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Will India's Measures Combat Climate Change?


Diplomats are discussing a lot of big ideas at the climate conference in Copenhagen. The challenge is to make those ideas real, and that challenge is especially apparent if you were to go to India, which has more than a billion people. It's one of the biggest producers of gases linked to climate change, and its rapidly growing economy will only demand more energy.

NPR's Philip Reeves reports from an Indian city where the government has not been able to keep up with growth.

PHILIP REEVES: Two lean and ragged workmen squat beside a highway. They're sifting sand through a sieve. It'll be used in the concrete for a metro station, the latest addition to a metropolis that's rapidly sprouting on the edge of India's capital, New Delhi. The city's called Gurgaon.

Mr. PRAPAT ARGAVAL(ph) (Software Business Owner): Microsoft in India is headquartered out of here. IBM is headquartered out of Gurgaon.

REEVES: Gurgaon is Prapat Argaval's home. He runs a software business.

Mr. ARGAVAL: We have Coke and Pepsi. We have Accenture. We have Nokia. We have Citibank.

REEVES: This new age city's being built by impoverished Indian migrants. As the light fades, some women laborers head home, singing as they trudge along in their dust-coated saris.

Unidentified Group: (Singing in foreign language)

REEVES: Behind them, Gurgaon's silhouetted by the setting sun. There are skyscrapers wrapped in glass, shopping malls ablaze with light, like cruise ships board(ph) on the dusty plains of north India.

Mr. MELVANI SHANKATRIPATI(ph): The way Gurgaon has grown as actually surprised almost everybody.

REEVES: When Melvani Shankatripati(ph) moved to Gurgaon 10 years ago, it was a mere town. The population has since swollen to six figures - many more people, he says, than the authorities were planning for at this stage.

Mr. SHANKATRIPATI: The government machinery was not prepared to face the challenges of a growing city that grew so rapidly.

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: Step inside one of the city's 40 or so air-conditioned malls, and you could pretty much be anywhere in the developed world. There are boutiques selling the latest brands of clothes, mobile phones and shoes.

(Soundbite of engine running)

REEVES: Step outside again, and the picture changes. Smoke rises from the giant generators powering some of the monolithic new buildings - the city's short of electricity. There are laborers' slums, wandering buffalo, potholes, pools of stagnant water.

Mr. SHANKATRIPATI: The sewage is not being treated at all. Every day in the morning, there are large tankers which flush out sewage from buildings and dump them in open drains.

REEVES: Argaval, the software executive, moved here 15 years ago.

Mr. ARGAVAL: The entire garbage of the city is being dumped just behind the most expensive condominiums. There are traffic during peak hours. It takes you almost 45 minutes to travel two miles.

REEVES: Gurgaon has plenty of government agencies handling the city's development - too many, say their critics. These agencies have plenty of plans and environmental regulations. The problem is implementing these plans and rules.

Will the same problem now thwart India's efforts to combat climate change?

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: Before the Copenhagen summit opened, there was a debate in India's parliament about what India's strategy should be.

Mr. JAIRAM RAMESH (Environment Minister, India): We are going to legislate mandatory fuel efficiency standards for our vehicles by December 2011.

REEVES: That's the environment minister, Jairam Ramesh.

Mr. RAMESH: The most vulnerable country in the world to climate change is India. Two out of every three Indians still depend on agriculture for their livelihood.

REEVES: Ramesh stressed that India will never accept legally binding carbon emissions cuts. But, he said, over the next decade, it will reduce the ratio of greenhouse gas pollution to GDP. In a fast growing economy like India's, that's not a cut. The government's planning a tranche of new measures. It has plans for the world's largest solar power plant. There'll be energy efficiency certificates for industry and clean coal for coal-fired power stations, and more.

But the quality of governance in India is very patchy. Some ministries and states are fairly effective. Others are deeply corrupt and tangled in red tape. No one knows how many of India's plans on climate change will become reality.

Back in Gurgaon, Aja Jaman(ph), a Web site publisher, flips open his laptop and plays a movie he and his wife have made about the city. It shows searing images contrasting the city's poverty and its wealth. Jaman's not confident about India's ability to implement its climate change proposals.

Mr. AJA JAMAN (Web Site Publisher): They say things. We may even believe that we will do things. I, however, doubt that when we are on this rapid economic growth path we will be able to rein in this in any significant way.

REEVES: Jaman came to Gurgaon 20 years ago. He's witnessed dramatic changes.

Mr. JAMAN: It's apparent now that things are getting out of hand. There's so much money involved here. There is so much vested interest. Now, the richest people of the world are involved. So, you know, we're in a terrible situation.

REEVES: The United Nations top climate change scientist is Rajendra Pachauri. Pachauri, a Nobel laureate, is Indian. He knows Gurgaon and doesn't like it.

Dr. RAJENDRA PACHAURI (Climate Scientist, United Nations): That's a horror story. And, you know, I think it's stupid on our part not to use our brains and to do things which emulate what the rest has done.

REEVES: Pachauri cites Gurgaon, especially its energy-guzzling shopping malls, as the wrong kind of development for India. He says when government goes off track like this, people must step in.

Dr. PACHAURI: This is where the involvement of the public becomes extremely important, because they have to put pressure. They have to show their preferences.

REEVES: In Gurgaon, that's actually happening.

Mr. SHANKATRIPATI: We are here. I just want them to think that...

REEVES: Members of a citizen's pressure group gather in a house in one of Gurgaon's new neighborhoods. Their mission is to press the authorities to solve the city's many infrastructure problems and to get them to devolve power to the local level.

Melvani Shankatripati is among them. Like Pachauri, he's concerned about the way the new India's developing.

Mr. SHANKATRIPATI: What do you mean by development? Huge skyscrapers made of glass? SUVs? Traveling on the roads? Transportation system which guzzle diesel fumes? Is that how you define development?

REEVES: India has a reputation for moving slowly but fixing things in the end. That's why the group's members seem surprisingly optimistic. They include General Satbeer Singh(ph). He believes Gurgaon will eventually become a successful, modern city.

General SATBEER Singh: We will win, and the people will win with the movements which we started off. With the knowledge, with the cooperation of everyone, we will win.

REEVES: But imposing order in one city on the doorstep of the national capital isn't proving easy. It'll be a lot harder curbing the pollution of the entire country in the face of rapid economic growth.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves
Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.