The Paradox of Missing the Boat

16 Aug

“A doughnut, please”, I had asked.

“A bagel, you mean?” the server replied.

It was the January of 1997. With a suitcase full of spices and a head full of dreams, I had just arrived at Los Angeles International Airport. Despite my long-time passion for American music and literature, there was a lot I didn’t know about America. I was “fresh off the boat”.

A decade later, I know the difference between a bagel and a doughnut. My English has a hybrid Indian-American accent, one that I consciously avoid while catching up with an old friend I had studied architecture with in India.

My early stories from America made him wonder if he had “missed the boat”. Now, not a day goes by when I don’t read about “Incredible India”. “India Rising!” “Is India Shining?” Nor does a day go by when I don’t read about America’s rapidly sliding international reputation. Listening to him today, I wonder if it’s I who “missed the boat”.

He is leaving the driving range near his large, swanky apartment in Gurgaon. Located outside Delhi, Gurgaon is one of India’s outsourcing hubs. His apartment building has a pool, and an adjoining ice-skating rink. His five-year old, is excited to start his lessons! No such amenities adjoin my small rented apartment in Berkeley, California.

He works in a multi-national architecture firm, which spews out glitzy offices and malls, to populate the townships that his wife churns out at the frenetic rate of nearly one per week! These glass towers are grossly ill suited to India’s blasting summers. Cooling them places a huge demand on the country’s already strained energy resources. So, in 2001, the Indian government created the Bureau of Energy Efficiency, and initiated a code for energy-efficient building design.

In an ironic reversal of the “outsourcing” trend, my former San Francisco employer was hired to draft the code that buildings, such as those designed by my friend, will have to meet. I felt chagrined. Was it really necessary to choose a largely American team over the indigenous, brilliant, and cheaper energy-efficiency experts? I felt chagrined. I suppose American consultants, and a code based on an American standard, were not entirely inappropriate for the new cookie-cutter Indian boxes that are no different from those crowding the urban downtowns and office parks of America.

In contrast, traditional Indian architecture, is born out of a response to the local climate and materials. This minimizes the energy used for air-conditioning and transporting materials, and strengthens grassroots economy. But these transplanted energy guzzlers, which prompted the code in the first place, will mean expending more energy to transplant high-cost, high-tech materials, and equipment from the West, to meet the code. Till India has enough trained personnel and resources to fill the demand for Western style services necessitated by the code, it will have to be contracted to international firms, such as my former employer, at much higher costs – in a paradoxical move away from Gandhi’s economic model of self-reliance.

However, India didn’t need a Western-based code to wake up to high-tech, sustainable buildings. It had the capability to give the world its “greenest” building (at the time), two years before the draft code was adopted. In 2004, the Confederation of Indian Industry’s Green Business Centre in Hyderabad became the first building to achieve the highest measure of sustainability under LEED, a voluntary sustainability rating system designed in the US, and adopted worldwide.

Although the code intends a broader enforcement of energy efficiency, its effectiveness is hostage to India’s beleaguering bureaucratic system, whose middlemen and bribes make it possible to flout any well-intentioned mandate. For example, the structural mandate of the National Building Code is vastly over designed to accommodate its routine circumvention (and potentially fatal structural failures) by greedy contractors. A unreliable judicial system has done little to discourage this evil practice. In a ludicrous twist of fate, the Bureau of Energy Efficiency has posed the biggest hurdle to the energy code’s timely adoption.

While the energy code is a good step towards promulgating sustainability, an equitable distribution of resources is just as critical. The outsourcing hubs suck power and water away from villages, resulting in environmental degradation, and increased droughts. The shift towards industrial farming forces cash crops and expensive, non-renewable seeds from multi-national corporations cause indebted farmers to commit suicide when crops fail. In a country, where two-thirds of the population grows food for the beneficiaries of the high-tech revolution, a return to small subsistence farms, mixed farming, renewable farm-generated seeds, and investing in rural infrastructure is crucial. Increased cost of living, tantalizing Western products, and growing disparity, could also push the urban poor to crime to stay afloat.

However, it’s not all gloom and doom, or a betrayal of the country’s founding principle of self-reliance. The outsourcing phenomenon has catapulted India into a noticeable economic power. It retains skilled professionals by enabling comforts and opportunities that, for years, Indian professionals went to find in the West. For young architects, it means a car, hot water, a kitchen without rambunctious rats, and a roof that keeps the rain out. For little children, it means ice-skating and swimming lessons.

Aristotle believed that “the most perfect political community is one in which the middle class is in control”, while Gandhi believed in building the nation bottom-up. Global exposure and economic empowerment, has definitely positioned the middle-class stronger than ever to demand bureaucratic efficacy, a reliable justice system, and investment in India’s villages, which is necessary if India has to keep “shining”.

As my friend is heading out to enjoy the pleasures of a liberal economy, he says, “Have a nice day!” Oceans away from me, he has become more American, too! Just as we have comfortably morphed into our hybrid identities, India will need to seize the best of this seamless global transfer, and create a culture that is uniquely Indian – exactly as it has done throughout its long history of invasions.

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One Response to “The Paradox of Missing the Boat”

  1. aninditakali August 23, 2007 at 9:56 pm #

    your article is indeed thought provoking , truly reflecting the paradoxes that we are currently goinf through.
    No doubt , india is shining, but the more it is shining, darker are its shadows, more heart wrenching , the task ahead for all of us to , the planners , lawmakers, citizen forums is to strategize ways for addressing these shadow zones.
    may be in our own ways we are tryingto do our little bit, but…..

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