I was recently in India on a month long vacation, after a gap of 3 years. Having lived in the United States for almost a decade now , the differences in lifestyles, cultures and everything really, are noticeable at once. I will be honest, there is an uncontrollable urge to compare the two nations and their people. United states is about standardization, no surprises, well planned and thought out processes. India, anything but any of those things.
From a technologist’s point of view, there is a ton of opportunity in India to change lives and solve real problems. If you follow developments in India, you probably know that the country is in the middle of a huge churn, and currently witnessing tectonic shifts in her development cycle. These shifts present opportunities galore for entrepreneurs, technologists and people wanting to make a change. You cannot miss it.
Obviously India faces a plethora of developmental problems, most of which are well known and documented. However, on this India trip there was one specific observation that I couldn’t help but make — something that was right in front of my eyes all through my life. It is the complete lack and disregard for personal comfort and access to climate control for the majority of Indians.
One of the big yet underreported challenges most Indians face is around personal comfort. Given the tropical , humid climate across the subcontinent and ‘monsoon winds’ playing a significant role you’d think that climate control might be one of the first orders of business — right up there with food, clothing and shelter. Instead, most Indians live without any kind of climate/air conditioning.
2% of Indian households have air conditioning, compare that with 87% of American households.
Without air conditioning a vast majority of Indians are left to the mercy of severe heat waves — thousands die every year of extreme summers and excruciating winters.
So why is that vast majority of Indians are deprived of the basic need for comfort?
Poverty , Power and Priorities
Poverty is the obvious culprit. about 60% of Indian population lives on less than $3.10 per day, dig deeper into that statistic and you will find that nearly 200 million live on less than $1.90 per day.
The cheapest air conditioner is around Rs. 15,000–20,000, 3 months’ salary for 60% of Indians — every single penny they earned for 3 months just to buy an AC. Additionally, India faces acute power shortages, another major reason why running a power hungry air-conditioner is prohibitively expensive and unaffordable for 99% of Indians.
You can already see why most people just cannot have access to air conditioning . When you are earning less than $2.00 per day, you’d be lucky to afford 2 square meals a day. Climate control is the least of your problems. You’ve got to live with it, and that’s exactly what most Indians do. They live with it, waiting for the monsoons to arrive and provide some respite.
Enter swamp coolers
India also has a burgeoning middle class, that makes just enough money to get by and to enjoy certain ‘indulgences’ of life — such as the luxury of basic climate control. Air conditioners are largely still out of budget for this segment of the population, a gap that has been filled by swamp /desert coolers.
Apart from being cheaper (than ACs) Swamp coolers have low operating costs about (70% lower priced costs and 90% lower running costs).
The downside is that they cease to be effective in high humidity areas , actually increasing discomfort when relative is humidity is high outside. Because swamp coolers work on the evaporator cooling technique, for every 10 degree drop in conditioned temperature, coolers almost double the relative humidity — But that trade-off is one that most people (that can afford a Cooler) are willing to make just to be comfortable in the scorching summers.
But how important is comfort really? Especially in a country that is in pursuit of solutions to much more massive problems such as poverty, food security and unemployment? One might ask.
I am not sure what research says, but here’s my 2 cents based on common sense. Personal comfort directly impacts productivity, impacts your quality of life, and overall well-being. I am of the opinion that basic personal comfort is probably as important as food, shelter and water.
Every year, thousands die in the sweltering Indian summers and piercing winters, mostly due to severe heatstrokes and associated diseases. The lack of any climate control in Government offices, schools, public and private installations cost millions of dollars in lost productivity hours. If you are uncomfortable, you are too busy thinking about your own discomfort to solve other pressing problems.
Not long ago as an engineer in India, I remember boarding a fully packed bus daily in the hot and humid summers of Kolkata. Not only was everybody on that bus sweating to the core, but the traffic situation often worsened the commute. One can imagine just how productive everybody on that bus might have been, after having their energy sapped everyday by the time they reached their workplace.
Might Technology have some answers?
When we can have self driving cars, why is creating a ultra low cost air-conditioning system so hard? Or maybe its not an air-conditioner at all. Maybe it’s something else. Technology can solve a lot of problems, but then technologists have a tendency to mould everything into known frameworks. It’s a trap that one must avoid.
No solutions for now, because I don’t have any. But as somebody that builds Internet powered HVAC products , ensuring that people are comfortable matters to me personally — especially the ones that cannot afford it.
Finally, to understand India and what might work one must understand her people, and then craft novel solutions. Find meaningful areas of innovation that will make lives better, meaningfully better.