How dirty is Kolkata

"Everything is poisoned in India"

India's leaders and the global economy are crying out for economic growth - the consequences for the Indian population and the environment are catastrophic

Women crouch in front of me in vegetable fields and sometimes bring in the harvest while singing. Fish ponds on all sides. In the east a mountain range seems to shimmer and makes me believe I'm in Nepal - if it weren't for that pungent stench. Also in the vegetable fields directly below the "mountain" the eye is led to believe the Himalayas.

Carriers descend from the mountain on narrow paths. The ascent is unsafe and slippery like a glacier moraine, only that red-colored rivulets run under your feet. I arrived at the mountain edge in a science fiction. Between clouds of smoke and small fires, human shadows collect plastic from a sea of ​​rubbish that is constantly being refilled by dump trucks. In between, cows graze in the garbage.

The danger of collapsing is the same as on a glacier. Every day, almost 500 trucks drive 80 percent of the 3,500 to 3,700 tons of Kolkata's municipal garbage up this mountain, the "active part" of which extends over an area of ​​24 hectares. In 2009, 12 hectares were set aside "left in their natural state".

The red-colored seepage water that flows from the garbage dump into the surrounding fields contains extremely high concentrations of chromium, lead, cadmium, copper and zinc and pollutes the groundwater. Up to 800 milligrams of lead per kilogram were measured in soil samples from the surrounding fields.

The approximately 25,000 people who live around the "Dhapa" garbage dump in eastern Kolkata rarely live to be more than 50 years old. In their villages, the collected plastic is piled up in piles or lies shredded to dry: "Where else should I go," says 35-year-old Gopal, pointing to his makeshift hut and defiantly adding: "I'm not a beggar . I have my own house and I make my own money. "

I don't ask him about the unbearable stench. I only lasted half an hour on the heap of rubbish. Due to the released biological gases with a high methane content, the garbage ignites by itself, the resulting vapors are highly toxic. People like Gopal are not stupid, but those who have to survive here need a certain ignorance to protect themselves. In addition, sentences from him like: "It's not better in Kolkata either" are not so wrong.


In the center of the 4.5 million metropolis, trees and bushes grow from the colonial buildings in urban districts. During the day, the number of people doubles to over 8 million. Then almost 50,000 people jostle into one square kilometer.

Samples at Kolkata's markets showed up to 40 milligrams of lead per kilo in vegetables. The average measured value was 23.56 mg. The 16 milligrams of lead in the vegetables in the fields around the Dhapa rubbish dump seem bearable.

However, the maximum allowed in India is only 2.5 milligrams. Up to 10 milligrams of lead have been found in chicken meat. With fish it was up to nine. The exhaust gases from diesel vehicles are responsible for 75 percent of the lead levels in Kolkata's air.

Rotted meat is regularly found during controls in Kolkata: In April of this year, the police even confiscated 20 tons of meat on the well-known Rajabasar, some of which came from the carcasses of dogs and cats - the meat was already packaged for sale.

In addition to heavy metals, drinking water is heavily contaminated with arsenic. The reason for this is not industrial pollution, but, as in large parts of Bengal, has something to do with the chemical composition of the soil and the deep wells drilled. However, since 2009 the arsenic problem in Kolkata has assumed alarming conditions because the groundwater stocks no longer fill up due to soil compaction and excessive water abstraction.

The fine dust values ​​of particle size PM-2.5 in Kolkata were already 300 micrograms per cubic meter of air at the end of October this year and even beat New Delhi, although winter with its smog is not even approaching. The residents of Kolkata try their hand at gallows humor.

At the popular street stalls with the chicken rolls, they accuse the owners of the other stalls of rolling cat meat in the fried roti bread. Admiration for the local residents is a constant companion, because it is not a matter of course that people remain so peaceful under these conditions, and under constant noise terror.

"In India everything is poisoned. Air, food and water. But most of the people in Kolkata have no time to defend themselves because they are struggling to survive on a daily basis," says the Bengali journalist Nilanjan Dutta. This fits in with the fact that the accounts of Greenpeace India and Amnesty International were frozen in October.

Only fine words for the country's development

The reason given by the Modi government is that both organizations allegedly suffered financial irregularities. As early as 2015, Greenpeace's accounts were frozen. The reason given at the time gives an indication of what the Modi government is really about: Greenpeace has called for actions that hinder the development of the country, it was put forward.

"The previous government of the Congress Party also used the same means to act against civil movements that drew attention to environmental destruction and human rights violations," says Dutta. The fact that 14 of the 15 most polluted cities in the world are now in India shows the development against which active people in India are resisting.

The honesty of most of Kolkata's residents is also often touching. It is not uncommon for the tea vendors to chase after one of the tea sellers to return an overpaid rupee. However, it is not surprising that many travelers to India come to a different conclusion.

"When I travel to the sea in Puri in Orissa, I know that in a tourist place I pay more than the locals. Is that different anywhere on earth?" Asked a resident of the Bengal capital on the train on the way to Orissa.

Although 20 percent of Kolkata's residents are Muslim, there is no religious tension. A credit to the "communist" previous government, but also to the current chief minister of Bengal. In contrast to the father of India, Narendra Modi, Mamata Banerjee does not rely on religious hatred.

Other than that, it doesn't differ much from Modes. In 2011, Banerjee took up the promise to make Kolkata the London of Asia and to ensure economic growth. In 2013, the Bengali government announced that it would convert Dhapa's rubbish into energy with the help of bio-gas systems.

In the spirit of our Climate Chancellor, it was pointed out that the project would drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It stayed with fine words. It even took until June of this year that the 12 hectares of the waste dump in Dhapa, which had been set aside in 2009, were covered with foil and planted with grass.

Although the economic growth in Kolkata is 4.5 percent, this is mainly due to the construction boom on the outskirts of the city. There, high-rise buildings for the upper middle class are being built out of the ground. In an elaborate report on sand theft, Christian Faesecke showed what the construction boom in all of India also means for the country's already polluted rivers.

The car traffic and German business

In addition, car traffic is not only growing in Kolkata. Over the past decade, Kolkata car registrations have doubled. One of the most important growth engines on earth, as carmakers repeat like a mantra. In May this year, an average of 73,632 vehicles were sold in India every day.

Mercedes was also able to increase sales of its luxury cars by 22.5 percent last year. Further figures make it clear that the auto industry can expect "rosy" times in terms of growth in India. It took the country almost 60 years (1951-2008) to bring 105 million registered cars to the population. India reached the same number between 2009 and 2015.

With Germany and Italy at the top, the European Community is India's largest buyer of tanneries. In the Kanpurs tanneries, which cause particularly bad environmental pollution, the author has also found several German medium-sized companies. There is no information on their websites as to where the leather used in their products comes from. Instead, the usual glossy pictures of happy people and animals.

The names are known to the editors, but are not published here because the rather small companies do nothing other than implement the universally accepted, capitalist economic principle: Buy as cheaply as possible and create economic growth - future generations can deal with the consequences of environmental degradation . To this day, the leather-textile lobby in Germany has successfully managed to keep the country of origin of its goods from the customer.

Narendra Modi may have won so many international awards for his fine words on renewable energy - a study by the government-affiliated think tank NITI Aayog, which is close to the Indian government, shows otherwise.

In 2044, the share of renewable energies will be a meager 10-15 percent, that from coal 42-48 percent. This would correspond to a decline in energy production from coal by almost 15 percent overall, but as India's energy consumption increases, the consumption of coal will also increase by 2037 and thus almost double.

When it comes to greenhouse emissions, India has 1.8 tons of CO per capita2-Emissions per inhabitant are still well below the global average of 4.2 tonnes. Germany is with 11.2 tons of CO2 in a prosperity league that India would still like to join.

Of course, there is also positive news from India. But the pace of progress is so slow that it is being crushed by the relentless urge to grow. The next environmental catastrophe is already approaching in Kolkata ...

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