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 …..

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^https://www.ecotech.com/odd-even-policy-delhi-explained

^^http://www.urbanemissions.info/india-apna/kanpur-india/

*https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Classification_of_Indian_cities

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

^*^https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/mumbai/why-is-the-aarey-forest-land-in-mumbai-in-the-news/article21822979.ece

^*https://www.mmrcl.com/

^^https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/bombay-hc-refuses-to-declare-mumbai-s-aarey-colony-forest-area-also-declines-to-quash-approval-to-cut-trees-for-metro-car-shed/story-8oudEbPrD0mO6SgtA3GKaO.html

 

 

 

In the Works

Apologies for not writing anything here. I have been very busy trying to set up a new 29″ MTB for mountain travel, but it seems that it’s too late for the Manali-Upshi or Manali-Leh trip. Winter has set in at the high altitude Manali-Leh road and most of the tented accommodation on the high passes will probably be winding up.

The new 29″ looked good for starters but as I started using it, there were probably dozens of tweaks and modifications required for a high altitude trek. First off, the rear hub was changed and a 9 gear cassette installed, then the triple chainwheel front gear system. A rear pannier was installed. It turned out that the handlebar had to be elevated for a comfortable ride, this was one by installing an adapter. It took me nearly 2 months to order all the parts and modify the bike. Everything else seems OK but transportation remains a major issue and I am not confident of boxing the bike and re-assembling it in Manali. Hence, I dropped that plan for now. Working on alternatives.

All-in-all, I will probably head for the Rishikesh-Gangotri section rather than Manali-Leh, as the road, there is open till October 27, 2019. The Manali-Leh road will close up by October 15, 2019 ( probable date ). Temperatures in the high passes on the Manali-Leh road are already below zero and will drop further, with rains on the lower segment. Most people have advised me to drop the Manali-Leh trek plan, and that is what I am probably going to do. If a good opportunity for hassle-free bike transfer to Manali does open up, with someone tagging along ( both seem impossible now ), I will reconsider my decision to drop the Manali-Leh route.

The Rishikesh-Gangotri road is OK after Chamba, and I am planning to take it up from Chamba with my bike. It will be quite cold but not anywhere near the cold in high passes of Manali-Leh road. On further inquiry, it turns out that the Uttarkashi-Gangotri stretch is under heavy repair/construction work. The stretch from Chamba to Uttarkashi via Mussourie road is in better shape.

I will be posting a pic of the modified 29’er soon.

Added Later: Here is my new beauty:

The bike is meant to carry weights up to 15 kg., and is geared for faster runs in mountains. It is a hardtail, has one shocker in the front. The tires are 29×2.1 which will hopefully tackle grit and dirt tracks on mountains too.

Update on 08/10/2019: Heavy snowfall (6 inches) reported in Rohtang Pass on 06/10/19 night and 07/10/19 morning which means the link between Manali and Keylong is broken. Snowfall was also reported in Marhi, Gramphu, and Darcha. HRTC has decided to suspend bus services between Manali and Keylong. Rescue operations to evacuate tourists trapped in Rohtang pass are on.

Update on 18/10/2019: Manali-Leh road has been officially closed as on 15/10/2019. Government picket at Darcha has been removed, the one in Sarchu had been removed earlier. Tourists can still travel on the road but at own risk.

Update on 05/11/2019: Air pollution levels in North India have reached unhealthy/hazardous levels and it doesn’t help to see the cavalier attitude of people in India, mainly the authorities, who are unable to stop this situation year-after-year. My city Kanpur is registering very unhealthy/hazardous levels for the past two-three weeks now. This is also taking a toll on my health as I am quite sensitive to air pollution. Trying to recover and escape this disaster by making a cycling trip somewhere else, as soon as I can.

Stay in touch!

 

 

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?

Trip to Uttarakhand

In the the midst of a severe heat wave here in North India, I decided to put my MTB to the test by heading off to the Lower Himalayas in Uttarakhand state. The original plan was to take my bike on bus to Haridwar* and then move on bike from there to Gangotri**. However, it turned out that the entire road stretch from Rishikesh*^ to Gangotri was being cut up to make a three lane all weather highway. This meant that I had to truncate the trip up to Chamba^, and then restrict myself in and around that area. 

Haridwar to Chamba, Tehri

With current temperatures hovering around 48 degrees Celsius in my state, it was impossible to bike from Kanpur, my home town to Haridwar, situated about 500 km. away. As mentioned earlier using state transport buses to ship bikes is risky here but I had no other option and decided to set off on the 1st of June, 2019. The journey was a grueling 16-hour ordeal starting off at 5 pm and ending around 9 am on the 2nd June 2019. The bike did not suffer any major damage but I lost my seat cover and had to buy a local one for the onward journey. Air-conditioned buses do not transport MTB bikes here so I had to use normal transport.

Haridwar turned out to be overflowing with religious tourists and unending traffic jams. The town was running short of accommodation so I had no option but to take off for Rishikesh after unloading my bike. It was quite hot there with temperatures around 45 degrees Celsius. In order to avoid traffic snarls, I used the Rajaji National Park route to go to Rishikesh. The Reserve runs through prime wild animal country and the route was scenic except for the heat. There is a risk of running into wild elephants and big cats so it’s advisable to try and zip through the Reserve as fast as possible. The entire road stretch has wildlife warning signboards. There are some pretty steep up and down gradients here and I noticed an issue with my braking in the downhill segments.

Arriving in Rishikesh around 12:00 pm afternoon I took up a room in a neat and tidy ashram situated on the river bank. It turned out later that Rishikesh was also running out of hotels and accommodation because of the tourist rush. The local newspapers stated that about 100,000 tourists were entering the area on a daily basis meaning that ATM’s, hotels and the local infrastructure was unable to cope with the deluge. On the plus side the fastest option to zip in and around the town was on the bike. Cars and buses were caught in almost unending traffic jams.

IMG_8510

                                                Bike at the Rishikesh ashram

I stayed for 2 days at the ashram, trying to work on the brakes and servicing my bike for the long haul ahead, starting off on the 4th of June around 7 am, from Rishikesh for Chamba about 60 km. on an uphill climb. Chamba is almost 4000 feet higher up than Rishikesh.

                                                           On the way to Chamba

The road was pretty good till Narendra Nagar and I took frequent breaks to enjoy the scenery and recover somewhat from the steep uphill gradients. Traffic was rare, unlike in Rishikesh and Haridwar. Narendra Nagar turned out to be a scenic town with beautiful valley views.

IMG_8525

                                                 Narendra Nagar watering hole

Beyond Narendra Nagar however, the road turned out to be a horror show. I hit the first cut up road segment about 2 km. on from here and had to dismount to negotiate the strewn rocks, gravel and potholes. To top it all, traffic had started arriving and I was soon plastered with dust and grime. Hoping against hope, I decided to plod on but the road turned out to be worse than I thought. It was bearable till Agarkhal where I took my last picture from my mobile cam thereafter it was simply trying to scrape through by dragging my bike on steep uphills covered in dust and grime, trying not to damage the bike.

IMG_8528

                                             Agarkhal, on the way to Chamba

I arrived in Chamba around 7 pm in the evening and was totally exhausted, having covered almost 20 km. uphill on foot, dragging my bike and my sorry behind. The bike was not in good shape with the transmission and the brake pads all covered in mud and grime. During discussion with Chamba locals on the way up I was told that this was the condition of the road all the way up to Gangotri, which meant that I had to cut short my trip and switch to Plan B i.e. tour the local area instead. The hotel in Chamba was really good and I had a good night’s rest, cleaning my bike the next day early in the morning to explore the local area.

                                                 Hotel Gautam Residency, Chamba

Chamba was a bit hot in the day/afternoon, but turned out to be cold enough to use a blanket in the night. The town has NO bicycle repair/sale shops. In short, you have to carry all your spares with you. I decided to visit the famous Tehri dam^^ about 25 km from Chamba and took off at around 8 am on the 5th of June. There are two ways to reach Tehri town and the dam, and I decided to use the mostly downhill New Tehri town road to go to the dam. There was a steep uphill segment for about 5 km. after which it was a steep downhill till the dam.

                                                 On the way to Tehri dam

 Make sure your brakes are good or it will be a lot of trouble negotiating the downhill. New Tehri as well as Tehri town are well worth visiting and staying at, there are a lot of water sports activity in the Tehri lake and of course the scenic mountain view itself. The dam is a huge structure and it has created the artificial Tehri lake. Honestly, the concrete dam looks like an eyesore when you put it next to all the scenic mountain views next to it. But I guess it does create hydro electric power, considering the power shortages across several states.

                                     Tehri Dam from the Tehri Dam Viewpoint

I did manage to enter the dam premises about 2 km down from the Dam View Point but the security guards there did not allow tourists to enter the road that passes through the top of the dam. The way back to Chamba was a grueling, lung blowing 16 km. uphill ride  and I was back at the hotel by about 8:30 pm. I did notice Bharal — Himalayan sheep on the way up to Chamba, perched on rocky ledges directly above me, but they were too well camouflaged in the dry bush for a mobile cam pic.

My plan to go back to Rishikesh was to load the bike on a  bus, but I thought the better of it and hired a taxi with ample space to stuff my bike inside it. I did not want to expose it to the dust and grime on the way back to Rishikesh plus there was the risk of the bike being unhinged from its moorings on the rooftop and falling off. Luckily, my plan was readily agreed on and we were on the road back to Rishikesh by 8 am in the morning, 6th June.

                                                    The bike transport at Chamba

The road back was the same potholed, grime covered dirt track with some clean patches in between. The ride was bumpy even in the SUV sized jeep and this was when the traffic was almost nonexistent. The same track would become dry and dusty with traffic jams in the afternoon.

                    Crater size potholes and wet muddy dirt tracks on the road back

Rishikesh turned out to be the same traffic jam infested nightmare as before, and I took up lodging across Laxman Jhula, hoping for a bit of seclusion. It turned out to be a wrong gamble. The place was teeming with tourists even on the hill face across the Ganges. However, my dorm accommodation was much peaceful and the management was helpful enough to take care of my bicycle even though parking is very difficult up the hill face. The dorm had clean bathrooms and the overall ambience was good, I would recommend it to travelers like me. I did order ‘Queen on the Hill’ dessert in their restaurant and it was 5 star hotel quality both taste and presentation wise.

                                                Maa Ganga Guest House dorm

After servicing my bike and getting some rest I decided to head off exploring the hills next to Laxman Jhula next day, specifically taking the uphill roundabout through Neelkanth bridge and then into Tapovan. The route is scenic and one can see the Ganges in its raging full flow with excited river rafters passing on it below. It’s a 9 km., mostly uphill winding road.

      Clockwise, Neelkanth bridge view, roadside watering shack and Laxman Jhula

That done, I did walk through the area for a bit, and got done Ayurvedic treatment for my ears. I have experienced tinnitus issues after freediving sessions here in the Ganges river at Kanpur. I was thankful for that decision as the treatment resulted in almost immediate relief to my issue. Am planning to visit Rishikesh again for the same, maybe after 4-5 months.

Next day i.e. 8th of June was the day to explore the Garud Chatti waterfall up hill from Laxman Jhula. It’s called the Patna waterfall in Rishikesh. The waterfall is about 2.5 km. from the Neelkanth bridge and one has to trek at least 1 km. uphill to reach it.

Waterfall, bike at roadside shack on the road below the fall and bike on the way to the waterfall

With all this done, it was time to head back to Haridwar, and because of persistent brake issues, I took the city route from Rishikesh to Haridwar. The steep gradients of the Rajaji park route would have been too risky with the skippy brakes. I arrived at Haridwar on the 9th June 2019 and made straight for the Inter State Bus stand where I learned that I had missed my bus. Somehow I did manage to get accommodation in Haridwar. It was over-priced and pretty bare bones but with all the tourist inflow in Haridwar, I was lucky. The ATM’s in Haridwar were dry and the place was overflowing with tourists. Next day i.e. 10th June was when I departed from Haridwar, around 12 pm afternoon and was back at Kanpur by 6 am on the 11th June.

Next planned trip is Manali to Leh in July 2019, I may skip Leh to head for Pangong Lake Road, but all that is in planning phase. Will be working on upgrading my brake mechs for the trip. Do keep visiting the blog!

Haridwar*

Gangotri**

Rishikesh*^

Chamba^

Tehri Dam^^

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.

Sources:-

*https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/39341/2903170

**https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/dec/14/queensland-shark-numbers-down-by-90-per-cent-in-55-years-for-some-species