What Can India's Poor Teach the World in Sustainability? - India Renewable Energy Consulting – Solar, Biomass, Wind, Cleantech
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Net Zero by Narsi is a series of brief posts by Narasimhan Santhanam (Narsi), on decarbonization and climate solutions.
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When folks call India a developing country, I wonder. Developing? Very initial stages of developing, perhaps? Or, better still, just about think of starting to develop?

You get the idea. With over 500 million people below utter poverty line, hey, it takes some imagination to call ourselves a developing country. But let that not hide the fact that India can still teach a lot to the world.

No, I am not referring to teaching politicians in the US and UK how to erect hundreds of statues for themselves or Indian actors and actresses teaching their counterparts worldwide how to be sycophantic to the core. We can genuinely teach the world some great stuff on sustainability.

If you can, just try imagining yourself to be in what I call an “energy constrained” world, where costs of energy and natural resources (water, pure air) are orders of magnitude higher than what they are today. What would we do? We would be doing something on the following lines:

  • Conserve water like crazy
  • Use electricity as carefully as I’d use my last few rupees
  • Use my hands and feet to do lots of things instead of relying on automated stuff all the time
  • Use bicycles for local transportation
  • Use every bit of the food as if it were the last bit ever available to me

If you are in the western world, or used to the western world’s way of doing things I can see you smirking while reading many of the above, thinking “This is not for me”. Try the above to an average Indian and he’ll probably say, “Hey, so what’s new?”

Use of Water – for bathing, clothes washing

While I do not have ready stats on how exactly much water such a simple switch from using a shower to using a bucket and mug for bathing could save, it is a no-brainer that it is a lot. 90% of India bathes this way – using a bucket and mug. It required quite sometime for me to start using a shower when I started living in the west, and after a month, I switched back to using a bucket there too!

Use of sun for drying clothes

Earlier, I had read of westerners having some untasteful words about the Indians having their clothes spread out to dry outside their homes. These folks were used to the “civilized” way of washing everything using humungous amounts of electricity (a clothes dryer could have 3-4 KW of capacity; using one such a dryer for twenty hours is the same as the total amount of electricity used by a Cambodian for all his purposes for AN ENTIRE YEAR).

Use of bicycles

When I see lots of schoolkids use bicycles for their travel to school (at least in Chennai) I feel gratified. I doubt the Americans and the British do it, though I have a sneaking suspicion that some Scandinavian countries could actually be much better than Indians on this. I am told that in some Scandinavian countries, even government ministers travel by bicycle. Ah, that’s some humility that our netas can learn.

Switching things off when not in use

I recently had some of my close relatives from the US stay in my house, and was really surprised to find that they did not bother to switch off the lights, fans and even AC when they had all left the room. Now, these were all really intelligent and sweet folks, and when I pointed it out to them, they profusely apologised. I asked them how they could have left it like that, and I realized it really was a habit problem – apparently, back in the US, many of them simply did not bother to switch off lights, fans and sometimes even ACs. The following is something all the developed countries can learn from countries like India – the switch is there to turned off when not required!

Using things like mud pots for cooling

If this sounds down to earth, well, you know what, it apparently works pretty well. Until a few years back, we still had mud pots in our homes, before we decided to become “civilized” and waste a lot of electricity by shifting the cooling function to the fridge. I am sure over 95% of India’s villagers have not heard of refrigerator, leave alone using at. For them, mud pots are they have used for keeping the water cool. All right, you cannot get ice-cold water from earthenware pots, but life’s like that.

Oh, by the way, we have just about started using mud pots in our office, I hope it works out all right.

Using public transport

Most Indians use public transport – owing both to a necessity (they don’t have money to buy cars) and the good public transport infrastructure (governments in many parts of India have built reasonably good public transport facilities – both road and rail). The only city in India that is an exception to large-scale use of public transport  is Delhi where you will see cars everywhere and for everything, but even this city is changing, thanks to a fairly effective Delhi Metro (see here and here for more on Delhi Metro).

Rainwater harvesting

With water becoming scarcer and scarcer, there is a real concern that water will be the next oil for many countries worldwide. But in reality, a lot of water is wasted that could be easily put to good use. During rainy seasons, you will see enormous amounts of water going absolutely nowhere in particular, and with an effective rainwater harvesting system, most of this water could go underground in places where it is most required – residences and commercial locations. Recognizing this, some parts of India had made rainwater harvesting mandatory for all homes and commercial buildings, and that is beginning to have its beneficial effects.

Joint families

I still remember my niece telling me a few years back “Mama, why do you Indians live with your parents even after you are thirty years old? In America, we are all independent, and we like to live on our own”.

“Yeah”, I told her, “you are all really independent in America, and of course you do not depend on others. Like you never depended on your parents until you were 15 years old. Like you never depend on nature to provide you with water and sunshine. Like you never depend on your employer to provide you with your salary. Like you never depend on doctors and hospitals to help you when you are in trouble. And like you never depend on your army to defend your country from enemies real and imagined. And like you never depended on your friends and relatives to bail you out when you lost your dollars in the subprime crash. Hey, you guys are indeed the most independent folks in the world”

Sarcasm apart, I think independent living is a myth. None of our lives can be said to be independent, they are all rather interdependent. And that is precisely how nature has meant it to be. In India, you will still find millions of families living the old-fashioned way – parents and cousins and many other members of a family living together. Painful? Yes, sometimes it could be. At the same time, it could also be a pleasure to have many of your folks around you all the time. And it could be a far more sustainable lifestyle, where many of the fixed costs and overheads are shared by many people instead of one or two.

So, there we are. I did not intend this article to be singing praises about India, so my apologies if it had come out looking exceedingly eulogistic. I however strongly believe that for all our faults as a nation, we have a few things that we can indeed teach others. It’s indeed a pity that instead of embracing these habits, many Indians are being swayed by unsustainable western practices.


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About Narasimhan Santhanam (Narsi)

Narsi, a Director at EAI, Co-founded one of India's first climate tech consulting firm in 2008.

Since then, he has assisted over 250 Indian and International firms, across many climate tech domain Solar, Bio-energy, Green hydrogen, E-Mobility, Green Chemicals.

Narsi works closely with senior and top management corporates and helps then devise strategy and go-to-market plans to benefit from the fast growing Indian Climate tech market.


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