At seven o'clock on a late February morning the scene is much as you'd imagine it, much as you've seen it, perhaps, in a score of earnest documentaries, or in the highlight reels at this year's Oscars. In the slums of Delhi, a man pedals a bicycle laden with milk cans along a narrow, dusty lane swarming with people. A family of five squeezes into the back of a green-and-yellow autorickshaw meant for three. Somnolent cows lie in a field of garbage beside the railroad tracks, where an endless line of rusted coal cars rolls past, off to fuel some factory or power plant south of the city. Half-naked children squat among the discarded plastic bags and food wrappers to do their morning business. No one really knows how many people live here in the hutments of Okhla; 80,000 perhaps. And not a slumdog millionaire in sight.
Up on the footbridge that crosses the tracks, an old man in a filthy dhoti and turban shuffles past a torn notice advertising jobs for "marketing and tele-calling executives." The ad is a dispatch from another India, the new India, which lies, both literally and figuratively, on the other side of the tracks. You can't see it now, but it's out there somewhere in the smog, which is backlit to an opaque yellow-brown by the rising sun. As the day progresses and some of the haze burns off, shapes will start to emerge: the forest of cranes, the towers of blue steel and reflective glass, the billboards with words like Vodafone and Airtel and Intelenet, the Center Stage Mall and the Spice World Mall, and the call centers of the New Okhla Industrial Development Authority (NOIDA). It's Chinese workers who fill the shelves at Wal-Mart with Christmas tree ornaments and socket wrench sets, but it's Indian workers in places like this who answer those phone queries about your credit card bill or your airline reservation, each call helping to build India's $11 billion a year outsourcing industry.
In this new India, faucets run all day. Lights burn all night. Shiny new cars zip into the center of Delhi on the DND Flyway. Water, energy, mobility: three defining elements of the escape from poverty. Such modest goals, but for most Indians still so painfully hard to achieve.
Looking out at NOIDA, at the towers and the smog, I wondered whether India could have it both ways. Could more than a billion people have the prosperity without the environmental havoc, in a country that is already struggling with the impact of a changing climate? Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had seemed to suggest as much in a speech launching India's National Action Plan on Climate Change in June 2008. Rapid economic growth was non-negotiable, Singh said, if people were "to discard the ignominy of widespread poverty." At the same time, he promised that India would follow "a path of ecologically sustainable development." In seeking to reconcile these two goals, he pointed to the country's "civilizational legacy, which treats Nature as a source of nurture and not as a dark force to be conquered and harnessed to human endeavour."
What did that have to do with NOIDA? Perhaps one hint lay in a passage from Aravind Adiga's best-selling novel, The White Tiger, which won the Man Booker Prize four months after Singh's speech. The sardonic antihero writes to the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao: "Apparently, sir, you Chinese are far ahead of us in every respect, except that you don't have entrepreneurs. And our nation, though it has no drinking water, electricity, sewage system, public transportation, sense of hygiene, discipline, courtesy, or punctuality, does have entrepreneurs. Thousands and thousands of them."
Could this new entrepreneurial spirit be harnessed to provide India's poor with the three essentials that NOIDA takes for granted -- water, energy, and mobility? There seemed only one way to test the proposition: to embark on a journey that would give me a sampling of this astoundingly diverse and complicated country, from its mountains to its deserts and back again to the city. And the prime minister's speech seemed to suggest where I should start looking for answers -- by going to the river that is the cradle of India's civilizational legacy.
THE WATER TOWER OF ASIA
The Hindu pilgrimage town of Rishikesh in the Himalayan foothills, where John, Paul, George, and Ringo spent the early months of 1968 in thrall to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, sits on the banks of the Ganges, which Indians call the Ganga.
On the outskirts of town, an imposing line of high-tension electricity pylons marched southward from the mountains, carrying power to Delhi and the cities of the plain. Nearby was a poster advertising Ambuja Cement. A heroically muscled man, chin raised, gaze fixed on the future, clutched a gigantic dam under his arm. Ambuja is a private corporation, but the artwork suggested Soviet-era socialist realism.
Coal still accounts for 55 percent of India's energy mix, but hydro supplies 26 percent. That's an unusually high proportion -- China, for all the publicity about Three Gorges, generates only about 7 percent of its power from dams -- and India's climate plan assumes that hydro will continue to expand steadily. The plan also speaks at some length about the potential for large-scale solar power, since most of the country has clear, sunny skies for 250 to 300 days a year. But solar is expensive, and hydro, despite the huge economic and environmental cost of dams, remains the cheapest of all conventional energy sources.
On the other side of Rishikesh, a few miles upstream, an intense young woman named Priya Patel sat cross-legged in the garden of an ashram and showed me a map of the headwaters of the Ganga. Small rectangular symbols marked the site of proposed hydroelectric projects. Patel is the unofficial leader of the Ganga Ahvaan, a campaign to stop them.
There is already one colossal dam on the upper river at Tehri, which came into operation in 2006 and produces about 2,400 megawatts. (By way of comparison, the Hoover Dam generates about 2,000 megawatts, and Tehri is about 100 feet higher.) The new dams, impoundments, and diversion tunnels on Patel's map would add another 5,000 megawatts to the mix. I counted about two dozen new sites, more or less equally divided between the Bhagirathi and the Alaknanda, the two rivers that come together to form the main stem of the Ganga at the small town of Devaprayag. Patel said that the first of these structures, the 380-megawatt Bhaironghati I, would be built just eight or nine miles below the Gangotri glacier, where the Bhagirathi originates in an ice cave. The diversion tunnels and proposed minimum flows would dry up miles of riverbed, she said, and to make matters worse, all these massive engineering works were being planned in one of the highest-risk earthquake zones in the world. When a 6.6-magnitude quake hit the Bhagirathi valley in 1991, the greatest number of casualties occurred in a village that sits on top of one of the new tunnels.
"But surely they must have done an environmental impact assessment?" I asked.
She smiled without humor, and enumerated some of the assurances that had been given by the National Thermal Power Corporation, including one that promised that "no historical, religious, or cultural monuments" would be affected by the dams. Of course, the Ganga itself is the sacred core of India's national identity, but the irony of this seemed to have escaped the government.
Later I made the bumpy three-hour drive upriver along a tortuous corniche hundreds of feet above the Ganga until I reached the confluence at Devaprayag. The town is built on a narrow, triangular point of rocks that ends in a ghat -- the ubiquitous riverside steps where Hindus gather to wash, bathe, worship, and burn their dead. The Bhagirathi, a foaming torrent colored turquoise by silt from the Gangotri glacier, rushed in from the west. From the east, the Alaknanda was an unbroken slick of emerald between sheer cliffs. But the waters were much lower than usual, people said. It had been a strange winter, unusually warm and raining only once, a brief downpour a few days before I arrived. Peaches that normally fruited in April were ripe in February.
It was the second day of the festival of Mahashivaratri, a celebration of Lord Shiva, the Destroyer, that is one of the most important events in the Hindu calendar. Pilgrims and priests had gathered on the lower steps of the ghat, knee-deep in the water, one foot in turquoise, the other in green. The wall behind them was scrawled with Hindi graffiti. Translated, it said, "Dam Is Murderer of Ganga."
The flow of India's sacred river is of much more than local concern. Fully one-fifth of all humanity depends for its survival on the great rivers that are born among the glaciers of the Himalayas, which some people call the water tower of Asia. But even as the downstream demand for water increases, the upstream supply is contracting, because the glaciers are melting, and rapidly.
Before leaving Delhi for the mountains I'd talked to Syed Iqbal Hasnain, India's best-known glaciologist. A jovial, white-haired, grandfatherly man, he punctuated his gloomy observations with improbable bursts of laughter.
"The Ganga system is about 60 to 70 percent snow and ice," he told me. "There are more than 800 glaciers in the Ganga basin. The Gangotri is the big one. It used to cover more than 250 square kilometers [about 100 square miles], but now it's breaking up in many places. You will see blocks of dead ice that are no longer connected to the main ice body. I'm afraid that if the current trends continue, within 30 or 40 years most of the glaciers will melt out." He chuckled.
No one could fail to notice the changes in the Himalayan weather, Hasnain said: "The monsoons are being affected by climate change. We are not getting the westerlies, which bring snow in the wintertime. Crops like potatoes, peas, and apples are growing at higher altitudes now. At lower elevations the temperatures are no longer suitable.
"There's also the atmospheric 'brown cloud,' a layer of dust particles three kilometers thick, which is warming the glaciers and creating all these anomalies," he went on. "And black soot is being deposited on the white ice of the Tibetan plateau." Together the soot and dust reduce the albedo (from the Latin albus, or white) -- the amount of solar radiation reflected back into the atmosphere. Instead it is absorbed by the darkened ice. The dust is mainly from fossil fuel emissions, with China the principal culprit. Most of the soot comes from cooking fires on the Indian side, a seemingly trivial source that in fact generates huge amounts of highly polluting "black carbon." I was surprised when Hasnain told me that even the firewood and kerosene burned by the growing numbers of pilgrims to the Gangotri temple and nearby ashrams have a significant impact on the glacier.
The government misreads, or perhaps chooses to misread, these symptoms, Hasnain complained. "Because the glaciers are melting, a lot of water is flowing downstream," he said. "They think, the water is coming, people are happy, so why rake up all these issues of climate change?"
The melting also poses a direct threat to the new hydropower projects, he said. More glacial melt means more silt, and more silt means clogged turbines and incapacitated dams. No one was thinking about that either. "There's a total disconnect," Hasnain said, "between those who are designing these power projects and what is happening on the headwaters." He laughed again.
He said that measuring the precise extent of glacier loss was not easy, and the government's climate action plan had used this shortage of hard data to justify a disturbingly agnostic view of the problem. All the plan says is that "it is too early to establish long-term trends" and that there are "several hypotheses" about the reasons for the great melting. Part of the difficulty is that outside monitors are not welcome in areas that border on China and Pakistan; a matter of national security. You can figure out a certain amount by satellite imagery -- even by looking at Google Earth -- and it's not hard to measure the distance by which a particular glacier has advanced or receded. But the critical issue is what glaciologists call mass balance, the most sensitive indicator of the impact of climate change, and measuring this requires getting up into the high peaks and taking ice-core samples. Hasnain said he had begun to work with the celebrated glaciologist Lonnie Thompson of Ohio State University. "He's the leader in the ice-core business," Hasnain said. "So in four or five years we may have a credible database." He was no longer laughing now.