A common topic of conversation among my fellow ACE associates and I is how our homelands differ from Mumbai. Many of us bring up the work interactions -- my peer from Brazil claims that Indian work relationships are more formal than Brazil’s -- and the eating habits -- Indians almost always eat with their hands. The contrasts are a mix of good and bad, but the one unanimously negative aspect of the culture we all are equally fascinated and disheartened by is Mumbai’s staggering pollution problems.
Stepping out of the Mumbai airport, one of my distinct memories is immediately stopping short of breath. The air seemed thinner, like I might start coughing if I tried breathing too deeply. Looking out the window on the taxi ride to the hotel, I noticed every block seemed to harbor at least one house-sized pile of trash. A dumpster overflowing past the point of comedy lay about twenty feet from the perfectly clean business hotel Tata provided for me the first two weeks. Pollution, I would quickly learn, is hard to escape in India.
When I moved to my office in Ghatkopar -- a busy business district of Eastern Mumbai -- I was relieved to find that the streets seemed relatively clean at first blush, if not a tad muddy from monsoon season. But living here now, behind Mumbai’s largest mall, I find trash piles springing up everywhere. My daily walk to work -- about ten minutes -- is regularly impeded by knee-high blockades of plastic wrappers and tossed food from roadside stands. Certainly not the most inviting sight to start the day.
The trash is also an implicit cause of another problem throughout Mumbai: stray dogs. No matter how many times I was told to “expect wild animals” by travel nurses, I still am weary of walking by the collar-less “Indian pariah dogs” roaming the Mumbai streets, feeding on trash heaps and occasionally tussling with each other. The New York Times ran an excellent piece this week on India’s stray dogs, which last year accounted for about 80,000 bites in Mumbai. I think any foreign traveler would be frustrated to see such blatant pollution exacerbating a dangerous wild animal problem, and question what policies are being adopted to address both issues.
In fact, Indian leaders are acutely aware of their country’s pollution problem, initiating a string of environmental legislation and court orders in the past decade. Of course, I don’t expect the overall trash situation to visibly improve much during my year-long stay -- the most I can do is keep clean my own personal space, and love the city for all the positives: beautiful views, beautiful architecture, and fantastically friendly people.
One fellow expat explained to me that us Westerners subconsciously learn to take shorter breaths while staying in India. Adaptive mechanisms or not, I don’t cover my mouth and nose nearly as much as I used to on a daily basis– if nothing else, I am confident I will return to the States with a stronger stomach.
I am always curious to hear other people’s opinions, particularly regarding these volatile environmental issues. How do other cities’ cleanliness compare to Mumbai? Feel free to send your own thoughts or questions via the Project Firefly website, Facebook or Twitter.
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