Facilities, Utilities and Machines | India | Living in Mexico

Facilities, Utilities and Machines

The Indian government, in radical departure from past practice, has relaxed its bureaucratic stranglehold on certain industries, although carefuly keeping them quarantined in hermetic compounds lest efficiency and prosperity spread willy-nilly to the rest of the country. Nevertheless, the tiny concessions have permitted awakening of the world's next economic superpower. Thousands of highly educated young Indians flock to the facilities of Indian, American and European tech companies. The campuses of these companies equal anything in Silicon Valley.

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High Tech Campus, Bangalore. Image: Infosys

Of the Indian population, 99% never get to even see places like this. Baton-wielding guards keep them outside the gates. The less fortunate live and work in tumbledown buildings and houses. Construction often looks makeshift. For example, this building sports siding made of flattened cooking oil cans.

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Modern Indian construction typically looks shoddy and under-financed. Surviving buildings erected before the twentieth century look more substantial, although plaster details and wooden fixtures often are rotting. Older structures are built of stone: unreinforced, mortarless. Thankfully, earthquakes are rare, except near the geologically active Himalayas. But the horrific toll of the 2005 Kashmir earthquake—75,000 killed, 100,000 injured—underscores the peril of living in structures built of stone blocks or mud bricks.

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Some sort of building codes seem to apply in parts of the country. They still use unreinforced masonry construction in Jodhpur, but in Dharamsala steel-reinforced concrete is being used in new buildings.

Modern ironworking machinery is in short supply. Below we see a low-tech method of cutting rebar. A length of steel is laid over a small anvil, notched to keep the bar from slipping off to the side. A worker places a short length of steel atop the bar being cut. Then the guy in the red sneakers strikes the short bar with a mighty overhead swing of a sledgehammer. It's the crudest shear imaginable, but it works.

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Water distribution via plumbing is a recent development in many places. I occasionally see people drawing water from hand pumps at centrally located wells, but these are being phased out.

Here a three-inch (!) water main terminates in a flurry of valves, to which customers attach their own feeds, running their water lines sometimes a hundred meters to reach their homes.

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You may have guessed that the pictured freshwater pipes have been laid above (and sometimes in) open sewers. I observed men and children, pants around their ankles, publicly squatting above them. While closed black water sewers are becoming the norm, open ones continue to reek in many places. Fresh water, even if treated, is almost certainly cross-contaminated from the sewers by the time it reaches the faucet.

Many water mains are simply laid on the ground along pathways, where they become damaged by people walking on them. This one, crossing a path to the Tibetan Library, has a leak partially plugged by a rock placed over the hole in the pipe. The epitome of deferred maintenance. Fortunately water pressure is low or someone might have to actually fix it.

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Tinacos—rooftop water tanks for maintaining backup water supply when city water gets cut off—are fixtures in Mexico, and they are in India, too. I've rarely experienced interruptions by SAPASMA (Gesundheit!), San Miguel's water company. But at our home in McLeod Ganj, we receive city water for only two hours per day. The rule here is: Get it while you can.

Outside city centers, some people lack plumbed water, so they go to public spigots scattered here and there—inconvenient, but an improvement over the village well system.

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The electricity supply is sketchy. In Jaisalmer, power gets cut citywide from about nine to noon. That part of India simply doesn't have enough generating capacity to provide everyone with electricity all of the time, so residents have to take turns.

Distribution looks jury-rigged. This substation has exposed high voltage contacts placed within easy reach of passers-by. At least the wiring is protected by a flimsy fence; I saw substations that weren't. Tough on children, drunks, and sacred cows, I imagine.

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Circuit breakers and cartridge fuses seem to be unavailable. These circuits are being protected with twisted lengths of fuse wire. Wires are kept from shorting against each other with a bendy strip of wood. The box shows signs of exciting episodes in the past: note the burn marks, the melted insulation.

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No wonder we experience frequent power failures—at home and in restaurants, shops, and most inconveniently, in cybercafés.

When not interrupted by power failures, my uploads get cut off by telecommunication failures. I can see why: check out these junction boxes.

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The technology is there. There's nothing wrong with these fixtures. But the wiring has been handled so carelessly, it almost looks like sabotage.

And in some places, even the technology dates from early in the last century. What we're looking at here is a score of individual phone lines running on bare wires. Is it possible they're still in use?

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A hallmark of British engineering a century ago is overdesign. Where stamped sheet steel might do, they used castings. Where castings might hold up, they used forgings. The three ceiling fans in my train compartment looked like they weighed a hundred pounds each and sounded like idling DC-3s. Legacies of the Raj.

A case in point: the machine below is an orange juice squeezer. And a finger amputator. Ask the street vendor for a glass, and he switches on the quarter-horsepower motor and jams oranges into the hopper using a fitted wooden plunger. Juice spills out on the right, passes through the strainer and into the grimy pot. Incredible.

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I never thought I'd say something like this, but my Mexican juice squeezer is a model of engineering restraint by comparison. It'll go through a half-dozen oranges in a minute or two, and needs no electricity. Of course, it occupies about twenty percent of the available counter space, but I think it's worth it.

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Construction of my Mexican squeezer is shoddy. The castings contain voids. No surface has been polished unless absolutely necessary. The pedestal lists to the left about ten degrees. This product dates from a period when government policy was to manufacture everything using Mexican industry, even if the technology was lacking and the quality poor. NAFTA and the need to curtail Mexico City smog put paid to that nonsense.

In terms of efficient design, the Indian squeezer comes in second. It's like using a howitzer to kill a mouse. Ah, but the workmanship. Those precision castings, the ball bearings in sealed races, the automotive-grade v-belt connecting that beefy capacitor-start motor. I just love that thing: an original brick shithouse.

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