Unusually heavy rains. Toxic smog. A poisoned river in the capital New Delhi. India’s rapid development has left it with many environmental challenges, in addition to erratic weather conditions due to climate change.


As global representatives from around the world gather in Glasgow to try to tackle climate change, a real-time crisis unfolds in India. Irregular rains, deadly floods, toxic smog, poisoned rivers – all of these can sound like edifying tales of what could happen if the world does not respond quickly to climate change. But again, this is happening in India right now. The rapid development of the country has left it with a wide range of environmental challenges made worse by global warming. We have NPR correspondent in Mumbai, India, Lauren Frayer with us. Lauren, hello.


MARTIN: So – I mean, just say more about all this totally extreme weather. What is happening?

FRAYER: Well, right now, huge swathes of Chennai, a big city of about 10 million people, are underwater. The buses are overwhelmed. Thousands of people have been evacuated from their homes. You know, it’s normal for cities like Chennai to get monsoon rains at this time of year. But what is not normal is the volume this time. And that’s just one of the many environmental crises India is juggling this week. I mean, then look at northern India.

MARTIN: So what’s going on in the north?

FRAYER: So the Yamuna River in New Delhi today is covered in toxic moss. It is something that is happening as India develops. Its rivers fill up with industrial waste. In this case, it’s ammonia. Literally poisoned foam is bubbling with water. It is a river which is considered sacred to Hindus. People still bathe there. Many of them get sick. They also get sick by breathing air. The Taj Mahal, the country’s most famous landmark, is virtually invisible today from afar as it is surrounded by smog, and this comes from industrial and vehicle emissions, mostly from the burning of fossil fuels, which worsens climate change. .

MARTIN: Oh yeah. It’s a dark picture. It sounds, you know, almost apocalyptic.

FRAYER: That’s right. I spoke this morning with Sherry Frosh. She is a mother from the Delhi suburbs who is part of a group called Warrior Moms. They are campaigning for clean air.

SHERRY FROSH: We’re living in a dystopian nightmare, which, I mean, you know, we see these bad movies about how people live in these gray towns and people are suffocating and can’t survive. And we are experiencing it right now.

FRAYER: And she’s keeping her kids away from school today because of the air quality, which is four times the safe limit.

MARTIN: So Indians have to be careful about what’s going on in Glasgow, Scotland, right? – with the world climate summit.


MARTIN: Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a big promise there, setting a date to reduce net Indian emissions to zero. I mean, what’s the reaction to that? Is this going to be enough?

FRAYER: So he’s committed to getting the ball rolling by 2070. It’s 20 years after the United States, 10 years after China. And that’s later because Indian officials say they deserve time to develop. I mean, any abrupt shift to renewables here would likely hurt economic growth, and it can literally cost lives in a poor country like India.

I spoke this morning also with Suruchi Bhadwal. She is an Indian expert on climate change. I actually caught her over the phone at COP26 in Glasgow. And she said, you know, yeah, India needs to develop, but it’s actually hitting a wall because of climate change. Take this week’s flooding in Chennai, for example.

SURUCHI BHADWAL: On the one hand, we are talking about changes in precipitation patterns and the incidence of heavy precipitation. On the other hand, it is also about development and poor development, where we have choked our drainage system. There is no room for the water to drain.

FRAYER: And she says most Indian cities are examples of that. Urbanization has actually exacerbated the effects of climate change here.

MARTIN: Lauren Frayer of NPR reporting in Mumbai. Laurent, thank you.

FRAYER: You’re welcome.


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