Consumption and Conservation: Reflections from the Field in India
After more than 12 years of living and working in India, I moved to the US with my family at the end last year. The past few months have been focused on transitioning and adjusting to a new life. I have visited the US many times earlier for work, and for visiting family. I even did my Master’s here back in 2005. But this is my first real experience of having a household in the US. And one of the things that I have started thinking about deeply is how quickly my consumption patterns are changing already. As a family, we buy many more pre-prepared and packaged foods than we did in India. As much as I try not to, I have also started wasting more food. There is always surplus. In Bangalore we just had one air-conditioner at home for one of the rooms; other rooms had ceiling fans. Here in the absence of ceiling fans, I have been using air conditioning in multiple rooms since the summer started. Likewise there are many more examples of using more electricity, more water, more paper, procuring more plastic, and generating more waste than I would have liked to.
These changes in my own consumption practices have given me time to reflect on some of the field work I have conducted in India over the last 12 years. Specifically, I’ve recalled the consumption and conservation practices among low-income communities that I worked with there. Some of these conservation practices are obviously driven my resource constraints, but what’s interesting is that many of the practices are also driven by rituals, habits and tradition. In my opinion these have interesting implications for sustainable HCI and design of conservation technologies for society at large.
My research over the past decade has focused on designing user interfaces for low-literate users. This was based on hundreds of hours of field work conducted among low-income communities in rural and urban India. Field work included interviews, participatory design exercises, and usability studies. As a part of rural immersion, I also lived with a smallholder farmer family in rural central India for 10 days straight. In all this time, I was able to conduct informal observations around the everyday life of study participants. I describe some of these observations around resource management behaviors below:
a) Management of water: Most households did not have water supply within the home. Water was collected from public water taps in urban areas, or hand pumps in rural areas. It was stored and managed carefully. Indian readers would not find this surprising, but bucket baths were the most common way to bathe. For the benefit of Western readers, this means that water is stored in a large bucket and scooped out with a mug for pouring. During my stay at the farmer’s house, I remember washing my hair quite efficiently with just one bucket of stored water. I think sadly I have lost that skill now. (A bucket bath is the most common way to bathe even in middle class Indian homes, where there is running water supply within the home. Although increasingly, shower heads are becoming more common).
Dishes were washed in the same manner, drawing stored water from a bucket/container with a mug. Water used to rinse raw vegetables, which was mostly clean, was used to flush and clean toilets. Leaky taps were not considered auspicious, even in households where there was water supply available in the home. A leaky tap was meant to signify wastage and loss in property; hence taps that were leaking were promptly fixed. How rituals and tradition help with conservation!
b) Reuse and recycle: Most households avoid buying standalone plastic containers, instead reusing the packaging that came with prior food purchases. It was also quite common to use reusable stainless-steel containers.
Most households did not buy newspapers or magazines, since many members were textually not literate. But for the ones that did buy, they usually sold these newspapers and magazines once they were old. (This again is still common practice in middle-class India).
In one community, it was interesting to see that new clothes were not used at all for newborn children. Instead hand-me-downs from older siblings or cousins were reused, as these were softer on newborn skin. (Reusing older siblings’ clothes was also common in middle-class India. But gradually as e-commerce and consumerist culture takes over, these practices are slowly fading away).
c) Electricity use: It was common to turn off lights and fans when not in use. Across India it is common for power sockets to have an accompanying switch. Once the appliance plugged in was done using, the switches of the power sockets were switched off. There are no accompanying power socket switches here in the US for me to switch off, but I still diligently turn off lights and air conditioners when they are not in use. At least one practice that I have successfully managed to carry over.
d) Supplementing appliance use with manual work: While it is common to have mixer-grinders in many households, a bulk of the coarse grinding work is still done manually using mortars and pestles. In fact manual grinding time was also a time for community and bonding, as women from neighboring households would come together to do grinding work.
This was also evident in clothes laundering. Even in some urban households where people had semi-automatic washing machines, clothes were air dried on clothes lines. How I wish I could air dry clothes on the balcony of our Cambridge apartment (instead of waiting it out for the washer-dryer), although I doubt the building authorities would allow that.
e) Management of food: Farming households were particularly cognizant about not wasting food. Probably there is more respect for food when one grows it by themselves. In fact there is a saying in Hindi, “Anna ka apmaan nahi karte” [You don’t insult your food (by wasting it)]. Again, a great example of how rituals and tradition help with conservation.
f) Thermal control: Finally, it was common to practice thermal control within the home using cross ventilation. In most rural households, both front and back doors were kept open through the day for cooling the home. Water for drinking, especially during the summer months, was stored in earthen pots where it kept cool. (Many small offices in urban middle-class India still store drinking water this way for their employees).
It is not just resource constraints that drive conservation practices among low-income communities, but also rituals and tradition. The careful and conscious management of resources have interesting implications for design.
I would encourage readers to check out the publication “Deep Conservation in Urban India and its Implications for the Design of Conservation Technologies” (CHI 2013), by Shrinivasan et al., where conservation practices and design implications are discussed in more detail in the context of middle-class households in India. Personally, I would love to see some of the conservation practices transfer to resource-rich contexts, where we are increasingly concerned about the environment, reducing our carbon footprint, and minimizing pollution in our oceans. It would also be great to see more research in sustainable HCI and conservation technologies within the HCCXB community.