been walled off as a national park where kids can see what the region was like before the goat, the plow, the automobile, and the computer. But a 30-foot swath around the perimeter of the park has been "tamed" as a walking path that attracts large numbers of fitness-conscious citizens every evening. Enclosed between beautiful gardens and high, ornate stone-and-iron fences, winding among native boulders and up and down stairways, the path took a couple of years to complete.

During construction of the path and walls, stone masons and other workers lived in cardboard-and-palm-frond huts within its boundary. By early 2003, only a few of the workers remained, putting the finishing touches on the walking path. But with the path already in use, they had been forced to crowd their huts and families onto a traffic island next to the park, spoiling the "green" view for passing motorists.

The city's parks, its central loop road, and Hi-Tec City can exist because people somewhere are breathing paint-factory fumes, sacrificing their water supply, or having their village flooded by a hydroelectric project. In the back streets of the city, conservation is still the rule: Proprietors of small shops, just as they did in 1980, make sure to keep their fluorescent lights turned off unless a customer comes in, and buildings are still allowed to turn soot-black before they are washed and repainted. But around the central loop and along the route between the airport and Hi-Tec City - the only territory seen by most foreign officials and investors - scarce water is lavished on annual flowers in the road's median (deep-rooted trees being long-gone), and huge billboards stay brightly lighted all night, each one consuming more electricity in the wee hours of one morning than a back-street shop uses in a month, or maybe a year.

One day last year, I walked along a wide, pleasant stone path that now stretches for kilometers along the shore of the Hyderabad's central lake. At one point, the path ended abruptly, where workers were busy breaking up big granite blocks in order to extend it. No one had to tell me where those blocks came from.

Scattered around the countryside near Hyderabad and far beyond are high hills - actually piles of gargantuan boulders, some as big as houses, in often bizarre and beautiful formations. That region of India has been exposed to the elements longer than most other land on earth, and those rocks, being harder and more erosion-resistant than any surrounding material, have survived for billions of years. But a decade-long frenzy of blasting, cutting, and pulverizing has flattened and scarred large parts of the countryside. In a geological or even historical eye-blink, most of the ancient rocks will be gone -- reincarnated as roads, overpasses, park walls, software towers, and mansions in Jubilee Hills.

In this way, a "weightless economy" can crush granite.

Stan Cox is a plant breeder and writer in Salina, Kansas.

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