I was recently at a meeting of energy professionals hosted by an agency working in the country but with American antecedents. The workshop was called ostensibly to try and see how the Energy Conservation Building Code (ECBC) could be implemented in Karnataka with the intent to promote energy efficiency right across districts, with the building bye-laws of municipalities and city corporations being awakened to these new realities and challenges.

The workshop had been called to try and see how the new building code could reach out to the smaller towns and district headquarters across the state; how the state administration and town planners could actually take what is today a set of guidelines for voluntary compliance, and make it into simple legislation that is easily to legislate as part of building sanction plans, and as easy to implement and secure mandatory compliance.

Karnataka has about 240 towns over 27 districts and 175 taluks; this is against India's 3600 such urban agglomerations/towns/cities spread over 625 districts and about 5000 taluks. The challenge before the Government and us all over this decade is: how can buildings be built without the kind of increase in demand load for energy or for fresh water that we have seen over the last 30 years? How can we drop demand right at the stage of design sanction itself?

The question that will pop up in the minds of many town planners and of aspirant builders of homes and offices and other buildings will be: So why should I take this ECBC seriously? What good can it do? Well, clearly, there is every evidence to show that that merely implementing the easier-to-do sections of the Code will drop energy and water demand by as much 50 per cent! That will mean, if installed as retrofits some day when all of us are convinced of the good the Code can bring, we will have cut demand for fresh water and for power by 50 per cent. Such reduction is very eminently possible.

The first step is to see that the ECBC finds its way down the administration hierarchies to the distict and taluk headquarters, and then to the knowledge of every new builder of any building across districts and small towns. Mandatory compliance is not likely to work easily. "As long as you are not caught, you can get away with just about anything here," is a cynical but sad reality across the country. With the multiple layers of the bureaucracy, politically elected bodies and the numberless government agencies that work together and at cross-purpose, over nearly 2 million sq km of India's geographic spread, it is nearly impossible to monitor any regulation across the vastness of this country. And the government is acutely aware of this.

A meeting four months ago in New Delhi, with the Director General of the Bureau of Energy Efficiency presiding over it, ended on a somber note. The BEE was as aware that to expect the Bureau to be owning these tasks sitting at the Centre was unrealistic. "I am willing to let go," he declared. The challenge continues to remain, How can the BEE get the state administrations to implement these guidelines of the ECBC in a way that buildings across India secure such energy efficiency. The anguish echoed through the room that afternoon.

The BEE has been towing the softer line. "We'll first implement in a few pilot towns, train and enable the town planners, urge them to launch concerted campaigns of awareness among the citizens, and phase the implementation of the ECBC over some years."

That'd be bad news, for it means that there will be more platitudes and the old ambivalent dance around the central problem: The administration and district-level officers just don't want to change; either bureaucratic or political leadership is so weak that there is no earnestness down the cadre lines of administration.

The government and enabling agencies have an artful way of obfuscating key objectives. Consultants have the uncanny ability to mystify simple challenges, and make it seem like the challenge needs higher knowledge, greater training, creation of more government bodies that would either work in small towns with such energy consultants from the big cities, or will secure sinecures as jobs that will further distance the objective from people or the original purpose.

If the power supplied to residential units is capped at 2 kilowatts will itself work wonders, nudging people to make small but important changes in the way they use appliances.

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To my mind the first challenge is of demystifying energy efficiency in buildings or to take away the imponderables in green directions. If I am a town-planning engineer in a district or taluk headquarters, what would I need to know of the ECBC in a way that I can get implementation successfully done? Obversely, if I am a person wanting to build a house, or hotel, or office or hospital in any district town, what should I be asking of the municipal or Government agency as clearance and sanction?

Well, first it is about making buildings energy-efficient. This means essentially it is about how we get a building to demand less energy, and demand less water. It is also about how we get any building to put out much less waste from its occupants. In our search for implementing the code we lose sight of the fundamentals and scuttle basic objectives that the building sector needs to be pursuing.

It is clear that we want such efficiency as the ECBC demands, to be achieved in every small town. It is clear, too, that we want to 'uncomplicate' the law. At the risk of sounding simplistic, here are six basic protocols that a town planner needs to be understanding and implementing, if he has to bring sensible construction directions in his towns. All that a town planner needs to do, as Gujarat's many towns have shown quietly over the last 3 years, is to make this part of the building sanction plan at the Commissioner's office.

  • Ban the use of bricks and allow the use of cavity concrete blocks with basic parameters on their compaction strength. Enable this with training for making the blocks right in the district or taluk.

  • Ensure that every building installs only CFLs and LEDs in all constructions.

  • Every home, hotel and hospital must not be given contract demand for use of electric heaters for water. This will mean a ban on geysers and the availability of solar heaters in the small towns. This one measure alone will drop a minimum of 2 kilowatts of demand loan in each home.

  • A law that will localise wet waste management with very simple technologies for compost conversion at cost that is affordable. This law will ensure that 70 per cent of all waste remains right at home, and is treated to make rich organic fertilizer that the resident can use for plants in his own home or neighborhood. No ugly sights of heaped garbage will greet you in every such town.

  • One 5-star rated appliances and pumps are made available in the local markets for all white goods.

  • Harvest rainwater with re-charging of a local shallow well within the residential site of the owner should be made mandatory. The well need not be more than 15 meter at the max and will have to be created. This will also mean a ban on borewells as part of the Town Planner's sanctioning authority.

Beyond these protocols, a simple legislation from the state government that puts a cap on the contract demand for power to any house at 2 kilowatts will in itself work wonders. This has to be coupled with a campaign that will get energy users to avoid using heavy-duty appliances at home or office or industry during the peak load hours. If there is an even spread of energy-use, power suppliers will breathe easy and do a more efficient job of it.

There is a wonderful enabling 'scheme' of the State Government that helps you buy a CFL at Rs.15 a lamp - the same price as a regular incandescent bulb with the rest of the price differential being claimed by the selling companies from carbon credits. This scheme is a carefully preserved secret, with the lamp manufacturers who know of it quietly working it to their economic advantage only in places where they see such benefit accruing to themselves. How can this be made public? How can every shop and store in our districts sell such CFLs at Rs.15, with the supplier-companies offering the price differential to the storeowners?

Look at it in another way. The big picture suggests that energy consumed by the residential sector is about 4 times the commercial sector. And the industrial sector consumes about three times the residential sector. So, we have a stack-up which suggests that there has to be necessarily as much focus on industry, if not greater, as on residential and commercial. There is a grim story there that needs recounting some day soon. And then there is the other tale of irrigation pumpsets and farmers, and the political soft-pedalling over 40 years that left a mess in power supply to the rural grid.