Sunil Sethi

Journalist in Delhi

The air-conditioned nightmare

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Column in Business Standard, July 31, 2015

Coming out of an evening show of Neeraj Ghaywan’s tremendous movie Masaan this week, we nipped across the street to the famous food court below the Nehru Place metro station to get a quick bite. South Delhi’s janata was out in full cry, and most things about the place were enjoyable: a variety of cuisines at reasonable prices, filtered water at water-coolers and plenty of seating. There was just one creeping source of discomfort: the air conditioning was on at full blast. It was very, very cold; given the muggy evening outside I found myself briskly striding up and down to crank up some body heat. Earlier in the cinema I noticed that many in the audience had come armed with hoodies and light wraps for protection.

Much of the country may labour under sweltering weather conditions, regular power cuts, rising electricity bills, debt-laden power plants and distribution companies, but in parts of metropolitan India, indoor temperatures seem to edge towards the arctic zone. Am I the only one who like Charlie Brown longs to drag a security blanket through seminar rooms, TV studios and high-level government offices? Not quite. Two Scottish friends, accustomed to icy Hebridean gusts, recently arrived from monsoonal Kolkata with fuzzy heads and snivelling colds. The culprit was their five-star hotel in the City of Joy. “If you turned the AC down the room became unbearably damp, if you turned it up we shivered under the covers.” After a convivial gathering the other evening, a friend’s waspish text the next morning read: “Felt bludgeoned by AC’s polar chill at dining table. Was it directed at me?”
The Indian air-conditioning industry is on a roll. Pegged at about Rs 15,000 crore and growing at a steady 20 per cent annually (the same as China’s), this summer – according to a survey in Mint – was a bonanza. The overall sector registered a 50-60 per cent increase in the month of June, announced the head of Videocon’s AC division; between March and June Voltas reported a jump of more than 50 per cent in sales. LG, which controls just under a quarter of market share, expects institutional sales to double in the second half this year.

In many of Delhi’s middle-class neighbourhoods, its sprawl of government housing for example, energy-efficient air coolers in windows are now increasingly replaced by power-guzzling ACs. Much of the galloping growth is spurred by new suburban construction where office and residential spaces with full power backup command premium prices.

Yet, mercifully, AC penetration in the country is only about 3-3.5 per cent, and though expected to double in the next three years, it’s a fraction of the 90 per cent of American households that use at least one. According to Stan Cox, author of Losing Our Cool, air conditioning in the US “has a global-warming impact equivalent to every US household driving an extra 10,000 miles per year”. That is about 100 million tons of CO2 emissions from power plants.

For its ruinous consumption of fossil fuels, not to speak of an unhealthy addiction to living in “hermetically sealed igloos”, a long piece in the Boston Globe wonders whether anti-AC crusaders can achieve the traction of campaigns reserved for recycling waste, using hybrid cars or banning plastic bags. For a technology that was invented in 1902 and first used in the late 1930s, surely life flourished in the pre-AC age? Will Internet servers that depend on climate control, go up in flames, or skyscrapers stop functioning, the writer asks? As a small beginning in India, the Bureau of Energy Efficiency has now started ranking Indian AC brands with a star rating, with a score of five for the most energy efficient (Daikin is the winner).

Without being unduly nativist, the new research suggests a lifestyle change, given that our bodies can quickly acclimatise to substantial temperature variations. Not all of it is hardship regimen from a Gandhian ashram – rearranging work hours, dressing cool, swimming instead of cycling is conducive to reducing the contagion of AC dependency. The late Charles Correa often warned of India’s “air-conditioned nightmare” and championed a radical change in architectural practice – low-rise buildings with verandas, basements and terraces that relied on natural ventilation adapted to Indian conditions. But the British playwright Noel Coward summed up life without air conditioning best of all in a famous ditty called Mad Dogs and Englishmen:
In tropical climes/ There are certain times / Of day
When all the citizens retire
To take their clothes off and perspire…
In Bengal / To move at all / Is seldom if ever done.
But mad dogs and Englishmen
Go out in the midday sun

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