January 1997, LAX. Can I have a doughnut, please? I had asked, hesistantly, pointing to the “treats” behind the now streaked glass case. “Um.. A bagel, you mean?,” the server replied.
I knew right then that, despite my long-term love-hate relationship with America, there was a lot that I didn’t know about America! Carrying a suitcase full of spices, and a couple of hundred dollars, I was “fresh off the boat”.
A decade later, I know the difference between a bagel and a doughnut. I have an Indian-American accent – one that amuses the friend I am calling, in India.
During the early days of India’s relaxed economy, he used to wonder if he had missed the boat to easy comfort and opportunity. Now, not a day goes by when I, in my unemployed state, don’t hear about India Rising! or America Sliding!
I connect with him just as he is headed out to the driving range near his swanky new apartment in Gurgaon – an outsourcing hub outside of New Delhi. His 5-year old is eager to start skating lessons at the rink close-by! No such amenities adjoin my tiny, rental unit in Berkeley, California.
He works in a multi-national architecture firm designing offices and malls, that populate the townships, which his wife, an urban planner, churns out at the frenetic rate of nearly one per week!
These shining towers of India’s new economy are grossly ill-suited to its blasting summers. Air-conditioning them, squeezes India’s already inadequate power resources.
Unlike indigenous Indian architecture that minimizes energy and strengthens local economy by responding to local climate, materials and building techniques – these transplanted resource guzzlers use up gobs of energy to transport materials, equipment, and international sustainable design consultants.
In 2001, the Indian Government started the Bureau of Energy Efficiency to form a Building Energy Code for India. Ironically, the task of drafting that code was “outsourced” to my San Francisco employer.
Why were American energy experts chosen over well-qualified (and cheaper) ones in India? I felt chagrined! Perhaps, American consultants, and an American-style code, were not entirely inappropriate for the cookie-cutter glass boxes that were no different from those crowding the urban downtowns and office parks of America.
However, India didn’t need a mandate or international consultants to learn how to make modern, green buildings. Two years before the draft code was adopted, India gave the world its greenest building at the time. In 2004, the Confederation of Indian Industry’s Green Business Centre became the most sustainable building under LEED, a voluntary US sustainable design rating system and adopted worldwide.
The building energy code was a step in the right direction, but its effectiveness has been 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 intentionally over-designed to accommodate its routine circumvention by greedy contractors. But, buildings continue to collapse and kill people, despite that. A sluggish judicial system has done little to discourage this evil practice. In a ludicrous twist of fate, the Bureau of Energy Efficiency has been one of the chief hurdles to the code’s timely adoption.
While the building energy code is a good step towards sustainable growth, an equitable distribution of resources is just as critical.
These outsourcing hubs suck power and water away from India’s villages, resulting in droughts and poor farm yields. Industrial farming and monoculture, another fallout of globalization, exacerbate this problem by stripping the soil of all its nutrients. The recent spike in farmer suicides can be directly linked to low yields and their inability to pay the debt that comes with buying non-renewable seeds and fertilizers, used to supposedly boost harvest.
Failed farms, and tantalizing Western products have forced greater migration into cities. Once here, a growing economic disparity pushes the urban poor to crime to stay afloat.
In a country, where two-thirds of the population grows food to sustain the beneficiaries of globalization, supporting these farmers is imperative for long-term success. A return to small farms, crop rotation, renewable farm-generated seeds, and a solid infrastructure, is a good start, along with a reliable bureaucracy and judiciary.
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.
India’s economic success, global visibility and confidence, have definitely empowered the middle-class to demand an investment in India’s villages, which would secure the comfort and opportunities that, for years, Indians went to find in the West.
For little children, that means skating and swimming. For young architects, that means a car, an uninterrupted supply of hot water, a kitchen without rambunctious rats, and a roof that keeps the rain out!
“Have a nice day!” says my friend, as he heads out to putt. Oceans away from me, he has become more American, too! Just as we have morphed into our semi-American identities, India will need to seize the best of this continental transplant to create a culture that is uniquely Indian – exactly as it has done through its long history of foreign invasions.