EDAYANCHAVADI, INDIA — Another piece of land was denuded around here last month. It started early on a Monday morning. A group of men, armed with shovels and saws, aided by a yellow excavator, cleared eight acres by a road. They cut down neem trees, acacia trees, palmyras and a couple of thick jackfruit trees.
About 40 trees were felled. By the time they were done, the land was a tangle of branches and dead leaves. A few wizened stumps and roots were left behind, strewn around the upturned earth like corpses.
I went looking for the owners of the land. I met one of them, a 44-year-old man named K. Murugayian, on a hot Tuesday afternoon. He told me, in a slightly sheepish but deliberate way, about why the land had been cleared.
He said the property had been in his family for over a century. His father — and his father before him — used to farm it, but then, about 15 years ago, it became harder to turn a profit from farming. Recently, the family was approached by a real-estate broker. He had some buyers in Chennai, about 160 kilometers, or 100 miles, away. The money offered was astronomical; Murugayian said it was more than five times what the family had been offered just a few years ago.
Murugayian and his three uncles, the four titleholders to the land, discussed the offer. One of his uncles was eager to sell; he was childless, getting old and having a hard time making ends meet. Murugayian said he wasn’t in a hurry, but he wasn’t complaining about the money. He had three daughters that he needed to marry off, his wife wanted a washing machine, and he was thinking of buying a car so his family could go on road trips.
Still, it wasn’t an easy decision. The land had been in the family for so long. Murugayian told me that when he saw the trees being cut, he felt like he was losing a part of himself.
This is how it is all around here now days: the rural economy is booming, development is sweeping over the South Indian countryside like a wave, and villagers are being forced into choices they would rather not have to make. Too often, it’s the environment — the trees and the water and the air — that suffers.
Down by the beach, unauthorized construction and a government-built port are eroding the coastline, changing the contours of the Bay of Bengal and disrupting fishermen’s livelihoods.
In the farms and fields that surround my home, farmers struggle with declining yields and land that is turning barren. Decades of chemical pesticides have reduced the fertility of the soil. A new generation of electric pumps has overexploited the water table.
Behind the village of Edayanchavadi, where Murugayian and his uncles grew up, a waste dump spews toxic fumes into the air. Some nights I smell the fumes in my living room. I know the air is filled with dioxins; I worry for my children.
India faces some of the most severe environmental challenges in the world. A government report published earlier this year estimates that 45 percent of the country’s geographic area suffers some form of land degradation; three million deaths a year are attributable to air pollution; and almost 70 percent of the nation’s surface water is contaminated.
According to the World Bank, environmental sustainability could represent the biggest obstacle to the nation’s development.
But the politics — and morality — of environmentalism in a country as poor as India are complicated. Indira Gandhi, a former prime minister, famously announced at the United Nations’ first environmental conference, in 1972, that “poverty is the biggest polluter.”
Those sentiments were echoed recently when Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh snubbed the U.S. secretary of state, Hillary Rodham Clinton, by telling her in public that India could not accept binding carbon emission targets because doing so would stunt the nation’s economic growth.
It’s a widely held view in a country where the global environmental movement has sometimes been seen as a form of colonialism — a Western attempt to slow India’s development, to deny the country the fruits of industrialization enjoyed by the developed world.
The United States, with under 5 percent of the world’s population, accounts for more than 20 percent of total carbon emissions. India, with more than 17 percent of the global population, accounts for just 5.3 percent of emissions. Why, people ask, should India pay a price for the West’s profligacy?
It’s a fair question; the American and European positions have a whiff of hypocrisy. Still, when I see what’s going on around me — when I see how the farms are drying up, how forests and the coastline are disappearing, when I smell the dioxins in my house — I can’t help but feel that it’s a form of hypocrisy we had better learn to live with.
If we sacrifice nature at the altar of material progress and global fairness, we risk, as Murugayian put it to me, losing a part of ourselves. Poverty is a serious problem. But pollution, I’ve come to believe, is itself a form of poverty.
There’s a woman who lives in a village next to Edayanchavadi. Her name is R. Ponngavanam; she’s in her late 50s. She walks past Murugayian’s land every day on her way to work. She told me that the sight of the fallen trees made her sad. She was especially dismayed that so many neem trees were cut down. For her, as for many of her generation, neem trees are holy; they’re venerated for their medicinal properties.
She remembers, as a child, brushing her teeth with neem branches. When her children were injured, she would cover their wounds with neem leaves.
I asked why she didn’t voice her objections to the men clearing the land. She laughed. She said she was an old woman, and they were young. She said she was poor. She lived in a small house without running water. She said: “The landowners are rich now. I’m nobody. Who am I to say anything to them?”