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"In the past India has explained its failure to clean up its act by pleading poverty, noting that richer countries were once just as dirty and that its output of filth per person still lags far behind theirs." What does it mean by "clean up its act by pleading poverty"?

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    You are parsing the sentence incorrectly. It is not "clean up its act by pleading poverty". It is "explained its failure by pleading poverty". India failed to clean up its act, and claimed poverty as the reason.
    – michael.hor257k
    Commented Dec 13, 2018 at 13:11

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You are parsing the sentence incorrectly.

In the past India has explained its failure to clean up its act by pleading poverty...

This sentence means:

  1. India has failed to clean up its act.
  2. India has claimed that poverty is the reason it has failed to do so.

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