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My beautiful Earth

Updated Friday, 29th February 2008

Bob Spicer is impressed by Indian railways and by children who know about Earth system science.

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In India over 20 million people travel by train each day. Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Bob Spicer
Delhi station: In India over 20 million people travel by train each day

This week I saw my first wheel tapper since I was a child. Maybe in the UK they keep such people hidden from public view in the darker recesses of railway sidings but there, walking along the crowded platform at Moradabad railway station with his long-handled hammer, was a wheel tapper. I was on the train, the Shramjevi Express, travelling from New Delhi to Lucknow.

If such things as wheel tappers are reminiscent of the past this would not be a true symbol of railways in India today. On my journey I saw ample evidence of investment for the future in the form of new tracks being laid and new bridges being built. In fact this week saw the publication of the Railway Budget, something that while I surfed the TV channels in my hotel room in Delhi seemed to simultaneously occupy at least eleven of them. Indian Railways is the largest single employer in the world with over a million employees, must surely be the world’s largest bureaucracy, and reportedly moves around 20 million people each day.

What is also significant is that railways are far more carbon efficient than flying, which, apart from wanting to see something of the countryside, was the reason I was on the train. What you don’t get on planes, but which was carried by a fellow passenger in the next-but-one compartment, was a sub-machine gun. Apparently there was a politician on board and this was part of the protection. My gun-toting fellow passenger proved to be wonderfully helpful when information about the progress of our journey was required.

India Railways is investing heavily in track upgrades and infrastructure to increase capacity.
India Railways is investing heavily in track upgrades and infrastructure to increase capacity.[Image: Bob Spicer]

I arrived at Lucknow station at 9.45 pm. As we drove through the streets amongst the chaos of brightly lit wedding processions mingling with buses, lorries, cars, pedal rickshaws, pedestrians and the occasional cow, I was told that I was to deliver a short speech the next day as part of Indian “Science Day”. As its name suggests, Science Day is a nationwide celebration of science involving numerous outreach activities between universities and government research centres to schools and the general public. This request to speak was something of a surprise but the day turned out to be rather wonderful.

At the Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeobotany, my hosts for this trip, part of the Science Day activities involved local children producing posters illustrating “My Beautiful Earth”. These had been judged and the winners were on display in the entrance to the auditorium where the prizes were to be given and the speeches made. After cutting the ceremonial ribbon to mark the opening of the event I, and my fellow speaker from Indian radio and television, viewed the posters. What impressed me most, apart from the high level of artistic skill, was the obvious understanding of Earth system science displayed by young people ranging in age from about 7 to 16. There it all was from deep Earth processes to atmospheric composition, with the biosphere and human activities somewhere in between. I felt that my hurriedly prepared speech was somehow superfluous. If this standard of environmental awareness is echoed across India then this country, as it walks that thin line between rapid development and environmental protection, has a brighter future than many might think.

After the speeches the children, smartly dressed in their respective school uniforms, nervously ascended the stage one by one when their names were called out and I and my fellow speaker presented the certificates of achievement and the prizes. I hope in the future some of those children remember the day when they were rewarded for their appreciation of the world as it is now, and, as they grow up in a world that will see ever greater and greater effects of climate change, they will know how to manage the environment better than my, and preceding generations, have.





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