Here are six concrete ways India can build a better future (Step 1: Stop using concrete)

India can have better infrastructure with better technology.
India can have better infrastructure with better technology.
Image: Reuters/Arko Datta
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We spend too much attention and energy on the Union Budget. It focusses on doing more things. It’s about building more roads, more low income housing, allowing investment, changing tax structures and of course, about telling us how badly the government has been doing this.

We pay too little attention to building things better, so that they last, and they cost less to maintain. So that they stay built, and free us up to focus on building other newer things in the future. We often don’t address the “better” piece in a budget and, in order to protect the incumbent, established and inefficient industries, actually disincentivize newer technology.

Here are a few things that we can change.

Making better roads and bridges with high-density polystyrene

The very material that we call “thermocol” is very rigid and tough, at a higher density. It has been used since 1972 in Norway to construct roads, as a filler that can replace soil or gravel, while we widen or build new roads. It resists compression, but the most important part is that it is very light and easily transportable (and can be cut on site). Also called Expanded PolyStyrene (EPS) or Geofoam, it has been used to build fills for bridges, for stadium seating and even for constructing houses.

EPS is light and so doesn’t load the underlying soil, and its rigidity allows for roads that don’t sink easy. And because it’s easy to cut and place on site, it reduces construction time and labour cost by not involving earth moving machinery, doing area-constrained expansion of existing roads and also for building in any weather.

The cost savings might be substantial in terms of reduced labour requirements (more road per person employed)—a highway in the US saw a cost reduction from $1 million to $160,000.

And houses too!

EPS can also be used to make houses quickly, efficiently and with far lower ecological damage. Pre-fabricated EPS blocks can be caged in steel, cut into appropriate sizes and used to build the superstructure of a house very fast. Structural stability is added through holes in the slab, into which steel rods are inserted and concrete poured.

Watch how the Karnataka State Police Housing Corporation built houses in just 17 days. Apart from the obvious reduction of cost in speed, there’s lesser debris, it’s easier to shape around (cutting conduits for cabling can be done with a pocket knife!) and it has a much smoother finish.

Building schools and (since people have woken up to them now), toilets, can be a quick and easy task with EPS. And cheap, considering there’s a lot less cement involved.

Additionally, because of the Styrofoam, the houses get two natural advantages. First, they’re more naturally noise insulated since Styrofoam absorbs sound. And secondly, there’s heat and cold insulation for houses as well—which means your air conditioning or heating is that much more efficient (the walls will resist the heat transfer from the outside to the inside).

Which brings us to: insulation with multi-layer glass and air circulation

When you see large buildings that are entirely glass on the outside, it makes you wonder how much they pay in cooling costs. Glass brings in heat and retains it, making buildings awfully hot.

What if we used double layered glass instead? The air between the two layers of glass traps heat, and if that air circulates it’ll ensure that the inner layer never gets as hot as the outer layer. This allows your air cooling to be more efficient—and while the second layer of glass adds to costs, the savings will be in cooling costs over time.

Going local with Solar Energy

Much of the India that’s south of Mumbai is hot throughout the year. While India wants to use solar farms, those pose a problem—there are tremendous transmission losses while moving the power from the production source (the farm) to the end-use point (the house or office). Instead, if we could use solar techniques to harvest solar energy locally, it might save us those losses. This is already in practice in India. Many street lights and traffic signals use a local solar panel and battery. But we could go beyond; solar panels on roofs of vehicles, buildings and utilities. The Delhi Metro has started to do this at their stations and parking lots. We have large government buildings which can harness solar power and in much of India this should be enough to drive them through the day, reducing the requirement from the regular grid.

If you’re using the power generated close enough to the source, transmission losses are reduced so you get more efficiency. India needs to use better battery technology to be able to store and dispense power, for which we need to encourage research. But with dirt-cheap solar panels today and better battery storage availability it would be a shame if we couldn’t use our extreme heat conditions to generate energy without the need to hit the grid.

Desalination and nuclear power

Our cities have little water, but the oceans have enough (and more). But to desalinate water costs a lot of money. Building desalination plants next to nuclear power plants can reduce costs tremendously—in fact, in India, in the Kalpakkam nuclear power plant, a desalination plant using Reverse Osmosis and Multi-Stage Flash produces enough water for the plant, the worker housing and the entire town, for a cost of 6 to 10 paise per litre.

A four member family needs about 350 litres a day, which translates to a cost of Rs28 per day for clean water (no further “water filter” needed). While we may believe that we need to subsidize this, remember that the poor today get no water when water is not charged for; in general they have paid for what is good quality and affordable, especially if it remains available. (Like they adopted mobile phones.)

The internet of low-cost things

Today it’s easy enough in India to get a SIM card, and use it for data. This negates the need, in many cases, for voice or SMS requirements completely. Data usage by itself can be enough to provide good and low cost solutions.

FM Radio is privatized but private operators aren’t allowed to distribute news. This is utter nonsense; news can be obtained by live channel feeds using the internet—all you need now is a car radio (or one built into helmets for two wheelers) which has a SIM card. This technology also enables, for instance, a Manipuri officer in Mumbai to get information about her state, in her language, with little effort.

Imagine a security camera with a SIM card and a battery: it can directly upload clips to a private internet, which allows for remote monitoring; even switching off the power will keep the camera on.

While it’s considered fashionable that your fridge tells you when you’ve run out of milk, the real use of a connected device can be by our notoriously delayed city-buses or trains, on which a SIM card can relay real time information on the internet about its location; for those who travel by bus or train, it would be enormously helpful to know how much they have to wait (or where that last bus or train of the day is.)

These aren’t innovations so much as sensibly using technology that exists and has become dirt cheap.

As long as regulators maintain that the telcos cannot charge specifically more for certain services (radio, video or camera data) and “net-neutrality” is our mantra, we can see massive increases in efficiency in our lives.

There’s a lot more, of course. But the point is to achieve a broader goal by using technology better—even if it means hurting current players. Sure, the styrofoam-based house will hurt the cement businesses and in the short term will mean decreased earnings for labourers. But should we care about that, or the productivity gains from building a house within a month? Technology has always made someone redundant. One day, we might have enough machines to make journalists redundant; I look forward to that day too.