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Home / Opinion / Columns /  India’s complicated relationship with air-conditioning

India is a like an Indian who is not poor anymore but still behaves that way because poverty has made him think small. India considers sugar an ‘essential’ and air-conditioning a luxury. If the poor are not miserable, India appears to wonder, what is the whole point of escaping poverty? As with many simple things, India has a complicated relationship with air-conditioning.

Heat surrounds us. Most of India is hot most of the time. Intense heat is an Indian inevitability, yet we treat it as a transient disease for which permanent measures are not required. Indians should not be dying of heat; they should not have to be trapped for hours in steamy cauldrons. That very option should not exist. By now, we should have solved our heat problem. All our trains and buses should have been air-conditioned. But India mostly subsidizes misery, not comfort.

Public transport that is not air-conditioned is very cheap in India. Air-conditioning all of public transport would raise costs many folds. Every time a bureaucrat or politician points this out, a grimace appears on their faces. It is not a reaction to the economics of it, but to the bitterness of imagining the average Indian travelling “in AC". Some officials also say that any expensive public good will be damaged by people, or stolen. But, to begin with, they point out that Indians would not pay more for comfort, even if it is a fraction of the actual cost. In that, they are right.

The average Indian has low standards for life—for beautiful spaces, time, hygiene and comfort. He is willing to wake up at dawn and commute two hours in heat and dust, and return late at night. He plays no sport, does not date and spends very little on fun, even if he is a drinker. He overspends only if there is a sacrificial quality to it—like his child’s education or sister’s wedding.

When I was 21, my employer transferred me to Mumbai and gave me a “second-AC" train ticket. I sold the ticket because I thought air-conditioning was an unnecessary luxury and I could instead use the money to survive my first few weeks in Mumbai. It was one of the most foolish decisions of my life. The 24-hour journey from Madras to Mumbai in peak summer in a hot metal box was pure misery. I did not anticipate how much water I would need, and had to go thirsty for long spells; and in any case, the fake bottled-water at stations seemed more dangerous than dehydration. People fainted, and that seemed to be usual on such journeys. I was ashamed of how small my thinking had become. Society should have trained me to be generous to myself; instead, it had made me feel vulgar about travelling “in AC" when money had more sacred uses.

Across all rungs of India’s poor and middle-class, there is a miserliness that is somewhat respectfully known as “price consciousness". This ‘consciousness’ deems quality of life an inessential aspect of life. All our social pettiness is embodied in this. Yet, it has a sacred aura, as though we must speak of this miserliness only with great compassion. This is because observers of Indian miserliness, like economists, entrepreneurs, bureaucrats, politicians, journalists and writers, have never been poor, and they make some poor guesses. They seem to think that choosing suffering over comfort, and ugliness over beauty is the right of people who feel poor. I don’t agree. Indian ‘price-consciousness’ is a way of thinking and it is often an expensive choice. It has undocumented co-morbidities. People die trying to save money. The nation itself loses more by not spending enough. Take, for instance, why we don’t shut the doors of local trains in Mumbai.

Every day, thousands of men dangle from the doorways of those local trains as though to gape at something extraordinary that has occurred outside. Hundreds fall off and die annually. Yet, these trains haven’t installed automatic doors—because there are so many people aboard, they would suffocate if the doors were shut. The answer is to have trains air-conditioned, but they are not because Mumbai commuters would rather travel in this manner—dangling, sweating— than pay more for tickets. Many of them can afford to live better, but they will not.

In surveys conducted by the Indian Railways and others as part of Mumbai’s long contemplation of underground transit, an overwhelming majority of train commuters said that between travelling in humid compartments and paying more for AC, they would prefer misery. It is the same story in other cities. Metro systems have sprung up across India despite the average Indian’s threat that he will not pay for the service.

Until a few years ago, when Uber and other taxi-hailing apps transformed these services in India, a local commute was a humid affair. If you did not have a car, and you happened to perspire profusely, you arrived for a meeting drenched, as though it was raining. As a reporter, I have met many important figures in shirts that had become translucent. To maintain poise and hold on to your dignity in that state was an art form.

Mumbai did have air-conditioned taxies and they were blue to signify coolness. There were not many of them and their distinction somehow gave their drivers the confidence to fleece you. In any case, their air-conditioners did not work very well.

You needed to own a car in Mumbai to arrive at a place dry, until Uber and other taxi-hailing apps started operations. But Indians are so ‘price conscious’ that these services are unable to maintain minimal standards of quality. The cabs are unreliable, dirty and always white. I have wandered so far away from my Indian roots that I would pay 100 extra for an Uber that is not white.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, novelist, and the creator of the Netflix series, ‘Decoupled’

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