Aarey Forest vs The Metro

The battle for green cover is on globally. There are no neat divisions between opposing parties, but by and large religious conservatives have been anti-green against the rest of the pack. Events such as large scale forest fires in Siberia and Amazonia have managed to convince ‘green’ people that there is a concerted effort to kill forests, a sort of land grab.

My country faces such a dilemma which is accentuated by an exploding population and wide economic disparities. Disparities have meant that rural parts of my country have little economic opportunities with people migrating to cities for betterment. This results in a huge burden on the infrastructure of metropolitan (metro for short) cities like Mumbai, New Delhi, Bengaluru and Kolkatta. The migration takes place on a smaller scale to lesser metros in other states.

Another aspect of this is the unbearable dust and air pollution in big cities. Most of this is due to vehicular emissions; which is offset partially by the green cover in cities and in promotion of battery as well as electric powered vehicles. Air pollution is so bad in cities like New Delhi that they have schemes like odd-even^ to check the number of vehicles plying on city roads. My city of Kanpur^^ also faces a severe air pollution issue. As a biker who is sensitive to air pollution, I am a die-hard green forest cover fan.

Metro cities in India are categorized as A, B and C* based on government census reports. Overcrowding is rampant for example, my city of Kanpur, an A-class metro is miniscule compared to Chicago (area-wise) but has more people crowding it**.

The Aarey Forest^*^ case in Mumbai points to all the ills besetting our cities. The forest has about 2500 trees and provides a green cover to the increasingly polluted city. A network of suburban passenger trains is currently the main lifeline of transport. Road transport is almost choking to the brim. So, city politicians and bureaucrats came up with a metro rail project^* to relieve the burden on the suburban passenger train system.

Mumbai is the financial capital of India and also the state capital of Maharashtra. Rural folks from underdeveloped regions of the state like Vidarbha and Marathwada migrate annually into the city. Adding to this is the country’s regional labour migration from underdeveloped parts of India into Mumbai. As a consequence Mumbai is packed to capacity with people and buildings. There is no space for new large scale projects in populated urban localities of the city.

Inevitably the politicians and government bureaucrats chose the path of least resistance and zeroed in on Aarey forest to set up a metro car shed in Line 3 of the Metro. The news soon leaked out and Mumbaikars were up in arms. They have seen the sad state of city governance time and again and it’s difficult to convince people there that this wasn’t another attempt at some sort of land grab. There is a huge trust deficit. On the other hand authorities would not like to venture into the dense urban areas for setting up large metro car sheds. This would likely invite a rush of court cases which would take years to wind up and cost the city exchequer a tidy sum of money. Like I said governments opt for the path of least resistance.

Court cases were filed in Mumbai against the felling of trees in Aarey Forest area. As of today, courts have quashed cases against the felling of 2500 trees in Aarey Forest to make way for the car shed but people are still trying to resist^^. The same old story as anywhere else globally. The bigger issue is that unless people and the government here wake up to the effects of skewed development priorities and rapid population growth, this story is likely to be repeated again in many parts of my country. Expand this at the macro level and you have a global template for most developing nations.

What can be the solution? For starters, accountability of government officials accompanied with foresight and planning, taking into account the stakeholders can mitigate such a crisis. Corruption in large contracts is a real thing and this skews large projects involving a lot of money. Citizens also need to be pro-active in creating lobby and pressure groups to counter projects that impact large ecosystems. They also need to present viable alternatives for plans that destroy ecosystems. Simply protesting against projects will not suffice. At the state/national policy level, efforts to create employment in rural areas will lessen the burden on metro cities. Coming to population control, it is a complex issue, but increasing awareness can reap dividends in the long run.

Meanwhile Aarey Forest vs The Metro drags on for now …..





**http://worldpopulationreview.com/us-cities/chicago-population/, http://worldpopulationreview.com/world-cities/kanpur-population/







An Unsustainable Lifestyle

My recent bike trip to the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, just north of my own state Uttar Pradesh was supposed to provide relief from a blistering heat wave afflicting my state. The Himalayas were always a getaway locale for people looking for religious enlightenment, meditation, and seclusion in my state.

However, this time it was like all hell breaking loose in Uttarakhand, starting from Haridwar, the gateway to the Himalayas, all the way up to Chamba and Tehri. The reason? About 100,000 people zooming into the mountains in their four-wheel drives, and in air-conditioned buses every single day. I could scarcely spot a single cyclist or walker, except for the roadside hawkers and vendors. The vehicular pollution and heat blast from these vehicles was something to experience besides the 5-7 km. long traffic jams.

At the recieving end were the hundreds of policemen trying to manage the traffic. Kudos to them and the the fact that they kept their cool despite all the odds stacked against them. The local people were also well behaved and took it all in with a hint of polite resignation. To top it all there were frequent power cuts. I am not blaming the power companies for this. The surge in power demand from the combined might of air conditioners, cooling cabinets and other devices in the hotels and inns would be impossible to meet.

The result? It was as hot and unbearable as the plains of my own state right up and into the mountains at an altitude of nearly 9000 feet. The concrete structures and paved roads were acting as sort of heat reflectors adding to the misery of the bicycle ride. This is clearly affecting the local environment is a very negative way. I had experienced the same at Leh in Ladakh (Jammu and Kashmir ) at an altitude of 10,000 feet, a few years back.

The point is that the western lifestyle adopted by our citizens is unsustainable. I could feel the mountains groaning under this attack. There are simply no scenic and pristine mountain getaways available including the high altitude scenic Manali-Leh highway. For cyclists, this is a huge challenge. The lung sapping, muscle straining steep mountain rides are spiked with dangerous driving of high-speed SUV’s, trucks and buses. Negotiating traffic jams in steep mountain roads on a bicycle is no easy task too. I had to wear an anti-pollution mask even at the mountain tops. I shudder to think of the impact of all this pollution on local wildlife and forests.

This year has also been a bad one as regards forest fires in Uttarakhand. A chat with local farmers in the mountains also confirmed my fears that agricultural livelihood is now being shunned by the locals due to multiple reasons like water availablity and wild animals straying into step mountain farmland. Hordes of wild monkeys wreck local agro produce because their own forests are now bare of fruit. But, the madness continues unabated.

At the time of writing this article my own city of Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh, is teetering on the brink of an acute water crisis. This is on top of the usual heat wave conditions and severe air pollution. It’s pointless blaming the government for everything, how about trying to look at our own lifestyles first?

A Dying Shark

For a generation that was bred on a staple movie diet of ‘Jaws’, the Hollywood scare epic; sharks have come to signify everything dangerous and loathsome. The fact that as one of the apex sea predators, they have a significant contribution to the eco system; has been completely lost on most of the people on this planet. After all, movies score far more than knowledge and facts.

To me, sharks were a far away danger, lurking in movies, internet videos, and books. However, when I did become a recreational scuba diver, the childhood image of sharks was driven away by observing fish behavior in the oceans. I did manage to ‘meet’ a whale shark, which is not the archetypal fire breathing monster shark that one would like to expect. The fish in question is a gentle docile giant. I did not encounter white tips or dozens of any other types of this species in my  dives. However, scuba divers who have encountered them have told me that they are usually shy and timid, like most underwater creatures.

This article is not a leisurely rant on sharks but rather about a more pressing issue, the recent declaration of ‘shortfin mako’, probably the fastest shark on the planet; as being endangered*.

makoShortfin mako shark — Image by Mark Conlin, SWFSC Large Pelagics Program [Public domain]

It turns out that the apex predator on this planet — the human, has been finishing off sharks at a faster rate than they can be replenished. According to some estimates, almost 90% of some shark species have been wiped out in some regions of this planet**. Sharks are killed for meat, fins, and gaming.

Shortfins can have burst speeds in excess of 70 kilometers per hour !! That is very fast when underwater. Efforts are underway to limit deep sea fishing of these fish but like in every other case, nations are mostly non-commital.

To be honest I am writing this article hoping that the shortfin mako does survive otherwise this article may be an ode to the dying shortfin mako.




Tips for Distance Bike Touring

Trying to cram in everything I can remember here.

For starters on tours of 1000 kilometers or more, check out the terrain layout. Lots of resources online like Google Maps. The next thing would be the kind of local climate — cold, very cold, hot ….. . You need to fix your carry along clothing according to the climatic conditions.

Next would be the bike gear setup.

On mixed hilly and plain terrains 7 freehub/freewheel gears with 14-28 teeth worked fine for me. But, you do need front gears for hill climbs. I have done hilly terrain with just 7 gears and it was strenuous. I opted for freewheels because these are readily available in local markets here. I may switch to cassettes if they seem more durable than freewheels. The debate between freewheels and cassettes rages on. On an average my freewheels have done 800-1000 kilometers before they start wearing out. Chains did about 500-700 kilometers for me, before the chain tool starts flagging them.

Mountain biking would require more modifications, like 8 gears and you would probably need to switch to cassettes with a higher gear-teeth ratio, we don’t have 8 speed freewheels here so for 8 gears or more cassettes it is for us. Mountain biking also requires a lesser load than the usual say 20 kilogram load that bikers like me usually carry. I am discussing mountain biking in the context of the Himalayas, the mountain range I plan to tackle next.

Wheel size is another issue. Some mountain bikers have opted for larger front wheels to have easier climbs but that is debatable. In general larger the wheel size, the more distance you traverse with each pedal stroke. However, I have found balancing ( with load ) to be difficult on the ‘taller’ bikes like my roadie.

The handlebars need to be such that you can switch your shoulder/hand stance, to avoid fatigue and injuries. I have a straight handlebar but have attached a triathlon aerobar to give my shoulders some rest while touring. Some cyclists prefer drop downs but having toured with drop downs I did not find them to be very comfortable.

An all steel 26″ MTB frame worked best for me, lasted more than 30,000 ++ kilometers, with this Grand Tour really battering it up. No frame repair work was required till this point. Alloy or aluminum bicycle frames are lighter but can not hold up heavy battering on a long term basis. Carbon frames are too risky for repeated long haul distance biking, and would require regular patching up. Was planning on building a carbon bike frame but realized that it’s not all that ‘super’ after working with carbon for some time.

All these tips are based on the local road/terrain conditions. Roads here can be really good on the national and state highways and then an absolute terror on many of the inner stretches with nothing but rocks, dust and gravel instead of a road track.

The weight a biker carries bears down on the biker, the bike and the luggage. Chipping out bike weight wherever possible is a good idea, like opting for alloy wheel frames, but these need to be double walled for long term use. The front fork, handlebar and bike chassis with the rear carrier was an all steel setup for me. I went for a customized lighter bike stand and an alloy seat post to cut down on the weight. Many bikers opt out of having bike stands altogether. My setup was heavier but lasted longer. I may change to a lighter setup but haven’t made up my mind yet. It also seems like a good idea to change the cranks and the chainwheels to lighter alloys, the steel ones are heavier but more durable. Cotter pin cranks worked OK for me, since most roadside bike repair shacks here have spares for the same. Switching to square taper or the more exotic Shimano cranksets could be done. But, here, one will not get any help if things go wrong with the latest cranksets.

Suspensions are another issue, I use double suspensions because the tracks here can get really wild. Have toured on my other roadie with no suspensions at all, and all I can say is that for road conditions here, you need at least one rear or front suspension to make life comfortable. The catch is that suspensions increase bike weight. 

Keep life simple by adopting a bike setup that can easily be stripped down and repaired.

Bike luggage could include clothing, bedding/tent, water bottles and spares. Clothing is a perennial balancing equation with either one running in excess or short of it. I hope to get it right one day. So, do not be discouraged if you haven’t hit it just right, yet. Bedding in my case is a sleeping bag. It should be lightweight but warm enough to get one some sleep and rest. Bike spares are very important and I have had occasions where some clothing had to be dumped to make way for bike spares. Chose bike spares wisely, on a desolate desert/forest stretch spares may save the bike from being dumped. Water is a necessity, and I keep one bottle. One can opt for more depending on the terrain.

Lastly, do check out the political/security situation of the terrain. For example, regarding my Grand Tour, I knew beforehand that the Sawai Madhopur-Jaipur-Bharatpur-Agra belt was very volatile and decided to cut off my tour at Bharatpur, instead of heading into Agra and then to Kanpur. I took cues from the local news and in general from my observation of the region itself. Currently, the whole area is in a lock down because of a tribal protest. All roads/rail tracks leading into Jaipur and the entire Jaipur-Dausa-Bharatpur-Agra route, are affected. The protests started around the 8th Feb, 2019 and continue raging. Its a good idea to keep checking local news and getting the latest news and information from locals. Learning key language words is a good idea if you are stepping into an alien land. Be mindful of the local culture and try to follow the advise of the local police regarding security. 

That’s it from me, stay in touch !

Cars and Climate Change

The term ‘climate change‘ is parodied around by current global media outlets at a mind boggling rate. It’s become so frequent that it mostly bounces off the collective mindsets of commoners like me. However, it does affect the lives of billions of people on our planet. The issue is that we can’t link this up to our individual scale of existence and often pass it up. 

What is climate change ? To a layman like me it’s the mother term encompassing global warming*, CO₂ emissions**, air pollution and other such ills. Climate change extends over a longer period of time. Its the climate, dummy ! Not weather. It means disruptions in climate patterns caused by human factors such as CO₂ emissions.

So, here we go :- CO₂ emissions cause Global Warming and this leads to Climate Change. These are all intertwined together in a death like grip.

I would dare say that a lot of people make a living by foisting climate change and related issues on international forums. This is not bad per se, but action at the ground level remains woefully short of promises. One wishes otherwise, rather than the same old meaningless and drab summits with people vying for media photo ops. 

What is the trigger for this rant of mine ? I have plenty of beef spinach in this. Go vegan ! For starters I am very sensitive to vehicle emissions and to add to my woes, my nose can smell out the difference between clean and polluted air. That’s what our noses are for, isn’t it ? My troubles started during the nineteen eighties when I was a teenager living in various North Indian metro cities, but mostly New Delhi .  I remember going down with severe allergy symptoms almost regularly, usually worsening further into full blown severe cold and cough. Of late I have discovered that this was due to increasing levels of vehicular and industrial air pollution particularly from coal fired thermal plants which releases CO₂ and other harmful elements into the air. 

There is data to support this :- https://knoema.com/atlas/embed/India/CO2-emissions-per-capita

The CO₂ emission data is now quantified in terms of per capita, and you can see from the chart in the link above that the per capita emission zooms off after 1978-79, with every Indian contributing nearly 2 tonnes of CO₂ emission as of 2016.

To cut a long story short, most of my life was spent in dealing with allergy and cold issues, till I discovered Ayurveda*** in Kanpur, my present city of residence. It wasn’t hard to link my condition to air pollution. By this time Air Quality Index statistics are available online for most of our Indian metros. We are now regularly crossing the hazardous air limit indices in metros of North India, with the rest of the country averaging poor or below average air quality.   Here is the latest addition to my cluttered room :- 


testAn air filter used with the filter already blackened after a few hours of usage. Seems like carbon soot formation on the filter, not sure. My city has air pollution levels that are well above the norm.

Air pollution to me then, is what ties us as individuals to climate change. Air pollution in my part of the world is mostly due to transport emissions, since industrialisation here is not significant. Thanks to our corrupt and inefficient bureaucracy, business and industry growth remains stunted in India. The result is that heavy industries which pump major pollutants into the air are few. For once we can credit our babus ( a term used here for bureaucrats ) to keep some pollution in check.

There are no large industrial units near my city, but we do have millions of vehicles plying our roads on a daily basis. Regarding other modes of transport, we don’t have a heavy duty airport nearby, and most of our railroad traffic runs on electrified power lines. So, I am going to narrow this down further to road transportation.

That brings us to the revised contribution chain in the context of my region, Road Transport pollution –> Air pollution –> CO₂ emissions –> Global Warming –> Climate Change i.e. road transport contributes to air pollution and that contributes to CO₂ emissions and so on.

Transportation is a major source of air pollution as well as that of climate change. This has been stated by environment agencies around the globe.****

Coming back to climate change, a major cause — global warming, results in rapid ice cap melting around the Poles, consequently rising sea levels threaten vulnerable sea island nations like Maldives and sea delta inundated ones like Bangladesh. Climate change has also impacted agriculture globally.^ There are national level data sets available online to study this impact.

The solution is to go green, reduce our carbon footprint^^ and chose lifestyles that lessen this downward spiral of worsening climate change. As for me, I have started shunning petrol/diesel driven cars/SUV’s as much as possible, with my multi terrain bicycle being a constant companion and a major source of transport. The influx of battery driven electric rickshaws here has been a welcome change and I often use these to move around. 

My best guess is this, if each one of us does make a modest effort in cutting back our carbon footprint, we will be making life much easier for ourselves and for our future generations. 



*Global Warming :- Gas emissions like that of CO₂ act like a blanket, trapping heat in the atmosphere contributing to a rise in global temperatures.

**CO₂ emissions :-  Happen from burning oil, coal and gas for energy use. 

***Ayrurveda :- An Indian medicine system that lays emphasis on diet, healthy living and medicines derived mostly from herbs and plants.

**** Carbon Pollution from Transportation :-  https://www.epa.gov/transportation-air-pollution-and-climate-change/carbon-pollution-transportation via @EPA


^^Carbon footprint :- The sum total of Carbon emissions caused by our individual activity.