Staying on the Ground in India: “Slow travel is the way forward”
novembre 19, 2020

In this grounded story by Vivek Gilani we learn about his motivation to reduce flying and about train travel in India. Vivek is Managing Director of cBalance, a new Stay Grounded member, which creates climate action tools for industry, institutions and consumers. The aim is to promote sustainable development of all human communities and their interrelated ecosystems.

Aeroplanes are my fascination! Back in 2006, in the USA, when air travel was still a more expensive way to travel, I would spend all day sitting in the airport with binoculars, a note pad and an entire picnic basket. I would spot aircrafts, making lists of the scheduled flights and geographical maps of the landing strips. No matter which city I lived in I would do this and once, in Toronto, I almost got arrested as I had information about flights, runways, locations etc.

This fascination continued till 2008 when my mentor and I first developed India-specific carbon footprint calculation and reduction tools at no2co2.in. I was heartbroken when I measured the carbon footprint of a flight. An aircraft, for all its speed and beauty, carrying so many humans inside itself, turned out to be an evil. I realized that one international trip from India to the US (which had been my home for 13 years) and back would triple my footprint. I went cold turkey on air travel! I would not go for any family vacation which involved flying. Friends called me, “snooty” and “self righteous”. A lot of times I was told that I was trying to be above others but ironically when you fly, you are above me and I am below you!

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Train Station in Barog, India; Foto by Namratha Sastry

In India, train travel was an obvious and easy alternative to flights. Most places are well connected through trains and the train culture here is something to be experienced. I enjoy my train travel. From the special “tiffin” or travel food that one carries from home and co-passengers still readily share, to the diversity of language and conversations and the changing landscapes and sounds at each station, there’s much to enjoy. Of course Indian train travel also offers its share of challenges like hygiene. Unclean toilets may be a cause for concern for some people but for me it’s all about managing perception along with hygiene. If the definition of hygiene is planetary hygiene then air travel is the dirtiest way to travel.

From the early years when friends and family drifted away to today when some are beginning to understand what it means not to fly, I can happily say that my choice has nudged people along the way. A fellow social entrepreneur who used to be a serial flyer started traveling by train. He called me one morning from a Delhi train station last year, to tell me that he was taking the train to Patna to install energy efficiency equipment. Being both cities well connected by air I was shocked and glad to know that he internalized the care for earth in his practice as well.

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India – Mumbai, by Christopher Porter, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Luckily, since cBalance is a social enterprise working to mitigate climate chaos it was not very difficult to implement a ‘no-fly’ policy and find colleagues to also practice staying grounded. On the rare occasion one of us does need to fly it is the exception – a one way flight because rescheduling is not possible or a flight for health reasons. Since our work is in environmental stewardship, it is inspiring to many that our small team of young people does not default to flights for our travel needs. At any workshop or a conference, our work gets higher credibility as cBalance is known to walk its talk. Sometimes they are surprised that even the head of the organisation has taken the train. Once, the CEO of the company we were conducting a workshop for went around his whole office telling everyone that I travelled by train all the way from Mumbai only for the workshop. In fact, we jokingly say “we are training the trainers but through trains”.

When we travel as a group, we use that time and space to plan or to pause (often both). We play board games or just simply get to know each other better or catch up on sleep or reading. Occasionally we will also have conversations with the fellow passengers about politics or our work (and sometimes they have never met anyone doing such work before!). The longest train travel I’ve done was from Bangalore to Delhi which is about 35 hours of travel time. I had to go to Delhi for a workshop immediately after finishing one in Bangalore. The 35 hours was ‘my time’ to recoup and reenergize myself before I took up the climate- healing work again. Mostly, trains are a reminder to me to humanize myself especially if I’ve been flying too high in my head about who I am – it really grounds me.

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How to transform trains of 2nd class to an experience of true class. Kalaakaar « artist » in Hindi) of the 2-tier car. Foto by Mr. Dilip Das.

In these days of climate emergency, train travel is a powerful way to slow down. Anybody who is on the economic treadmill views their time as a finite resource and tries to maximize every minute. Trains become an inefficient use of time and a big obstacle for people with such mindsets. They view train travel as a time consuming mode of travel. Obsession for maximizing time does not give an opportunity to slow down and perform work better, to use criteria other than efficiency to evaluate the work.

Another implicit obstacle I see is class descrimination! In India, trains are the most used mode of transport and the so-called high society needs something else that differentiates them from the general public. Train travel becomes the common man’s transport. They see this as antithetical to the pursuit of their personal prosperity. From a climate perspective as well as from a social justice perspective I think we’ve seen enough of the damage done to realise that we all need to learn to be ordinary and become common people irrespective of where we hail from.

Over the next few years, my next milestone is to not take a flight internationally and find a sea route to Europe. I also want to find a sea-route to the USA. I’m hoping that through our work we find many more colleagues, collaborators and clients within India who cut back on flying.

We are all surrounded by people who push us to be and do what the world defines is normal! But we need to stay focused and understand that slow travel is the way forward. Slow, not in terms of time, but slow, as a way to look at humanity through a different lens like a worm through the earth versus a missile through the sky. Slow, as a way to enrich the earth through our life on it.

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cBalance team. Foto by Namratha Sastry.