Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Green India

You have to be here for a while before you realize just how little waste, how little environmental load there is per Indian citizen. When you first arrive from the US or North America, you see traffic, dust, smoke, and for that reason you can miss what’s really going on.

Sensible high-rise design: Bangalore unfortunately has a few wall-o-windows high-rise buildings, which must be a nightmare to keep cool here within 14 degrees latitude of the equator. But more recently constructed apartment buildings have come to a better understanding of their environment. Our apartment building, like most of recent construction, has a sort of staggered fa├žade, with lots of balconies and terraces and protruding horizontal and vertical slabs of concrete. The balconies are nice in their own right, a place to sit or hang laundry, but the main effect is that almost every window in the building is shaded between 8:30 and 3:30, which makes a huge difference in comfort and A/C use.

Commuting: Most high-tech companies facilitate or indeed subsidize a sort of carpooling, running seven-passenger SUVs over regular routes to apartment buildings and neighborhoods where the employees live. My company main building is on a side road about 500 meters back from the public bus stop out on the main road. Not a huge distance, but just the sort of thing that could tip the scales towards someone’s taking their own vehicle instead of the bus. My company runs the minivans continuously to and from the bus stop during peak commute hours. Buses run all over town, on most routes at only three or four-minute intervals.

“Smart-grid”: So-called smart-grid and smart-meter technology is coming to the US eventually. Renewable energy sources like wind and solar are not always perfectly matched to the instantaneous demand. Yes, one can “store electricity” to use during peak periods but that can be costly. It will likely be easier to instead modulate demand, by charging more or less during the day, and by offering consumers incentives to use their high-power devices only when green power is plentiful. Much of that is already happening in Bangalore, albeit in a rough-and-ready way. There’s not much by way of renewable energy here, but many apartment buildings do have two sources of electricity: expensive, dirty power (diesel gensets) and cheaper, cleaner power (utility-provided electricity). The utility isn’t able to meet demand at times, and we fall back on the expensive back-up gensets. Our relatively modern apartment is wired with three different circuits, for AC and hot water, for other high-current devices, and for lights. When the utility is overloaded, it institutes rolling blackouts around the city, and when our apartment complex is hit, our diesel genset turns on automatically and its power is allocated to different circuits in the building depending on the level of demand. In the morning, everyone wants to heat hot water, so if the utility dumps us then, we certainly don’t have enough diesel power for hot water. In our apartment, we do a sort of manual smart-grid. Some nights before I go to bed I run the electric water heater for 15 minutes, and then turn it off. In the morning, if the power is off, I can use the still-warm water in the heater for a shower which is, if not piping hot, at least plenty warm to start off a day that will likely top 35 C anyway. With a “smart” hot water heater talking to a smart grid, and better insulation on the heater, we’d basically never notice that the power was out. I anticipate that eventually most US residents will be moving electricity demand around in a similar way.

Low-waste: It’s rare to see food left on trays at my company cafeteria. One is strongly encouraged to take only what one can eat. Posters on the wall chart the cumulative kilograms of food wasted (left on trays to be scraped into buckets by the dishwashers) over the course of the month. Can we do better next month?

Most hand-washing areas don’t have paper towel. Where I work, there are paper towels, but I’ve never seen anyone take more than one to dry their hands. Many men in any case by habit ignore the paper towel and reach for a clean handkerchief kept in their pocket for exactly this purpose. Others just give their hands a good shaking to get the water off -- it dries in few minutes anyway. When there’s no paper towel, the shaking’s what I do, but I often surreptitiously use my pant leg to help with drying, just like I see the Indian guy leaving ahead me do.

Recycling: No, as upper middle class consumers here in India we don’t separate our trash stream. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t get separated. Recycling is happening in locations which are, from our point-of-view, behind the scenes. It’s driven not by “green conscience” or government mandate but by profit motive. It’s made possible by low labor costs or more precisely by the very high ratio of the cost of raw materials to the cost of labor. You see it all going on out of the corner of your eye. As the maid is heading out the door of your apartment with the trash, she is already pulling out the plastic bottles. On the roads around town we see flat-bed trucks with huge bags of crushed plastic bottles lashed to the back. They weigh hardly anything, so the truck can carry as much as the trucker is able to lash on – the load towers high over the cab and bulges way out over the edges of the truck bed.

Compostables: the maids don’t seem to mess with that stuff, but someone does. Here is what I observe: here at the very edge of Bangalore, we live in a neighborhood of apartment complexes interspersed with vacant lots filled with scruffy dry weeds. In patches in the middle of these vacant lots, piles of organic refuse, (peelings, stalks, cobs…) appear and gradually get bigger over a period of some days. When I first saw this, I thought “ew, we live next to a garbage dump.” But they aren’t random piles – in some cases their boundaries are marked out by cinder blocks. About once a week or a little more often, a small herd of cows appear. The cowherd tethers them to the cinder blocks at night but lets them wander over the vacant lot during the day. The cows don’t have much use for the weeds but they love the kitchen refuse. The cows reprocess the compostable stuff into milk and manure. I’ve seen the cowherd milking the cows into a bucket, but I’ve not been able to follow the process from there – does she sell it to consumers, or to a milk processor? The milk we buy here at the supermarket, ultra-pasteurized and plastic-bagged, did it first spend a few hours in a pail in an urban vacant lot? Every morning I have a bowl of home-made yogurt at our little restaurant. It was thoroughly boiled of course before it was set out to curdle, and is completely safe. Did the chef buy the milk from our neighborhood cowherd? As for the manure, yep, I’ve seen people collecting the cowpies as well, whether for fertilizer, fuel, or paint, I don’t know. I wonder how the economics of all this work. Does the cowherd pay the trash collector to sort out and leave the kitchen waste in the vacant lot? Does someone in the employ of our apartment complex sort out the garbage so that we residents can pay less, for a smaller volume of trash collection? Are the rights to collect manure from this herd also sold, the neighborhood cow-dung franchise?

On the topic of cowherds: Last week I saw five cows being herded from one vacant lot to another by a teenaged boy on a bike. I had to stare at the scene for a moment to understand why the bike seemed to make so much difference. Then it came to me – a cowherd on a bike is a mounted cowherd, and a mounted cowherd isn’t a cowherd at all, but a cowboy, a major step up the social ladder, or so it seems to my American mindset.

By the way, here in Bangalore, if you happen to be willing to do your own waste-stream separation, more power -- and money -- to you. We’re told that if you are willing to take the time to separate out and bale and twine your used newspaper, a guy will stop by your apartment to collect it and actually pay you for it.

As our stay in India comes to an end, an unanswered question in my mind is, can a country like the US, where average salaries are much higher compared to the cost of raw stuff, ever do as well as India does in terms of having a low environmental load per person? The professional motivation for my sabbatical here was explicitly to learn about technology related to sustainable energy. In many ways, that's been a big success. I know much more about the nitty-gritty of heat transfer, for instance, than I did three months ago. But both in India and now back in Colorado (as I get ready to finally post this we've actually been home a few days now) I found myself thinking a lot also about money.


  1. What a thought-provoking post! My husband (the economist in our family) always says when the US is serious about recycling they will pay us to do it. How interesting that they do that in Bangalore. Maybe we can also reward people for reducing power use and tax them for excessive use? Good ideas there

  2. I haven't checked in on the Bangalore Sabbatical blog for a few months, and now I guess it is too late. But this was really interesting.

  3. HI There,
    It is so strange that just when I wonder about 9yr olds' concern and anger over bathroom paper towel usage(wastage) here that he sees(amidst many other environmental and pollution concerns) as he often complains about, I find this post!!
    And I am not sure how I got here!

    My son comes out of the public bathrooms with dripping wet hands or uses his shirt to wipe. He refuses to use the paper towels. He gets so upset with people here who take out multiple towels and just toss it in the garbage. He wants to tell each and everyone not to do it...But for him, I went with the handkerchief idea that my home country had taught me:).

    This is a very nice post. Thanks for sharing.

    And we will also be taking a sabbatical year coming Aug in Bangalore...Cannot wait for my kids to see some good, and some good becoming bad in India...:)


  4. Hi! I'll be taking my family to Bangalore during my sabbatical next spring 2012. Do you have any advice on schools/neighborhoods/any thing else to plan for? My kids will be 8 and 10.


  5. hello sir
    i am alpha
    your information is really
    thank you sir
    green Bangalore