One area where India is indisputably shining is the construction industry. It is booming in several metropolitan areas - Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Gurgaon, Noida, Vadodara, Bombay, Pune, and Hyderabad - and growing noticeably even in smaller cities and towns. Going by the numerous colour supplements screaming out the great real estate boom, India itself growing skywards; full-page advertisements on new dream-houses and communities promise every luxury and comfort. Real estate developers are now offering computers, split air conditioners, electric chimneys, bathtubs with jacuzzis, the works.

Such construction on a large scale has significant environmental impacts; thus, it must be asked if the developers and builders and engaging their business with some regard for the environment too. Does sustainability matter to our developers and builders? Is there a green side to buildings? What are the regulators doing to ensure that the real estate balloon is not burst by its own severe and unsustainable impacts?

The prudent approach would be to simply include environmental considerations into the construction activity itself, so that impacts are automatically minimised. But not many architects are seriously looking at ways to save their clients electricity by cutting down heat radiation with special walls, glazed windows, or even ensure that natural light is exploited to the hilt? Nor are they trying out simple techniques to harness solar energy or reflect the heat of the sun off roofs. Few design consultants think of how they can use colours that will brighten rooms an extra bit to avoid using an electric light at least during the day. Customers rarely get advice on using colours that reflect light.

With power in short supply all over in India, and demand rising rapidly still, the construction activity could be slowed greatly if the new buildings do not embrace green principles. Builders and contractors have to be proactive about this, especially; it is very difficult to optimise a space for efficient energy use if it it is not constructed with any such consideration initally. Also, residential, commercial, and institutional buildings are accounting for an increasing chunk of energy use, from 31% globally in 1990 to an expected 38% by 2050. Greater use of available, cost-effective technologies can also radically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. For example, most government buildings pay about 600 crore rupees annually as electricity bills, of which the financial loss due to inefficient energy consumption is about 150 crore rupees. Nearly 25 percent of energy is wasted and if saved, many areas in India will not witness power cuts.

R V Shahi, the Union Power Secretary, has this to say: "The loss government buildings incur can easily be cut down. We want to start with government buildings to set an example. Hereafter, we will need legislation to ensure reduction of energy consumption. Also, the buildings design should take energy conservation into account. There would be no power shortage if India used its resources efficiently in buildings. Today, peak shortage (of power) is 15 per cent and base shortage is 10 per cent. On the other hand, our energy wastage is in the region of 20 per cent. If we are prudent with our energy usage, there would not be any power shortage.”

When President A P J Abdul Kalam was told about the move to make government offices energy efficient, he said the movement must start from the Rashtrapati Bhavan. The central government is now working on the Rashtrapati Bhavan and would soon move into Parliament House, the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, and other government buildings.

Water is similarly a seriously neglected resource; its management and use are both completely unregulated excepted to benefit vested interests. The National Building Code of India recommends a daily minimum of 200 litres of water to residents. The actual figure made available is barely half of this, but it can easily be improved if water once used is recycled for secondary purposes, such as washing or irrigation. United Nations projections show that very soon, India will be in the pincer of hydrological poverty; already disputes over water have reached significant levels. But builders do not talk of recycling water; they do not even talk of rainwater harvesting unless they first encounter a serious situation; Tamilnadu chief minister J. Jayalalithaa is now insisting that buildings in Chennai must have rainwater harvesting in place, but this came about only after desparate shortages for many years.

"Today, peak shortage (of power) is 15 per cent and base shortage is 10 per cent. On the other hand, our energy wastage is in the region of 20 per cent."
Green buildings could do much more than simply alleviate problems. For instance, they could take care to use energy efficient materials and construction practices, bio-climatic architectural principles, efficient systems and equipment like lights and air-conditioners. They could also would have efficient waste management systems in place that would separate biodegradable waste and plastics. Administrative or legislative pushes - of the sort introduced in Tamilnadu - are one way to deal with the problem; indeed, some penalties on those who do not follow sustainable principles is also probably warranted. But when even a draft of the Environment Policy has taken five decades to surface, a law calling for green principles in construction seems wishful.

Nor is all this easy. The Indian building industry is highly fragmented and decentralized. Often, its right arm does not know what its left arm is doing. The architects, contractors, hardware dealers, masons, plumbers, electricians all work at different tangents, with each one looking at his own short-term business interests. There is little coordination to weave green pinciples into this fabric. Moreover, at the policy-making level, there is no coordinated government effort to sensitise builders and architects to environmental safeguards. It is also assumed that green buildings are automatically more expensive, whereas many green adoptions can actually save homeowners money in the long run.

It is paradoxical that nations that have large power reserves are more conscious of the need to have green buildings. In legislative as well as administrative arenas, there are several global examples to emulate, but thus far such adoption of existing ideas has been slow. It is only as natural resources dwindle that politicians and entrepreneurs both seem to become alert to greening.

Some others have tried to capitalise on the public relations value of efforts at greening. The ITC Green Centre, a futuristic office complex in Gurgaon (Haryana) of ITC Limited recently won the Platinum Green Building rating from the US Green Building Council, for its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. Incidentally, ITC is the first large corporation in India to achieve this distinction. Out of the 150 projects around the world that the Council has certified, only seven have been awarded the Platinum rating. Among them, the ITC Green Centre is the largest building. It will be operational by April 2005. Built on a two-acre plot, the building saves over 53 per cent energy over other conventional buildings. The building materials minimize the heat ingress into the building as it has used concrete mixed fly ash waste.

Additionally, the walls have a stone and brick façade to cut off the heat. Double-glazed windows have been used with air-gaps to provide insulation that prevents heat from getting in, ultimately cutting down air-conditioning costs. The roof was treated with a high reflective material, reflecting unwanted heat. The chiller in the air-conditioner plant and other accessories were high energy saving types. Solar energy is tapped for hot water needs. Throughout the building, ozone-free equipment has been used. The Green Building also reduces potable water use by forty per cent by using fixtures that use less water. Monitoring and control devices cut off water immediately after use. Treated wastewater put to productive use for flushing, gardening and the cooling towers. When the landscaping was planned, plants that demand less water were selected.

Many others may be forced to replicate such steps, even if they do not proactively adopt greening. For now, however, the obvious benefits of greening - lower long-term costs, good PR value, sustainable use of the environment - are still insufficient to motivate large-scale adoptions. As scarcities mount, that could change quickly.