February 17, 2006

That electric feeling

From the Mumbai Mirror, February 12 2006. There's a feature in which the paper asks various Bombay families how they have reacted to the news that the government will introduce power cuts in the city soon and has, in the meantime, asked consumers to use less electricity.

In particular, the Mirror asked these families this question: "Is the government appeal to cut consumption fair?"

A family called the D'Costas ("a middle-class couple that leases out sound systems for functions") responds (name changed):
    "The government is being very unrealistic in asking the masses to cut down consumption. Are they trying to say that we waste energy? Rather than telling us to conserve energy by cutting down on consumption, the government should clamp down on slums and industries, where power pilferage is rampant," said [the husband].

    "The advent of modern electronic appliances has made housework very easy and I can finish off my household chores very fast. But if we cut down on the use of these gadgets we will only be going backward in a developing and growing country," said [the wife].
Right indeed. I too believe that our country will go backward if I have to stop using my electric foot-scraper.

Nobody, but nobody, must stop the march of progress, I say. And now excuse me while I switch on my comb.


Anonymous said...

Appeals to cut power consumption in Mumbai will have no more effect than a somewhat similar appeal by George W. Bush for Americans to curtail their use of oil...Such appeals only work in extreme situations like disasters, wars etc. Even then, they work only over a short period of time. And like it or not, your sarcasm is going to be even less effective.

For more permanent effects, one needs to pay attention to economic incentives. One option, for instance, is to raise the price of electricity. This will force people to realize that it is in their own interest to cut back on power consumption because they now have to pay more if they want to continue with the same consumption pattern. But in India, for various reasons, such a tactic is infeasible. One can imagine the howls that will follow...Well, if price rise is ruled out and moral appeals are ineffective then there is only tactic left - forcibly ration people's use of electricity. Have fun with power cuts in Mumbai.


Neela said...


To be completely contrarian and (gasp!) demonstrate complete lack of compassion here, I don't see very much wrong with this point of view IF indeed power pilferage is rampant in slums and industries. If power pilferage is not rampant, its a stupid stereotype of course.

If people pay an electricity bill, they might feel a sense of injustice when they see others use electricity without paying the bill. Nothing wrong with that, no?

Also, Dilip, I would suggest you try doing housework (like ALL of it - cooking, cleaning, washing clothes etc etc) without gadgets like washing machines and mixers, and with erratic domestic help. For days and days on end. I think you will rapidly find out how entirely tedious and backbreaking such work is. So lets not knock people who have found salvation in labor saving devices for housework, OK? I agree she may have worded it badly but I'm on her side (at least in not wanting to return to non-labor saving device days for housework).

Dilip D'Souza said...

Suresh, I'm not trying to be effective with my sarcasm; I don't believe appeals like this work even in the short term, therefore I see no point in the government making them to begin with.

Neela: I'm not contesting the pilferage issue: power theft is very rampant. Though it is not confined to just slums and industries, it is also known in rural areas and in buildings like the one I live in (I say this from personal experience).

But I find something odd about a point of view that says we reverse progress if we use gadgets less frequently.

Now where's that electric toothbrush, dammit?

Tanuj said...

"But I find something odd about a point of view that says we reverse progress if we use gadgets less frequently."
A few years later...

And while Mrs d’Costa in Bombay ghisaoes away trying to get her family’s clothes washed (given that the family recently got rid of a large gadget that used to wash clothes for them), back home in NY, a messenger has just dropped in from this depot I frequent. Poor guy has had to walk a few miles as his ox is down with a mysterious illness. He says I should immediately pick up new stock of fire-wood as it is likely to run out soon - you see, I need the wood to fire my earthen oven and to heat flat slabs of stone to press my shirt. the guy tells me that next stock of wood will only arrive from their calgary depot in three weeks - they have news of 57 loaded horse-carriages having left last week. why four weeks, you ask? well, along with our electric ovens, washing machines, irons and cars, we also got rid of our electric rail system. we are progressive out here, see.

i must go now - i have to run some derivative pricing scenarios for my boss, using a slide rule and my favorite log book.

Anonymous said...

Dilip wrote:

But I find something odd about a point of view that says we reverse progress if we use gadgets less frequently.

If this is what you wanted to highlight, then it didn't come through to me...I thought you wanted to highlight the "insensitivity" of some people to these (in my opinion) hypocritical appeals. I say hypocritical because the people who make such appeals - for instance, George W. Bush - rarely abide by them. The sacrifices they prescribe are for others.

Anyway, talking of the importance of gadgets, you might be interested in an Economics paper which argues that a significant part of the gains in American women's rights in the Twentieth century can be attributed towards such things like washing machines etc. The idea is that a significant part of American women's time at the beginning of the twentieth century was spent doing mundane but time-consuming jobs like washing clothes etc. These inventions, by freeing up women's time, enabled women to participate in areas where their presence was minimal.

The idea is very plausible, but I don't know if the paper has passed peer review. However, if one looks at the type of mundane, boring and time consuming work that is done by most women not fortunate enough to be born in to the upper classes, then the importance of these "gadgets" becomes clear. Neela (above) has more-or-less pointed all this out, so what I've written is just an addendum to that.

To be sure, one can, I suppose, go "overboard" on gadgets. But, as a society, I don't think we are anywhere close to that point.


Anonymous said...

Dilip, I agree with you about the number of gadgets not representing "progress"..

...gains in American women's rights... ..can be attributed towards such things like washing machines etc

I find this a little problematic - why should domestic chores be (exclusively) a woman's job? And should be comfortable with this notion? Even today in the US, despite all the press that gender issues (rightfully) get, in tv ads for example, it's always the woman that's cooking and cleaning. I think this mindset needs to change if there's to be any real "progress"...

Anonymous said...

Lod, you wrote:

I find this a little problematic - why should domestic chores be (exclusively) a woman's job?

This is called quoting out of context. In the quote that you pick out of my post, I was summarizing (not very well, admittedly) the results in a research paper called "Engines of Liberation" by Jeremy Greenwood, Ananth Seshadri and Mehmet Yorkoglu. What they do - and you'll have to read the paper for full details - is to argue that the increasing participation of American women in the labour force (particularly married women) in the twentieth century can be traced to the "domestic gadgets" which were invented at the beginning of the century. By saving time for domestic tasks, these gadgets enabled women to participate in other activities...and this had other consequences.

Now where did I say or imply that I thought that domestic chores were exclusively for women?


PS: For those interested, the paper is available from Professor Greenwood's webpage. Try googling for "Engines of Liberation" and "Greenwood." Be warned, this is a research article addressed to fellow Economists. Non-Economists will typically not find it easy going.