Forget cars, planes, in India, air-conditioners speak of luxury | columns | Hindustan Times
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Forget cars, planes, in India, air-conditioners speak of luxury

In India, there is still something inherently lascivious about possessing an air-conditioner. Recently, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi too raked up the issue, when he said the BJP’s brand of politics “is the politics of air-conditioners and corporate houses”. Indrajit Hazra writes.

columns Updated: Nov 02, 2013 23:56 IST
Indrajit Hazra

Rahatgarh in Sagar district in Madhya Pradesh is quite bearable during end-October. After the monsoons bring the summer temperatures down, the mercury climbs up a few notches again from September onwards until winter starts seeping in from mid-November.

On Thursday, October 24, the maximum temperature was around 31 degrees Celsius at Rahatgarh.

It was warm, not hot, in the midday sun in this Bundelkhand region where Rahul Gandhi was addressing a rally. He was exhorting against the BJP state government, which the Congress vice president described as being disconnected from reality, adding that when the Congress comes to power, it would be a government “of the common man, of the women, of the Bundelkhand youth”. Very nice.

In his impassioned, otherwise generalised speech, Gandhi mentioned one thing that was specific: that the BJP’s brand of politics “is the politics of air-conditioners and corporate houses”.

By ‘the politics of air-conditioners’, I’m guessing what he meant was politicians working from within the rarefied confines of air-conditioned rooms — a charge that many have charged Congressmen with over the years — and not from the heat and dust where the roiling and toiling masses live. But what was being attacked on that warm Rahatgarh day was not just the BJP (and blood-sucking capitalists) but the air-conditioning machine. Which I think was as clever as it was unfair.

There is still something inherently lascivious attached to the idea of possessing an air-conditioner in India. It’s no longer the possession of a car, or the ability to travel by plane, or even the existence of five-star hotels that elicits pleasure-rubbed guilt.

30 years ago, owning a colour TV would mark someone as being ‘elitist’, a tag considered a few notches worse than ‘casteist’ or ‘sexist’. That derision-laced tag remains intact, it seems, with the AC.

It’s not too hard to figure out why. In a country where the temperature in many regions soar well above 40 degrees Celsius in the height of summer, for a contraption to maintain a steady ‘weatherless’ zen-like 18 degrees, can seem obscene. The AC also physically highlights the notion of exclusion. An air-conditioned room is a room that’s literally closed to the outside world. On the economic side of things, it’s expensive. Not only does it cost much more than ‘essential luxuries’ such as a television set and a cable connection, but with its appetite for power amounting to multiplying electricity bills, only the well-to-do can afford it. As an industrial necessity, the use of ACs is bearable. But for the purpose of residential comfort, it becomes an expensive object of indolence, its owners possibly harbouring a hatred of the poor and ridicule for ‘Real India’.

I’m not too sure, though, whether the AC is still as despised as it was when it was considered ‘excessive’ even for the rich to holiday abroad or to buy ‘Scotch’. For one, air-coolers (in less humid parts of the country) have filled the ‘class’ gap between the dehati fan and the posh AC, making the aspirational notion of owning an AC less theoretically distant. Also, with the blossoming of malls in cities and big towns, air-conditioning itself has become less of a glamorous, skin-tingling mystery.

It was Willis Carrier, an American farmer’s son, who, after observing a bank of fog seeping on to a railway platform, invented in 1902 what’s essentially a refrigerator without the in-built insulation. The first customers were from commercial establishments. By the 1950s, along with the advent of car air-conditioning, the AC also became a consumer status symbol.

But air-conditioning also played a major role in America’s economic development, especially in its hot-in-summer southern states. The correlation between better labour conditions-output and air-conditioning is a fact in industrial history — even as we, here in India, still refuse to tackle the hellish ‘no-ventilation’ conditions for so many workers. So the air-conditioner story isn’t just about rich folks living in Swedish summer conditions in June in Delhi or Bhopal.

It’s very unlikely that any time even in the distant future, India will have more people with air-conditioners than without. In that sense, the AC will always remain an elitist ‘luxury’. But to chastise this magic box for being uncaring or evil is like condemning cars or jewellery, something that even the vast numbers of India’s poor know is downright silly. To not need air-conditioning in the heat that you will experience in seven months’ time from now is creditable. But to have it is liberating. Wishing all of you with or without ACs a very cool Diwali.