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Bringing in the New Year in India: How Cars and Chaos Gave Me Hope

By Jose Alejandro Gonzalez-Suarez

Participants of the CAORC-AIIS Faculty Development Seminar at the Taj Mahal on January 1, 2020.

Jose Alejandro Gonzalez-Suarez, Instructor of Construction and Environmental Technology at Tompkins Cortland Community College in Dryden, New York, was a 2019-2020 participant in the CAORC-AIIS Faculty Development Seminar to India. In this essay, he reflects on the many challenges facing India and how the country’s innovative solutions can offer hope in uncertain times. All photos are courtesy of the author.

Twenty hours and counting on various forms of public transportation—two trains, two planes, and I’ve crossed an ocean and had a stopover in a desert metropolis. Now in a taxi, on a much slower journey (several hours in New Delhi’s traffic), I am tired. I am in a foreign land. Why then, a familiarity?

An old friendly tug of recognition beckons us at moments of having come back to ourselves after having been distanced for too long. These colors, these smells, this collage of India’s urban sprawl is all new to me—cars beeping in syncopated rhythms, scattered people, animals, as many carts as cars. The off-tune chorus of vendors cuts through my recent memories of the United States, a country defined by order, by neat lawns and square blocks. Vacant roads, people tucked away neatly in houses and cars in garages, have, after several years of living on them, already etched themselves like maps through layers of me. But perhaps this mark is only surface deep, for it is chaos now that reaches my core, reminding me of the Managua of my youth; me, a wide-eyed student just arriving.

My tired eyes will record two lasting impressions of New Delhi: its chaos and its cars. Both observations will be important. I let go of questioning, for the time being, in favor of some expanding sense of connectedness, which I hadn’t previously known could stretch across the world and join me in this strange new place.

India's own brand of trucks. It's common to see Tata brand used for many kinds of vehicles, including cargo, buses, and heavy construction equipment.

The CAORC-AIIS Faculty Development Seminar on urban sustainability had a common thread about access to water woven throughout visits to New Delhi, Jaipur, and Lucknow, just as it has been a theme during my life. In 1998, catastrophic flooding from a slow-motion storm we later came to know as Hurricane Mitch, blew northern Nicaragua’s infrastructure away as if it were nothing but a fragile window, easily shattered. No bridge, large or small, was left standing. Landslides swallowed roads. Highways sunk into rivers. What started as a soft “chi-chi,” the sound of rain pattering on clay-shingled rooftops, left Nicaragua and Honduras with a death toll between 11 and 18 thousand. The majority of the countries’ crops were destroyed, and more than a million people left homeless. We cannot know when and how chaos will shape us. My father declared he didn’t like that “chi-chi” sound, and was unsettled. Having already lived through the upheavals of both revolution and civil war, what he heard in that pitter-patter was the familiar sound of irreversible change on its way.

During the seminar, representatives of the government water entity introduce us to the enormous challenges facing the country. New Delhi supplies 920 million gallons per day (MGD) of drinking water to 20 million people. To put that in perspective, New York City’s system offers 1 billion gallons per day for a population of 8.5 million. Water coverage in the greater Delhi area does not include services to informal settlements. Not being recognized by the authorities means a lack of basic services. It is a permanent struggle for the people residing in India’s “ not notified slums,” to achieve the legality of the place where they live to be able to obtain coverage of basic services.

“Not notified slums” in Lucknow: Occupants don't own land and don’t get basic services.

I notice I am talking too much when a new colleague, an urban sociologist whom I already view as an expert, asks me, “Why the obsession with water?” Though I can articulate an intellectual answer, what I wish I could share is what cannot be known intellectually. There is the experience of a built environment, which gives structure to our lives, leveled in a matter of weeks. There is the experience of not knowing where the next water comes from. There is the shared experience of families rationing the last precious water saved in buckets; of crowds, entire neighborhoods, walking into the hills together carrying every crude receptacle we could find to fill from some trickle, somewhere. I left home with those memories, and at the same time I’ve never left them. My students at Tompkins Cortland Community College can confirm I’m passionate about technology, the materials and fundamentals of construction, right down to formulas, right down to the math. But there are different ways of knowing that I don’t know how to share with them. And this is what I am in search of in India. Never will I know anything intellectually the way urgency has insisted on my knowing water as a keystone to development. I’ve never been taught anything that has impacted me like necessity. Nothing I’ve done in my life has mattered more than joining others in sourcing clean water.

From the academic sector, we hear of plans to implement a mega-project to prevent pollution by building treatment plants for wastewater before it is discharged into the Yamuna River. In some cases, non-governmental organizations are developing and promoting appropriate technologies with communities. The Segal Foundation works in the design and construction of levees to allow the runoffs of rain recharge aquifers exhausted by over-exploitation. Their projects have allowed the NGO to validate their designs, expanding the implementation to other regions. In Jaipur, we visit a city water treatment plant operated by a private corporation. Not uncommon, but what stands out for me is that this private corporation is Indian, not transnational.

16.5 MGD treatment capacity waste water treatment plant of Jaipur.

Rich history and monuments now coexist with the socio-economic and environmental challenges generated by the stress of a growth so rapid that these metropolises have yet to meet demands. I see this; and I see researchers, resources, autonomy, and self-sufficiency. My surprise in observing the make of the unfamiliar cars on my arrival day becomes admiration—India develops and produces its own brands of vehicles, of construction machinery, and industrial equipment. The effects of my own country’s utter dependence on these types of imports have been staggering. Toyotas and Fords are what we had in the 80s. Then it was all out of commission during the embargo. Toyotas, Fords, and transnationals are what we’ve had since.

Using India's own construction equipment for the remodeling of the international airport in Lucknow.

Can I know that being comfortable with chaos, and having their own trademarks of cars, will lead to successes in India? I cannot. Two weeks in a country is only enough to become acquainted with how much one doesn’t know. I will leave with plans to return, to share with my students the reasons we can learn from India’s self-sufficiency and aptness for innovation, as unsettling rates of urban migration launch us all into new urgencies. I am on my way to forming a belief that if comfort with chaos can awaken perceptions of reality and bust open mind-sets, it could also give us evolutionary change. It is not yet 2020.

I call in the new year and kick-off a decade with a group of intelligent, introspective, dedicated scholars, all still unaware of what we are on the brink of—a novel coronavirus disease has already spread around the world, violence against black people and the “pandemic of racism” rooted in U.S. society will soon lead to mass demonstrations and calls for addressing this systemically.

Systems we find ourselves steeped in, living our day-to-day, contribute significantly to how we respond. How will we know what we are capable of, if not for the upheaval of our lives as we’ve known them? Visible realities of systemic inadequacies around every turn in India’s northern cities reminded me to see. They woke me up from a more unsettled knowing we endure when the struggles of ‘away’ neighborhoods and ‘away’ countries are tucked in neatly, swept to the edges of fast and functional lives. Responsiveness and agility have been known to appear on ships with burning decks. Perhaps we have a way of finding ourselves where we need to be.


CAORC’s 2019-2020 faculty development seminar to India was organized with the American Institute of Indian Studies and supported by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the following U.S. National Resource Centers in South Asian Studies: Columbia University, Cornell University, Syracuse University, University of California, Berkeley, University of Washington, and University of Wisconsin, Madison.


About the Author

Jose Alejandro Gonzalez-Suarez is Instructor of Construction and Environmental Technology at Tompkins Cortland Community College in Dryden, New York. He was among 16 faculty participants in the seminar “Exploring Urban Sustainability through India’s Cities,” an intensive capacity-building and curriculum development seminar held in India from December 26, 2019–January 10, 2020.


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