India: Infrastructure dilemma and the strength of the human spirit

Paul E. Cooley, P.E., Vice President, PBS&J, Encinitas, California; member, APWA Engineering and Technology Committee
Rebekah G. Gladson, AIA, AUA, Vice Chancellor, University of California, Irvine, California

Our western minds were puzzled, confused and at times scared to death riding on the wrong side of the road alongside camel-drawn carts, motorcycles, trucks and dancing bears as we drove from the town of Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, to Jaipur in northern India. This felt like a Harrison Ford movie but we were merely an adventuresome architect and engineer experiencing the thrills of India, a country one-third the size of the United States with a population three times as large, and where the infrastructure has not kept up with the population growth. India is a testament to the resiliency of the human spirit and the inevitable impact on the quality of life when infrastructure investments do not keep pace with the needs. We were on an adventure of a lifetime lecturing at the schools of Architecture and Civil Engineering at India Institute of Technology (IIT) at Kharagpur. We also had the good fortune of squeezing several side trips to visit monuments and design professionals in the northern states of Uttar Pradesh and east down the Ganges River to Calcutta.

  A camel-drawn cart on the road from Agra to Jaipur

Our experience in India began with a mentoring relationship of an IIT student, a delightful fifth-year architectural student named Parul. Parul was sponsored by a local architectural firm which supports study-abroad programs with the hope of preparing graduates for future international jobs. IIT is one of the top universities in India and was recently featured in a "60 Minutes" special, and has been compared with MIT in both the quality of its education and resulting quality of its graduates. That isn't surprising, given the incredibly stringent admission requirements that slice the top students from a population of one billion and shoots them through a grueling curriculum. Ironically, IIT was founded in 1946 on the site of the British Hijli Detention Camp and has become one of the top universities in the world.

Enough of the tantalizing drama and personal memories, let's start with some basics about India. The subcontinent of India lies in south Asia, between Pakistan, China and Nepal. It is bordered on the north by the world's highest mountain chain, the Himalayas, where foothill valleys cover the northernmost of the country's 26 states. Further south, plateaus, tropical rain forests and sandy deserts are bordered by palm-fringed beaches. Side by side with the country's staggering topographical variations is its cultural diversity, the result of the coexistence with a number of religions as well as local traditions.

India's history goes back to 3,200 B.C. when Hinduism was first founded. Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Islam all exist within the country today. As a result of India's size, the history of the country has seldom been the same for two adjoining territories, and its great natural wealth has lured a succession of traders and foreign influences to it, each having left their imprint in the country.

Modern India is a dichotomy, from the tribal lifestyles of the rural communities to the sophisticated urban jetsetters of Bombay (Mumbai) and Calcutta (Kolkata). It is a land where temple elephants exist amicably with the cell phone. Its ancient monuments are the backdrop for the world's largest democracy where atomic energy is generated. At the same time, fishermen along the country's coastline fashion simple fishing boats in a centuries-old tradition.

India's ongoing population explosion has placed a great strain on the country's environment. In recent history, the population has exploded from 700 million to over a billion. This rapidly growing population, along with a move toward urbanization and industrialization, has placed significant pressure on India's infrastructure and its natural resources. Good quality potable water is becoming scarce while sewage goes untreated. Deforestation, soil erosion, and land degradation continue to worsen and are hindering economic development in rural India, while the rapid industrialization and urbanization in India's booming metropolises are straining the limits of municipal services and causing serious water quality and air pollution problems. As we drove through cities with thick air pollution that burned our eyes, we listened to the stories from the local students about their families living in rural communities with severe groundwater contamination problems caused by the discharge of dye from clothing manufacturing plants. One cannot help but think that one of the most ominous exports of the developing countries is the pollution we won't tolerate in our own backyards. If India solves their pollution problems the way we have solved ours, what will the "fourth" world countries do? Where will the "third world countries" send their pollution?

  The authors with Parul's parents at the Taj Mahal

Nevertheless, despite a greater commitment by the Indian government to protect public health, forests, and wildlife, policies geared to develop the country's economy have taken precedence in the last 20 years. While industrial development has contributed significantly to economic growth in India, it has done so at a price to the environment.

It is a daunting task—seemingly insurmountable at times. But we make it down the road one step at a time. One cannot help but wonder where the United States would have been today if we had not decided to solve our pollution problems 50 years ago, a time when Lake Erie was "dead" and the Cuyahoga River was burning up to 1969.

At the end of our trip we saw Parul one last time before she returned to IIT to finish her education and start working. We flashed back to the students we met at IIT, the brightest of the bright in a land of incredible history and opportunity. It is good that the youth are young. It is that enthusiasm and optimism that will allow the country to move from a path of continued degradation to one of possibility and increased opportunity in the future.

Paul Cooley can be reached at (760) 753-1120 or; Rebekah G. Gladson can be reached at (949) 824-7232 or

Cultural Proverbs

"Every road has two directions." - Russian Proverb

"Everything passes, everything wears out, everything breaks." - French Proverb

"A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." - Chinese Proverb

"When weeds invade the land, it means the owner is absent." - Bahumbu Proverb

"Do not insult a crocodile while your feet are still in the water." - Nilotic Proverb