Greening the red

Electric buses have been visible on Mumbai’s roads in the last few months. The plans seems to be to put 340 electric buses on the road by early next year. That is about 10% of the fleet. Quite a fraction of the new buses seem to have been deployed already. I haven’t been in one yet, but they are supposed to have 60 seats, and space for 30 standees (there’s another version with 25 seats). A friendly new feature is a mechanism to lift wheel chairs into the bus, or lower them to the road.

Yesterday my taxi was held up for a minute while this but backed into a parking bay on a narrow road. I clicked the photo you see here, and looked up the technical specifications. In normal use the engine uses about 150 KW from a Lithium battery which stores 186 KWh of energy. That rating should give nearly 100 hours of run. I suppose the reality is more restrictive, because according to the BEST (Brihan-Mumbai Electric Supply and Transport corporation) press handout, the batteries are supposed to last 200 Kms on city roads in a single charge. The bus is fully electric, from start to stop, and has no clutch or gear control. The company lists in-bus utilities like charging points for users and WiFi on the go, but the BEST press release does not mention them. I guess I will have to check these out when I ride the buses.

I was surprised to find that these buses have already run over 4 million Kilometers on city roads, in various cities. There are hybrid electric buses already running on intercity routes. These are the visible results of the government’s scheme, FAME, for Faster Adoption and Manufacturing of Electric vehicles in India, started in 2015. If these emission-free and (relatively) noise-free buses turn out to have a lifetime of 15 years, like the older buses on the roads, then it will be a rather nice and big change.

The pagosphere melts

Sunday morning came with news of a major disaster in a part of the Himalayas we have been planning to travel to. A part of a glacier fell into the Dhauli Ganga river right up near the part of the mountains that we wanted to visit. It sped downriver, destroying a dam, several bridges, and burying people. The count of people missing keeps rising. The work of rescue started soon, and it has been partly successful. Some of the people who were dug out will live. Finding others is proving to be difficult, and it has been very cold.

It is too early for the press to turn to the question of the reasons for this disaster, I’m afraid an old narrative will take over. Journalists are finely tuned to seek out policy errors behind the news; that is their job as part of the mechanism of checks and balances which builds a democracy. But this is not a story only of immediate policy errors. I’m afraid it feeds into a theme which had haunted my posts through last week, and which I wanted to stop writing about: the theme of climate change and a warming earth.

When you look at the featured news photo, you see people being dug out of rocks covered with glacial mud. That is part of the evidence. The other part is that the landslide accelerated down river, according to reports, traveling faster than a hydraulic hammer. The speed and the acceleration is consistent with a mass of solid accelerating under gravity. So, the underlying cause of the damage seems to be the century-long melting of these glaciers due to the warming of the earth. We have seen the glaciers of the Antarctica sliding into the ocean, the Arctic ice melting away totally. We should have seen this coming. The world’s reserves of ice, its pagosphere, is melting fast. The most immediate harm will come to people who live in high mountains.

The acceleration of the mass downstream may have been aided by the dams. The water and mud held in them could have lubricated the passage of the glacial mass, and allowed it to speed up to the extent seen. Certainly they contributed to downstream flooding. So perhaps long time human neglect has interacted with short term policy errors. Unfortunately, it is a story which could repeat. It will take very wise decision making to prevent such things from repeating. I’m also afraid we are at the beginning of climate migrations. People from the subpluvial regions of the earth have already started to migrate, creating a refugee crisis whose causes have been ascribed to economics rather than climate change (not entirely wrong, but perhaps inadequate for framing policies). Before the migration of island nations, there could be a migration of people who live in the world’s pagosphere. Since this could be mainly an internal migration, not a crossing of international borders, it may go unrecognized. But recognizing it could be a key to understanding the stresses that climate change will put on human society. But for now I’m happy to leave you with the conclusion of the tense story that began in the featured photo and ends with the one above.

Note added: Two weeks after the events, 68 people were confirmed dead. 136 are still missing, and are now presumed dead. What a tragedy!

Hot earth

After reading about mudskippers yesterday, I eventually connected them with a bit of information I’d forgotten. In the time that mangrove forests and mudskippers were beginning to evolve on the western shores of the Tethys Ocean 50 million years ago, the earth went through a climate catastrophe. Geological eras have names that I find fascinating. This was the beginning of the Eocene epoch, the name means the dawn of modern times. If you want to be more specific, you might call it the Ypresian age, a 8 million year blink of time starting 56 million years ago. What I remembered was that in the Ypresian age the earth went through a heating event that we call the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal maximum (PETM). Temperatures across the earth were between 5 and 8 degress Celsius higher than it is today.

At this time the continents had not yet reached where they are today, as you can see in the map above, but they are not completely unrecognizable. The deep oceans saw a tremendous extinction; between a third and a half of ocean species died out. The oceans became acidified and hot. Their levels rose, water saturated the air. The poles warmed more than the rest of the world. As a result, the Antartic was forested and ice free, and tropical rain forests covered southern Germany. Canada, as far north as what is today Baffin Bay, had swampy conifer forests regularly ravaged by forest fires. The part of India which is now the Thar desert seemed to have had extreme rains and weathering during that time, whereas northern Spain was a parched desert. It is hard to prevent a large body from heating up, so mammals became smaller. This may have had many consequences, but one that has been followed up is that it encouraged a rapid evolution in the ancestors of today’s horses.

Small boat in Bhitarkanika National Park, Odisha

Although the map of this world looks almost the same as ours, this hot and rain-drenched world is not suited for agriculture. Estimates of our carbon future showed that in “business as usual” scenario we will be there by the end of the century: in the time of the grandchildren of the millennials. There is a reason that projections stop at the year 2100: no climate simulation remained believable beyond that. Very recently though, a climate model was able to reproduce the PETM using reliable estimates of the amount of CO2 then present in the atmosphere, by following the small-scale dynamics of clouds more accurately. This simulation seems to say that the future temperature rise could be more extreme than had been predicted. We live in unsettled times.

Green thoughts

Newspapers have written a lot about tremendous drops in insect populations and their imminent extinction. With the climate changing before our eyes, mountain ecosystems moving to higher altitudes, the Arctic losing its ice cover, this was very clearly part of a vast and immediate problem. Or so I thought until I saw a headline which said: Insects are declining in India and we don’t even have data. Umm, if we don’t have data, how do we know? It was time to do a web search. The results were not exactly reassuring, but not harbingers of doom either.

Insect populations are definitely declining worldwide, and extremely rapidly in some places. But, as an article in The Atlantic said “The claim that insects will all be annihilated within the century is absurd … Indeed, insects of some sort are likely to be the last ones standing.” Last year the journal Insect Conservation and Diversity put together a special issue on the topic of rapid decline of insects, where many of the articles pointed out that declines have been seen in several insect species, but increase was clear in others. Climate change and direct human intervention upsets all kinds of balances in nature. An article (pay walled, unfortunately) set out a further program for study, opening with the sentences “Many insect species are under threat from the anthropogenic drivers of global change. There have been numerous well‐documented examples of insect population declines and extinctions in the scientific literature, but recent weaker studies making extreme claims of a global crisis have drawn widespread media coverage and brought unprecedented public attention. This spotlight might be a double‐edged sword if the veracity of alarmist insect decline statements do not stand up to close scrutiny.

So I am reassured that I can continue to worry about the numbers of green jewel bugs (Chrysocorix stolii) as I photograph them.

Living in nature

I had (or should that be have?) a great-grand-uncle … No. I woke up very relaxed today, but as I wrote this I got tenser and tensor. Tenses and grammar will be the death of me. So let’s start again. I have had (That’s certainly not right. Yes, but people get the idea by now) a great-grand-uncle who became notorious for building a little hut for himself around an Alstonia scholaris tree. He is quite forgotten, but his hut and tree are still associated with the history of a place more famous for his superstar of a friend and prophet. He and some others of his time were much influenced by that polymath who decided to move away from The City and live in nature. Their children were to be taught in the open, in nature. That experiment became a movement, and was an important cultural moment. Now the place is a crowded little town, and a slogan whose spirit is lost.

Nevertheless, the experiment has a lesson for us today. We may think we are living in an artificial and constructed world, but it is part of the nature we think we have separated ourselves from. Consequences? When we forget that, we are in trouble. The scooters that you see in the photo above pump CO2 into the atmosphere. That tree is part of nature’s balancing mechanism, and soaks up that carbon to build its trunk. If we cut it down, that carbon goes back into the atmosphere, and heats the planet. Growing and maintaining large tracts of forests is one way to mitigate the coming disaster. Whales are another great carbon fixer, taking the carbon out of the atmosphere into their massive bodies, excreting carbon into the upper ocean where it fertilizes the growth of phytoplankton and starts the oceanic food chain, and finally carrying the fixed carbon to the bottom of the ocean after their deaths, there to feed new life for decades.

Such large re-wilding measures are bound to be effective in their own ways, but perhaps we can help too. My great-grand-uncle’s folly, Vienna’s Hundertwasserhaus, and the hotel you see in the photo above, all express a desire to live in balance with nature. But perhaps that is no longer enough to save ourselves. Maybe organic farming with green manure, or neighbourhoods with Miyawaki forests are what we need. Electric cars and scooters create a different pollution, but they could be useful stopgap measures until better transport solutions can be made. Perhaps the pandemic has catalyzed a change. Work-from-home (WFH) allows us to move away from cities; and a distributed population does not need the hugely polluting chains of supply and transport that make up today’s world. Perhaps WFH is another way we can retool a greener world.

Rally on Republic Day

There are several things that happen around now in most years: many classical music concerts, the Mumbai Marathon, and (my favourite spectator sport) the vintage car rally. Unfortunately none of them are happening this year. So here are some photos from a past rally, ten years ago.

Have a fun republic day.

Quail on a plate

Quail was commonly available in markets when I was a child. In the late decades of the 20th century, there were many attempts to stop the depletion of wild quail from the rapidly diminishing forest cover in India. The result was a long ban on the sale of quail. This has been cautiously revoked since 2014, and currently one can buy farmed quail. It is not as simple as ordering from your delivery service, because it can only be sold under license, and the buyer needs to submit identity documents. But once you go through it, you can buy dressed Japanese quail (Coturix japonica).

I had never made this before. I’d more or less forgotten the taste of the meat. So the first decision was what marinade to use. I went with a regular harissa marination. I like the complex taste of harissa paste by itself: red chili tempered with lime, and the notes of garlic, jeera, coriander seeds, and kaala jeera. Since it goes well both on chicken and fish, it couldn’t go wrong with quail. I guess a fifteen minute marination should be fine, although I forgot about them for a while, and it became an hour. Then I found that I was not sure about cooking times, and I did not want to pop it into an oven.

Instead I improvised an oven with a thick walled pressure cooker. If you leave the top open and keep it on a low gas flame, then it stays at a reasonably constant temperature without building up pressure. I put in a tiny spoonful of oil just so that the bird does not stick to the metal. When it was hot I put the two small birds into it carefully with tongs. The thighs tend to stick, so it was necessary to turn them quickly. I could see it browning before my eyes. It is hard to control the temperature with an improvisation like this. Towards the end of the cooking I found that the pressure cooker had got too hot. I had a bottle of IPA cooling in the fridge, so I splashed some into the cooker to cool it down. The yeasty taste turned out to be a good addition.

Fifteen minutes of cook time. That was good. And at the end I had most of a bottle of IPA left over. It was time for a decadent late afternoon snack. An IPA and quail. Nice. Both. The Family raised an eyebrow, but she joined me at the table.

Later, reading about Japanese Quail I had a moment of shock. These birds had been bred in Japan for 9 centuries (since about the time that Lady Murasaki wrote the Tales of Genji), and the different breeding lines were famous for their songs. All those centuries of culture were wiped out in the aftermath of the second world war. Now they are just farm and lab animals. What a devastating cultural loss!

Viper bowstring hemp

When I paused to take photos of this common garden ornamental, I was struck by how appropriate its common name snake plant is. Unfortunately, too many different plants are called by that name, so I could call it by its binomial, Dracaena trifasciata, or call it the viper bowstring hemp. This name comes from the fact that the fibers of this plant were used to make bowstrings by the Yoruba people who live in the native range of the plant: from the Congo westwards to Nigeria. There are so many varieties of this plant (another one in the photo below) that it is sometimes hard to believe that they are all in the same species. At least one study has tried to make sure that several plants that we lump into this species are indeed one.

Although the center of diversity of the 120 species of the genus Dracaena lies in west Africa, there is increasing evidence that the genus evolved in sub-tropical Asia. The main clue to this strange event is that the closest cousins of these species are found in tropical and sub-tropical regions of eastern Asia. They have gone extinct in that part of the world, but the oldest species of Dracaena seem to lie in Hawaii and parts of South America. This apparently also happened to the family of plants called the Begoniaceae (the Begonias). So there is the beginning of a mystery here: how did that first dispersal happen, and then a second dispersal to Africa. I’m on tenterhooks now, waiting for the solution.

The plant is easy to grow indoors, and we once had one which grew very well even away from direct sunlight. I find that different varieties as well as closely related species are being sold as “natural air purifiers”. This is not entirely wrong, since many papers have been written about its ability to slowly soak up volatile organic molecules like benzene and formaldehyde. Good ventilation is perhaps a more effective way of getting rid of those indoor air contaminants. There is no evidence that the plant gets rid of suspended particulate matter, which is a major component of air pollution in India.

Walking through a small village

We walked a short distance through the seemingly inhospitable terrain near the border between Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. This was in the spring of 2006, on our first visit to Pench National Park. In medieval times this was the kingdom of the Gonds. The five century long history of the Gond rajas came to an end in the 18th century CE, when the Maratha armies captured their kingdom. The Gond state was completely demolished, and in present times we know these people only as a rural population of subsistence farmers. The only memory of that large kingdom is the name Gondwana by which the region is still known, and which was back-propagated by geologists to give a name to the southern part of the continent of Pangaea which formed 300 million years ago, of which the local rocks are a remnant.

The vegetation changed as we came nearer the village. I did not recognize it then, but the mahua trees (Madhuca longifolia) surrounding the village were planted by them. In some places these mahua groves have a sacred status. It is interesting that mahua is a keystone species in such areas, encouraging the growth of several other kinds of plants, and perhaps attracting insects and birds. I guess the ecological engineering of Gonds is something that we are yet to completely understand. Contemporary records tell us that the late medieval period in this part of India was much drier than it is today, and there were many efforts to conserve water. It would be interesting to take a wider view of this kind of ecological engineering to see its effect on conservation of this kind. This history surely has something to teach us for the future.

The village was extremely small, just a few houses clustered together. I was fascinated by the painted walls of the houses. The dado was common. In offices and hospitals, the dado usually has a darker stripe on the bottom and a lighter colour on top, to hide accidental stains. Here it was reversed as you can see. I wonder why. I liked the patterns painted around the door. The long shaft of the yoke was fascinating. I suppose the length of the shaft means that the force applied at the yoke will be more nearly horizontal, resulting in easier rolling. The trade-off is that starting and stopping will be harder. Clearly this is a cart made for long-distance hauling on a flat terrain!

The village was not very empty. Most men were out, perhaps at work. Around a courtyard we found three generations of a family. The matriarch was almost bent double. Each family owned cattle. So I suppose milk and sunlight must be plentiful. Why would osteoporosis be a problem here? I found later that Gonds usually don’t drink milk as adults, perhaps due to widespread lactose intolerance. I suppose all the households in the village had three or four generations living together, and the families would probably be related to each other. I realize that I knew very little about the culture and history of the Gonds. That’s something I should repair; I share a country with them.

Moldy midweek

I woke up to the cascading sound of heavy rain and the whistling of wind through ventilators. The tide was beginning to recede, but it was still high enough that the rain water was not able to drain out of the lawns. There has been a flood alert down the coast. In the city it will be worst at high tide. Pent up at home this week, I began to look through my photos of past Augusts, and selected a few from the first year of the decade.

The jungle babblers are the quintessential angry birds, scolding each other in the low branches of trees and hopping about in the undergrowth. I haven’t heard them in my neck of the woods. They used to be common earlier. Have they moved away? It is quite likely that they are ecological refugees driven away by the recent heavy use of pesticides which has killed their source of food. Maybe I need to explore other parts of my neighbourhood next week. Perhaps a group or two still survives.

Butterflies are other sacrifices to the altar of the new insectivorous gods. A few years ago the gardens around me were full of butterflies, like the glossy specimen of the common crow (Euploea core) you see in this photo. This season I’ve seen a few flitting about, but they are not at the densities I was used to once. A twenty minute walk in the garden would give me twenty good photos of butterflies a decade ago, and good sightings of rarer ones like the blue in the featured photo which I haven’t identified yet. It is unfortunate that a knee-jerk response to viruses is to spray against insects. This is what man-animal conflict looks like.