Duplicate India

Several years ago on a visit to rural Gujarat, I was surprised to hear a labourer at a construction site humming an 1863 American civil war song.
Having only just returned from the US, I was familiar with the popular When Johnny comes marching home again, Hurrah!, but couldn’t understand the connection between the two.

As it turned out, the American melody had been clearly lifted for a popular Bollywood movie.
The recent history of Indian objects, film, design, industry and inventions states unequivocally that copying is a standard method of Indian creativity. For something to be truly Indian and high quality, it must have come from abroad. The IT industry has proved that in substantial measure. California-based firms create the invention; Bengaluru provides the software support and manpower to facilitate. European steel companies consolidate and modernise the manufacturing process; then Indian companies follow. The Japanese bring automotive technology to India; Indians make it their own.
So used is the Indian mind to borrowing the best from other cultures that the assumption that native skills are incapable of producing anything of value has been sadly stapled to our psyche. Two decades earlier, Indian businessmen travelled abroad to European industrial fairs and American speciality stores merely to pick up items that could be duplicated in India for a third of the cost, and then resold to the country of origin. Grimy workshops in Jalandhar and Rajkot were kept busy duplicating German machine parts, American denim and English cutlery: It was a matter of great national pride that the world’s most successfully selling items and ideas could be copied in India. American shaving blades, Japanese televisions, and Korean cars… in the face of such foreign competition, Indian productivity and inventiveness was highly suspect. If you must copy, copy the best.
Why does India continue its slavish dependence on foreign ideas? Why is there no thought given to how we’d like to fashion our own lives? Is the country merely a second-rate conduit for the adaptation of informed and innovative minds from abroad?
Even now, despite an open, globalised economy, the more relevant research and invention comes from abroad. In a small town in northern Sweden, Lars Lundgren, a mechanical engineer has invented a dust vacuum. A 30-inch high, noiseless conical device that absorbs the dust in a room; small, battery operated, it requires no movement, just a place on the floor. Surrounded by snow for a good part of the year, Lundgren’s invention was inspired by the few years he spent in Algeria, where high dust levels would make such a device useful and necessary. In Japan, only recently the Kuchofuku Company has designed an air-conditioned jacket. A bulky enclosing overcoat that draws air through a set of fans inserted along the side, and keeps the wearer cool for up to 11 hours on a single battery charge. A few successive heat waves in Japan were enough to get Hiroshi Ishigawa to produce the device that does away with the expensive conventional cooling of whole buildings. “Air conditioning people is a whole lot cheaper,” he said. Likewise, other ideas prevail. Germany — despite high levels of cloud cover — relies heavily on solar power for its energy needs. The vast acreage of solar farms is visible from the air all across the German landscape.
All three devices — the dust collector, the air-conditioned jacket and solar power — are essential to Indian needs. Yet all these inventions are from the West (Japan is so far East that it is West). In the search for solutions that are radical and far reaching, the Indian mind is mired in the belief of a second-rate culture, unable to produce anything on par — or better — than others. So there are lengthy study trips abroad, to experience first-hand how the Brazilians designed their BRTs, the Swedes their Public Health Systems, the Italians their electrical grids.
Where the serious needs and requirements demand local resolutions, the Indian mind conversely works in the opposite direction. The low-cost bio-fuel car, or the electric hybrid may be a critical need for the Indian road, but serious work is being done primarily in Brazil and Japan. Instead, expansion in the Indian car market is heading into the luxury segment, the Bentleys, the SUVs, leather-padded interiors and gas-guzzling machines. Where the requirement for low-cost middle- and low-income houses is growing rapidly, a similar propagation of high-end designer homes is being promoted by builders. So while Indian architects design lavish marble polyester palaces with pools and gardens and tinkling fountains, a Japanese architect has invented a home no larger than an average garage. A 10-foot cube that contains all the requirements for a complete house — living, dining, kitchen, bedroom and bath, compressed and expanded as the need arises, from the walls of the cube.
Doubtless there are many organisations in India — public and private — that carry out serious research in the hope of new applications. Yet much of the work promotes ideas that are merely improvements on existing ones; a more efficient car, a faster train, a greener house. The techniques and methods adopted are those that can justify financial expenditure in research with quick results. The long-term remains clearly out of their grasp. What would India be like in 20 years is a question of statistics and demographics. What would we like India to be in 20 years is a hope that rests within the realm of ideas. Unless the culture of copying changes, we know India will just be a poor version of an American suburb.

Gautam Bhatia, architect, artists and writer, has built extensively in India and the US

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