Tag Archives: Environment

Return to the land of my youth

It is the beginning of October. In a few days, the winter season will begin. Presently it is quite hot in the day. Here in Panchkula which is very near to Chandigarh, rains have almost vanished. Once upon a time not so long ago, it was an agricultural area irrigated by five streams or Kul as they are called in the local parlance. The name of the place is the combination of two words namely Panch (five) and Kula (streams).

The land was very fertile. The system of the irrigation was an ingenious community exercise. These streams issued from the Ghaggar River which flowed through the place and passed along the edges of the lands of the landowners. The river originates in the Shivalik hills. It dries down in the Rajasthan. Ghaggar River is mentioned in Vedic literature and it was an important river along with Saraswati River which is now believed to be flowing underground. The days and durations were fixed for each piece of land depending upon the quantity of the water available and area of the land holdings. It was a very peaceful and mutually benefitting exercise. It was a win-win situation for everyone. It is an open fact that division of the irrigation water is a very sensitive issue and leads to unending conflicts. Everyone in India is aware of Tamilnadu and Kerala spat over the distribution of Kaveri waters. It is going on for the years.

The Panchkula is now a big city and a satellite town to Chandigarh. The land is scarce for frenzied building activity. Almost all the agricultural land has been bought by builders at exorbitant cost resulting in very high cost of flats. Even the Ghaggar River is now bearing the brunt of this expansion. At many places its natural flow has been modified or blocked. Quarrying of sand, pebbles is taking place. The day is not far when the river will be lost. The five streams are already dead.

My childhood and youth was spent in a village called Manimajra adjacent to Panchkula. In those days Panchkula was a small village like many other villages. We had agricultural land at two places falling within Panchkula. It was routine for us to walk to our fields after the school was over. We went on foot and fields were quite far. On the way, the path meandered through the fields and streams. In the summers, we enjoyed bathing in those streams splashing water over one another and bathed the buffalos.

It was all green with crops like wheat, barley, millet, sugarcane, cotton, chilies and paddy in the respective seasons.  There were mustard and gram crops which imparted yellow color to the flat interminable stretches of the flat land. There were many gardens with mango, guava and other. Many a times we stayed in the night in the shelters built on the land itself. In the winter seasons, Gur (jaggery) was prepared from the juice of sugarcane and we used to enjoy the fresh product.

Land was acquired by Haryana Government at a very low price and a housing board was built. It was the beginning of the breakneck building activity.

I have left the place after I got a Government transferable job and after 35 years have returned to this place. Fields are almost gone. Yet there are some stretches of the agricultural land still resisting and looking at the rich crops standing in them takes me back to my childhood days. At that time we never gave a thought of what is coming in future. Now it is all over. Wherever you look, you will find high-rise building. Lots of labors from East UP and Bihar have come here for work.

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Observing the Nature

How often do we leisurely watch the nature around us? General answer will be not often. Do we sit out in the evening and watch the sun going down, its glow becoming golden, and shadows lengthening and blinking through the chinks in the trees? Do we watch the groups of birds flying towards their homes after spending their day in a far off place where the food is available to forage? Why, in the first place, they don’t make their resting places near the food. May be the supply is not available at one place throughout the year and their resting places are at optimum distance from the foraging places. Why do they always fly in the groups? Is not their pressure or competition for food? Is the father of Evolution theory listening?

After reeling under the sweltering heat for many days, if there is rain, it is like a fresh breath of life. The parched land is drenched with water pushing out the air filled with earth’s aromas into the atmosphere and filling our nostrils with ecstasy. The accompanying wind rushes into the branches which sway from side to side at the top such as in the mighty silver oak trees. One wonders how the topmost leaves are receiving their requirement of water and nutrients. In optimistic hope of supply from the soil, additionally they must be conserving the water by reducing their stomata counts, As they are in the top, they have the benefit of plenty of sunlight. I also wonder if the leaves at the top are in any sort of communication with those at the lower branches.

Rain patters on the tins of roofs. Water begins to flow over the soil surface seeking places which are at lower level to become pooled there. The dust on the leaves which was choking the plants breath is washed up and translucency returns. Sometimes after the rain, sun comes out and everything shines resplendently. The weather becomes bearable.

Bacteria in Oilfields

Bacteria can thrive on almost anything and adapt themselves to very diverse environments. They can eat subsist on substances like cellulose which we humans cannot assimilate. They can breakdown poisonous gases like hydrogen sulfide and absorb nitrogen from atmosphere and fix them into the roots of many plants which plants use as fertilizer.

Bacteria can even breakdown crude oil. Crude oil consists of millions of hydrocarbons which are composed from carbon and hydrogen. These compounds range from the simplest molecule called methane made from 1 carbon atom to giant molecules containing even more than 50 carbon atoms.

Many of these bacteria live in the upper crust of the soil. They have attained the capability to use lighter hydrocarbon gases namely methane, ethane, propane and also the higher molecular hydrocarbons as the source of the carbon nutrient for energy. These are called aerobic bacteria and commonly termed as methanotrophs, propanotrophs and so on. They use like us the atmospheric oxygen to oxidize the hydrocarbons and end result is energy, carbon dioxide and water, the same products as are generated during the digestion of food by us. Of course, they also need so many other nutrients like electrolytes, trace elements which they use to synthesize enzymes which help in carrying out degradation reactions at much lower temperatures.

But this is not the end of story. There are bacteria which can survive in the anoxic (without oxygen) environment such as deeply buried bacteria which breakdown the organic matter. They extract the oxygen required to breakdown the organic matter from the sulfate ions present in the water associated with the organic matter. They breakdown the organic matter to methane and one strain of them is aptly called methanogens.

One may wonder if such bacteria exist deep down and breakdown the oil why have they eaten up all the oil present inside the reservoirs. The answer is that they are sloths in nature. They multiply with speeds nowhere near to the aerobic bacteria. Experimenters working in proliferating and separating the pure strains are often frustrated with there laziness.

The hypothesis that all the biogenic gas has been produced by aerobic bacteria is being challenged because biogenic gas has been found in the deeper sediments generated under anaerobic conditions. Researchers say that the methane trapped inside the ice crystals called gas hydrates has been the handiwork of methanogens.

A shard of water

The scene from the balcony of my apartment in the third floor of the building is breathtaking. It harks me back to my childhood. The place where all these apartments have come up were fields then. There were rills with gurgling water running through the path which led us from our home into our land.

Now this patch which is remaining reminds me of those times. There are fields in which the cattle graze when the land is fallow. In the rainy season, the cattle roll in the mud and after that go to bath in the pond of water.

This pond looks like a shard of mirror. It is a narrow strip of water. I was surprised why the pond does not get dried. Still there is water. This time I found the answer. There is a river not far from our place. It is called Ghaghar. It is not a big river like the other mighty rivers of Punjab. In the past, as I have mentioned, there were small streams which ran through the area and distributed the water for irrigation to the landowners on the rota basis. I have presumed that all those stream must have become extinct but I was surprised to see one in which pristine water was flowing and leading towards the pond and beyond.

There is a narrow path made from the constant walking of the people. It is narrow strip of bald land. People who are walking on the path look tiny specks from our home. During the high sun, the water simmers and it becomes difficult to look at it directly.

From the height of our home, the pond seems to like a broken piece of mirror-placid. But a closer look indicates lots of activity taking place there inside it. Buffaloes wallow in it. Besides you can see the cormorants and ducks smoothly swimming over the water surface. Water continuously exits the pond from other side.

There is algae over a part of it. The same algae called cyano-bacteria or green algae which is on the surface of the earth since times immemorial when no other form of life existed. This is the same algae which is the precursor of life that is present on the earth.

On the other side is a preserved patch of woods where eucalyptus and poplar trees grow along with undergrowth. There are trodden paths running and getting lost inside these woods. These remind me of the poem “the road less taken” by Robert Frost.

I don’t know how long this patch of remaining land will last. I fear the day is not far when the demon of concrete will overtake it. In the last I present a picture of laborers carrying dried wood stick bundles on their heads for firing their hearths and sitting around the fire for keeping the winter at bay.773614_4119964200461_125172242_o 773760_4119963520444_349074978_o

Algae: A machine to make energy

In the beginning there was carbon dioxide, water and sunlight on our Earth and its environment. The same carbon dioxide which is the end product of today’s industrial processes. The factories spew carbon dioxide. Scientists are finding ways to fix this carbon dioxide which is the major cause of greenhouse effect and results in trapping the heat and disallows it dissipate and result in Global warming.

Whereas in the present climate living beings mostly use oxygen to breakup the food and convert it to glucose and energy, in the beginning only organism that thrived on carbon dioxide was called green algae. It mastered the art of harvesting sunlight by a process called photosynthesis in which it converted the freely available carbon dioxide and water into glucose which it used as food. But along with the glucose, another product was formed which we call oxygen and cannot live without.

Now the families of these algae, again seem to be rescuing us from the crisis of energy. The mineral oil and coal, major sources of energy are not inexhaustible and considering there rate of consumption, there is a concern to find the alternate sources of energy. One example is ethanol manufacturing from the corn.

Algae is holding the promise to save us again. The green covering on the ponds looks very unattractive but these tiny globules contain lipids which can be converted into the biofuels. Some of these also contain hydrocarbons. These algae sequester the carbon dioxide infused into the environment and helps cleaning the atmosphere.

At this stage, efforts are on to increase the yield of biomass and make it commercially viable. For this favorable conditions are being created to grow the algae into the open ponds where yield shall be more due to availability of sunlight also. Algae is attacked by some aquatic species called rotifers. Efforts are on to create the media which shall do away with all these problems.

Besides the energy in the form of lipids, there are algae which are excellent diet supplement because they contain a myriad number of minerals and proteins. One such algae is spirulina which is very popular among the people who want to become slim by shedding the weight.

Such a long journey

Journeys serve different purposes for different people and different times. Some people are very fond of visiting newer places and get the first hand experience of the place. Although these days you can read about place and see pictures on the internet but personally experiencing the place is simply different. Many journeys are performed with specific purposes like visiting the distance relatives, attending some meetings, marriages and to be with acquaintances in the hours of distress. In India, journeys are seldom undertaken for the pleasure because of the shoestring budgets in hand. Work was the main purpose of the journey.

Curiosity is behind this propensity of journeying. Whatever we read and see through books and multimedia increases our curiosity to visit and see with our own eyes. Now one can very well imagine the curiosity of the primitive man because before him lay the whole unknown and unexplored worlds. He was always on the move as a hunter in search of kill. He seldom returned to the earlier destination which was but a temporary residence. This went on till he got tired of moving and the womenfolk who in addition to teaming with their mates for hunting also bore and raised the offspring, discovered that some grasses yielded the seeds which were edible and easy to grow. So whenever they stayed behind, they began planting the grasses. This decreased the dependence on the hunting and arrested their wanderings to a greater extent. Then they began keeping the cattle which added to the profit of the household.

This way our ancestors laid the foundation of stable residences. It also provided them with free time. The lactation period of the women decreased. The result was population explosion. Although mortality must had been very high but still the increase in population was very high as there was still no competition for food which must have been in plenty. Again the resources in the vicinity begun to feel the pressure and competition for food sent from time to time some groups of people to other places in search of food. There they adapted themselves to different climates and food items. Thus the variations in the structure and features began separating. The changes have been so drastic that many people shall not be ready to agree that once upon a time in the remote past all their predecessors were similar.

Plants are very Smart Indeed

Plants are very smart, efficient and unforgiving in the energy management. Unlike the animals, who cannot regrow their limbs, plants see to it that inefficient leaves are cast off and replaced by new efficient one’s so that the food making machine continue to run smoothly. The leaves make the food by combining carbon dioxide and water in the presence of chlorophyll which shepherds the energy from sun and store it in the plant. Animals make use of this energy by eating the plant parts. This pigment imparts green color to the leaves and masks the faint colors of other chemicals like caroteneoids.

As soon as, the plant know that the a given leaf is under performing, it gradually decrease the supply of chlorophyll and also reclaims whatever it can of the other components. Gradually the color of leaf begins to become yellowish and it looses it strength and fall off the branch. Older leaves are constantly replenished and plant continues to make its food.

When the winter comes, the Sun is hardly visible because sky is mostly overcast. So the plants plan to shut down the food making factories. They withdraw the chlorophyll from the leaves and like polar bears go into a state of hibernation. Leaves acquire beautiful brown, reddish and yellowish hues due to the waning of the effect of chlorophyll. As the winter recedes, Sun comes out, the food making is resumed.

Sense of Ennui

Our colony is very big in comparison to most colonies in Bombay. It is spread over an area which has circumference of about 3 kilometers. There are 1400 flats. Once upon a time this colony was bustling with people. But after the 2005 floods decadence has set in. An exodus ensued and people began to leave the colony and shifting to nearby Kharghar area. As the number of residents dwindled the administration became slack and maintenance suffered greatly. Presently the colony seems to be ghostly place after the dusk. Only about 50% flats may be occupied.

Number of security guards is same as before. They are posted at different locations in the colony. Those who are guarding the buildings of offices invariably sleep in the night. In the day time they gather in groups and sit at some convenient place for gossiping. Their favorite pastime is gossiping & giggling with the home maids and women sweepers who come from outside the colony and have to wait for breakfast and lunch time to finish and then enter the homes. In the vacant time they sit and chat with the guards.

The security guards also cluster around some women vendors who sell the vegetables and fruits going around on foot. These women sometimes give the fruits and veggies to them. Another favorite place of guards is the tea and snacks shop in the shopping center. They cannot be blamed for that. After all everyone requires food.

They seem to have bored from doing the same duty over the years. In the winters they have to shiver because there are no structures for them to sit in. Usually they make fires and sit around it. In the summer, the suffer the heat and mosquitoes all night. They have either to bring water from their homes or from shopping center as no where else the drinking water is available. There is no provision for toilet except their office at the gate which is about 1.5 kilometers from the farthest post in the colony.

Why Water is Different from other Liquids

Three fourth of the surface of the earth is covered with oceans. Water sustains the life on our planet. Salts and many organic compounds like sugars are taken by our bodies in the form of their solutions in water. Water is the medium in the cells of our bodies and salts conduct their business of sending the electrical signals to intended parts of the body from the brain. If you lose the water from your body through perspiration or other processes you have to replenish the deficiency by drinking the water else the solutions inside your body and blood will thicken and equilibrium will be disturbed and you will fall ill.

Since water was there from the beginning, our evolution took place in such a manner so as make use of water. Like the volume of water on this earth, our bodies contains about 75-80% water. We use water in umpteen number of ways. Washing the clothes and our bodies, growing the crops, generating electric power  are only a few of them. In fact, life cannot be imagined on this planet without water.

Water exists in many places on the earth from some of which it is easily accessible and others from which special techniques have to be applied for obtaining it. It is available on the surface of earth in the form of rivers, lakes and ponds. It exists in the sandy seams underneath the earth from where wells have to be dug to obtain it. Although the water available on the land is a miniscule fraction of the water in the oceans, the water in the oceans cannot be used as such from drinking because of very high salinity. That is why the adage was coined “Water water everywhere but not a water to drink”. Water is a very powerful solvent. Almost nothing can remain unaffected which comes in contact with it.

Structure of water molecules is very simple. It is also made of atoms like other chemical compounds. It is made up of 2 hydrogen atoms attached to 1 oxygen atom But its geometry, as one would expect is not linear with oxygen and two hydrogen atoms on either side in a straight line. No, it is unique. Even being a very simple molecule, it has abnormal properties because it is not linear but V-shaped. This gives water polarity which enables it to dissolve so many salts.

Water never remains static at one place. It is always in the dynamic state and this process is guided by temperature and pressure variations. Water molecules are ambulatory in nature going places and returning back to ocean ultimately but after different times depending on the place they have visited.

Due to evaporation, some of water molecules escape from ocean, rise up and form the clouds and drift to different areas. When the reach the cooler regions, they precipitate and fall back on the earth. If the temperature is very low then water deposit as ice, otherwise it becomes rain and flows to the lowest levels available on earth. Some of these molecules collect in lakes, some get absorbed in the earth and percolate down into the layers where there are porous spaces available. When the mountain ice melts it forms the rivers and begin the journey seawards. They may reach the ocean back or may not. On it way, river picks of more water from its drainage basins. Some rivers become very mighty. The water on the land again evaporates and some of it reaches ocean through precipitation. The time a water molecule spends a given location is called its resident time. Thus the water which percolates into earth has highest resident time.

The water in the rivers leach salts from the land in its contact and become saline. It continues to do so till it empties itself into the sea. So seawater becomes saline. Over a period of millions of years, equilibrium has been established and a general average composition has been attained by the sea water. There might be areas of short lived variations like the mouth of the river and sea interface or the areas where the weather is still and hot.

The water which percolates through layers of earth into a water reservoir is comparatively cleaner because suspended impurities are filtered off from it. But resources are required to pinpoint it and then dig the well. After the water source is found, a tube has to be thrust inside to prevent the formations from collapsing into the well and closing it. The river water can be used for drinking purposes but not before its purification which involves getting rid of suspended impurities, disease causing microbes. The water cleaning plants has to be set up for this purpose. The river waters have suffered by the pollutants which the industrial waste dumped into them introduces.

Water has some peculiar properties which make it so special. One of these is that water has maximum density at 4 degree Celsius. This means that the water which is at this temperature will be the heaviest. It is due to this property that is crucial for the survival of aquatic species in the extremely cold weathers when water in the ocean freezes. When the temperatures begin to drop, the density of water begins to shrink and it becomes heavier. At 4 degree Celsius, it becomes the heaviest and sinks to bottom and lighter water surfaces up. This again cools and a stage comes when temperature reaches freezing point, the upper crust freezes. But the ice which forms at the surface is bad conductor of heat and does not allow the water below to loose heat and freeze. Thus the water remains in the liquid form below allowing the aquatic species to survive.

Water can exist in three physical states like other substances but it has some anomalous behavior. While most of other substances experience decrease in the volume-shrinkage-the water increases in volume while going from liquid to solid state. Thus the ice is lighter than the water. In fact 1 liter of liquid water yields 10 liter volume of ice.

Another interesting property of water is osmosis. In this process if two water solutions containing different amounts of dissolved salts are separated by semipermeable membrane, the water from the solution with lower salt concentration moves through membrane towards the solution of higher concentration and dilutes it till the concentration of salts in the both solutions becomes identical.

Let us illustrate this with an example. Suppose you take out a fish living in the highly salty sea water and put it in the fresh water. The osmosis phenomena will start. Fresh Water rushes inside the body of fish and fish will bloat. In a reverse case, the fish from fresh water will shrink when put into the seawater. Thus habitats of the fishes determine the properties of the animals living in them. Both are fishes but of different qualities.

The children can get information about water by clicking here.

What is Happening?

When someone asked the humorist writer Mark Twain which investment shall bring in the maximum profit, he had said “Buy land, they’re not making it anymore”. As always how true he was. The demand for land is rising and rising relentlessly. Our health quotient is improved day by day resulting in increased life expectancy. More people, more wealth they generate and with more wealth, everybody wants to live a life of comfort. Three basic needs: house, food and clothing are putting extreme pressure on our planet. Even though Sun is helping us in the synthesis of food, the area under agriculture is diminishing. As the demand is ever increasing, technologies are being developed to increase the yield of the crops. This invariably introduces bactericides and fertilizers which go towards harming our health in the long run. But modern humans have means to get treated, thus lending a big hand in the proliferation of medicines. Thus vicious cycles are being created every moment.

Where is the rural land going? The need to get the house to live in is the answer. We are so short of the land that we have begun to expand our living space vertically. We are thus loosing our touch with the soil from which we are constituted. We try to create replica of the gardens in our homes in the form of potted plants. The urban monster is like an octopus which is spreading its tentacles and grabbing the rural land ruthlessly. It is swelling day by day. The farmers are forced to sell their lands to make way for housing societies. The idioms like “How green was my valley” are getting redefined.

The prices of the land are increasing in an unthinkable manner and still there are buyers. There are financial institutions to make it possible and lure the people. In these circumstances, whole life of person goes into paying debts which are multiplied through installments and interest many times over.

In the featureless plains of Punjab, the land was as flat as drawing board. Not an inch of land is left which is not under the plough. The pressure on the land has been so heavy that its natural fertility has been reduced to almost nil. Now it has become simply a container in which unless you do not add fertilizers, water and other nutrients, you will not get anything. The water level beneath has gone down drastically. Whereas previously it was about 25-40 meters, now it has touched 100 meters. The agriculture has thus become an costly venture.

In the older times, in Punjab the girls when married generally never claimed their share in the parental land and it will go to the brothers after the father is gone. These are things of past now. With the land fetching exorbitant prices, there have been cases of husband sending the woman to go to her parents and ask  for her share. Even if she does not want, she is forced to. Some of the son-in-laws are threatening the parents of girls to keep the girls back or give her her share. There have been violent scenes at many houses. I know a family in which the woman had done the work in her in-laws place like an bullock. From morning till night, it has been all work , work and work. In addition, she had reared 5 children. The man had been many extra marital affairs which everyone knows. Despite all this, she had been happy and content. And now when her brothers sold their land, her husband sent her to get her share or otherwise don’t come back to his house. Such stories abound now.