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Sunday, January 23, 2022

What Copenhagen missed

In the small village of Kalika in Kumaon,Sarla Devi and her daughter spend the day scrounging the forest for firewood.

Written by Gautam Bhatia |
December 22, 2009 2:45:39 am

In the small village of Kalika in Kumaon,Sarla Devi and her daughter spend the day scrounging the forest for firewood. Her son takes the two family cows to pasture within a kilometer of the house,while her husband works as a day labourer for the roads department. The 800 square yards of land the family owns,provides them with seasonal corn,bajra and vegetables; on it is a mud plastered stone house of two rooms. By any measure,Sarla Devi’s family is typical of millions of families in rural India. Its carbon footprint — if the global measure applies — is a mere half ton of carbon per person. Laughable by western standards.

By comparison,the Kapurs of Delhi live a more abundant lifestyle. Two cars and an SUV line the drive of a four-bedroom ground floor flat in Greater Kailash. A commodities trader,Kapur drives to work 30 kilometers a day to NOIDA; his son takes the other car to college,while the SUV is used by the driver for a range of daily chores. Within the house,an assortment of electrical gadgets — two TVs,a fridge,a freezer,three computers,a music system — line the walls. The family lives in a perpetual haze of gadget upgrade and international vacations. At 16 tons per person,their carbon footprint comes close to the American average.

In the desperate urge to replicate the outmoded Western model of development,the Indian government wishes to turn Sarla Devi’s family into the Kapurs within three generations. At a time of enormous challenges in climate science,urbanism and technology,India sets itself imitative goals. Along the worn and tested path,the country’s ambition is to become the America of the 1950s,happily complacent in its middle class affluence,and a state of self-righteous contentment that poses no demands to develop new ideas,or test its will to enact real change. The parallel is not just painfully obvious,but comes at a time of global energy,financial and climate crisis,when the rest of the world is rejecting such growth as wasteful and redundant.

Sadly,the unfortunate consequence of the recent recession did not sting enough or last long enough to forge a corrective path. Buildings are still bloated with excessive services and useless fripperies of luxury,SUVs are still driven long distances to pick up a loaf of bread,and 300 acre golf greens are still being built outside bleached waterless Haryana villages. All set to become tomorrows ruins,caricatures of a way of life that has no future.

But for selecting the venue for the next Copenhagen,the meeting in Copenhagen produced little real change for Sarla Devi or the Kapurs. Even before the world’s experts had descended on the city,the air was tinged with hopelessness. To make the right noises of conciliation if you are rich; to be demanding the rights to pollute if you are poor,the important thing was to be seen to be doing something; even if after Rio,and Kyoto,and now Copenhagen,all that will emerge is a set of unmet targets and a few statistical objectives set so far into the future,that there is little need to alter the course of the present.

When global tragedies — famine,floods,water scarcity,deforestation,tribal wars — strike,they principally affect the poor,so mandating emission cuts in the rich industrial nations,becomes a matter of conscience,a Christian belief that we live in a global world. Deprived of arable land,water and habitation,food and water riots in the poorer countries will spill into the affluent North. The primary motivation to act on climate change is the fear of upheaval in the neighbourhood.

While the rich world self-obsesses over alternative fuels,smart electricity grids,and carbon credits,the poor need a different route. A transfer of technology from the West to curb large scale gas emissions is certainly essential,though less in India’s interest than developing low-scale applicable Indian technologies. If unelectrified villages in Bihar and Jharkhand are beneficiaries of such technology,the burden of conventional electrification becomes unnecessary. Traditional water conservation measures and improving solar cooking technologies are equally essential. A sizable population that lives pre-industrial lives,allows a greater leverage in bypassing the pit falls of conventional growth altogether.

If Sarla Devi’s family has a future it is unlikely to come the Kapur way. To follow an American lifestyle or to create a uniquely Indian one,to build indigenous electric or hybrid cars,solar houses in villages without electricity,or design communities without cars is a pressing Indian need that steps outside the cycle of American consumption. More than ever,the Gandhian message of self reliance that the truly Indian house will be built of materials gathered within a five mile radius of the site is relevant. In it,are solutions that are new,Indian,and entirely without Western lineage.

The writer is a Delhi-based architect

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