Some final impressions from New Delhi, as I head home after a brief vacation in Greece (highlight: running the Athens Classic Marathon this past Sunday)â€¦
One of the most interesting people I met during my trip to India was Sheila Dikshit, the chief minister of Delhi and one of the nationâ€™s leading environmentalists. A group of us from FORTUNE had a delightful dinner at her home one evening, and I returned a couple of days later with a Time Inc. camera crew to interview her. (Iâ€™ll post a link here when the video goes up on the Internet.) In her nine years as Delhiâ€™s chief minister, which is the rough equivalent of mayor, this veteran Congress Party politician has seen to it that all 90,000 (!) of the cityâ€™s buses and auto-rickshaws run on compressed natural gas rather than gasoline. The city had been ordered to clean up its fleet by the Supreme Court, but getting the job done was a massive undertaking, involving, as it did, retrofitting the vehicles, creating fueling stations and reliable sources of gas. Minister Dikshit has also overseen the development of Delhiâ€™s modern metro, which has eased traffic congestion and pollution. (It hasnâ€™t erased either. Constant, honking horns are inescapable on the streets of Delhi.) She has also had about TK million trees planted which, she told me, was a way to share her love of nature with the cityâ€™s children. Delhi, as a result, is a measurably cleaner, greener city than ever before. In a nation where poverty trumps the environment as a pressing issue, this is no small matter. Getting anything on this scale done in India isnâ€™t easy which is why I was impressed with the 69-year-old minister. She comes across as a sweet, soft-spoken grandmotherly type but I have no doubt that underneath she is tough as nails.
Less encouraging were a series of interviews that I did about Indiaâ€™s energy needs. They are enormous. Nearly half of the vast nationâ€™s 1 billion people are not connected to the electricity grid. Those who are connected to power lines endure periodic blackouts. With the economy growing briskly, demand for electricity will continue to outpace supply. Soâ€”although thereâ€™s considerable interest in renewables, particularly wind energy, and strong evidence that solar power will grow rapidly, tooâ€”even the most ardent environmentalists believe that India will burn more coal in the years ahead. Dr. Ritu Mathur, an economist with an NGO called the Tata Energy and Resources Institute, told me: â€œUnfortunately, India does not have too many choices. Coal-based generation will need to be the mainstay of electric power generation for the next 20 or 30 years.â€ India has got lots of domestic coal but itâ€™s dirty and has a low caloric value, so it is already importing coal from China, Australia and Indonesia. What this means (and I say this reluctantly) is that the best alternative for India may be so-called clean coal technology, which would capture and store carbon dioxide. The Indian government doesnâ€™t have the money to do R&D on clean coal technology; assistance from the west could prove critical. Because we all share the same global atmosphere, greenhouse gases emitted by burning coal in India will contribute to global warming everywhere. Itâ€™s in our interests to help India find to grow economically while avoiding the wasteful and polluting practices institutionalized in the U.S.
Finally, I witnessed a small miracle on the outskirts of Delhi, at a place called Yamuna Biodiversity Park. A professor from the University of Delhi named C.R. Babu gave me a tour of this surprisingly peaceful outpost, which just five years ago was entirely barren. The soil was degraded by pollution, and almost no plants or animals could survive. (That morning, too, I was accompanied by a Time Inc. camera crew, producing video, so my notes are sketchy.) Using only biological inputs and no chemical fertilizers, scientists improved the soil by planting specific grasses. Since they, they have gradually planted more than 51,000 trees, of numerous varieties, which have led to a return of insects and birds to the site. Ducks, herons, cormorants have settled nearby and wild cats, porcupines and boar have been spotted nearby. In a city of an estimated 15 million, the park is now thriving, and school children come through all the time. They learn that the power of nature to regenerate itself, with a little help, is truly remarkable.