Magazine article New Internationalist

Mirror, Mirror: Amsterdam Is One of the Most Eco-Aware Capitals in the World. Dinyar Godrej Compares It with His Indian Hometown of Indore

Magazine article New Internationalist

Mirror, Mirror: Amsterdam Is One of the Most Eco-Aware Capitals in the World. Dinyar Godrej Compares It with His Indian Hometown of Indore

Article excerpt

'WHAT a lot of rubbish for just one person,' said 12-year-old Monica peering with characteristic nosiness into the small tin wastebucket in my room. Despite the fact that the contents of the bin were mainly debris from gifts I had brought from the Netherlands for my family in India, and so, strictly speaking, not my rubbish, I couldn't help feeling a twinge of guilt. For the amount of rubbish that issues forth each day from my parents' two-storey house, even at full occupancy, is miniscule.

No food gets thrown away. My mother buys just enough to last for a few days. Her refrigerator is a transit lounge; nothing stays long enough to grow mould. Bottles, boxes, containers never make it to the bin - spices and oil get stored in them, plants start life in them, children lay claim to any cardboard and scribble and paint on it, and sculpt it into 'creations'. Old newspapers are sold off. Old clothing either gets handed down or, if it's the worse for wear, it gets torn into rags that polish shoes, clean windows and mop up after male toilet-goers who have wobbly aim. Tea leaves and eggshells propagate rosebushes and fruit trees.

None of this is taken as evidence of any particular stinginess on my parents' part - it's just common sense. Indeed, I doubt anyone in their right mind in Indore, the city where my parents live and where I grew up, would want to get the reputation of being wasteful, as rubbish here doesn't disappear anonymously in black bags into the cavernous maw of compressor trucks. It gets carried by hand to the local dump, where it lies, odorously, until the open-backed municipal truck comes to cart it away. But before that happens, it will be combed over by rag pickers who retrieve anything recyclable. The containers are invariably broken into to allow access to the squadrons of slate-coloured pigs that patrol the city in search of titbits.

Indore is no green haven - it's sprawling in every possible direction and builders are blocking up every available space with a vengeance. Scooters, three-wheelers and cars choke its streets and its residents. Rates of asthma, especially among children, have surged. Nevertheless, the city survives and indeed thrives with an economy of means that would be the envy of many of its Western counterparts. And, importantly, it lives in its own mess, rather than hurling it halfway across the globe.

As I currently live in the Netherlands, amongst the environmentally sanest of European countries. comparisons shoot across my mind whenever I return to Indore. Though most Westerners are unaware of Indore's existence its population of over 1.4 million beats Amsterdam, the Dutch capital, hands down. However, unlike Amsterdam which isn't growing, Indore's population has tripled since 1971, accreting in concrete folds around the old city. The sleepy residential area where my parents live has had a rude awakening - any house that gets sold is promptly demolished to make way for blocks of flats. Each time I visit they have planted more trees in an attempt to preserve some of the privacy they previously enjoyed.

The residents of Amsterdam have, of course, had a longer period of time to get used to the idea of living on top of each other. The moment the clock strikes ten, legions of the Dutch dash across living rooms to turn down their stereos out of consideration for their neighbours. Houses and gardens don't even begin to figure in an Amsterdammer's scheme of things. The city is compact apart from the suburbs and most distances are walkable. Cars, excepting taxis, are banished from central Amsterdam and, anyway, trying to find a parking space is reputed to take years off one's life. Trams and buses are frequent, and cyclists rule. Wherever possible in Dutch cities, cyclists have their own lanes and people of all ages take to their bikes. So strong is the cycling culture that doctors often advise patients suffering from work-related stress to try cycling to work.

Indeed, environmental consciousness in the public sphere is all-pervasive. …

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