The Missing Pieces

04/03/2008 02:43 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Pune-Bombay, Aboard the Deccan Queen -- India reminds me of a jigsaw puzzle, one in which some tricksters have hidden many of the pieces under the sofa or behind dusty volumes on the bookshelf. (Perhaps the tricksters are the ever-present monkeys, like those running along the railroad track as our train heads down the Western Ghats?) Once again, for the umpteenth time on this journey, I have had to reset my frame of reference. India's megalopolises, Bombay and Delhi, exude a breathless sense of scale -- scale and change that seem to be in charge of people. There are opportunities as never before; people seize them with energy and opportunity; and if enough of them are green, then this country might leapfrog directly into the low-carbon 21st century. But it's all so big that you can't really grasp it.

Pune is a university and army town -- several million people strong and growing even faster than Bombay. Its road system was designed when the population was 300,000, so it's choking on traffic alone. The University of Pune has more than 500,000 students -- putting Ohio State to shame. Yet its civic leadership still feels, and acts, like it's in charge. The hills surrounding the city are both dearly beloved and threatened by developers, and local environmental activists are responding and perhaps winning.

The Pune edition of the Times of India has a dozen stories related to global warming and energy. One is a report on my speech to the University, but another reports that the city has required senior officers to leave their cars and scooters at home one day a week and walk, bicycle, or use mass transit. The predictable result is a sudden awareness of how bad the transit system is -- but a local scooter manufacturer may fight efforts to build light rail. The dynamics are familiar U.S. ones -- civic leaders and environmental groups trying to get ahead of the curve and prepare for the future, while special interests like developers and vehicle manufacturers fight back. It's like being at a Sierra Club meeting in the U.S.

So India is not all breathless Bombay and Delhi. But it's not all Pune either. The newspaper reports on Mohri, a small village near Pune -- 27 very poor shepherd families. A local company, Aar-em Electronics, has installed solar panels in the village, giving each family two LED-powered lights. Solar streetlamps and a communal television set. Solar-powered clean drinking water is next. But the irony of this story is that Mohri, I suspect, now has a more technologically advanced, if still small-scale, lighting system than anyplace in the U.S. That's what we mean by "leapfrog into the 21st century."