Meet Ankit Arora, an eco-warrior bicycling across India to help build self-sustaining villages

Can you explore “the whole of Indian cities and villages” on a bicycle? Well, that’s exactly what Ankit Arora, who left his chartered accountant-turned-feature journalist-career to start an all-India cycle journey on August 27, 2017, is doing. In 4.5 years, the 32-year-old has covered 21,000 km (15 states, eight union territories, and over 1,000 villages). “The idea was different in the beginning. I had started only for pleasure and six months off from regular life. But soon, I decided to continue it for a longer time as I got to meet new people, learn new things, and also experienced the minimalistic lifestyle of villages,” he told indianexpress.com.

He believes cycle, as a medium of transport, has helped him “connect easily with different cultures”. “It’s not too fast, it’s not too slow. People notice me easily on the roads and often, out of curiosity, come to talk to me about my journey. Interestingly, many of them also invite me to their homes and locality and share their culture. If I were on a motorcycle or a car, I would have probably zoomed past an area. But on a cycle, I can easily take a break, sit with people, share a chai or a meal and talk to them without bothering about speed, time, fuel consumption and mileage productivity,” Ankit, who was born in Rajasthan‘s Ajmer, said.

Ankit Arora believes that cycle as a medium of transport has helped him “connect easily with different cultures on highways and roads than any other vehicle”

His routine changes every day “depending upon the locality and the community [he] is in”. If he is in a village, he may work with the local farmers on their fields or help them make mud houses. “Similarly, if I’m with an artisan, I will probably be learning their craft. Or if I’m in a school, I will be sharing my stories of India and teaching the students, and so on,” he described.

But, his journey is not just limited to exploring different villages, towns, and cities and meeting people. In-between, he also helped build a self-sustaining village in Krishnagiri, Tamil Nadu, in December 2021 — a community where one can practice various arts, crafts, organic farming and build natural mud houses. “After learning about different cultures and skills, I’m able to implement them. The family with whom I started the eco-village ‘Innisfree Farm’ (inspired by the WB Yeats poem ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree‘), were hosting me in Bengaluru. After knowing about my dream of setting up an open community eco-village, they also decided to leave city life and move to a village nearby. Soon, they bought a land in Tamil Nadu, and after the first Covid lockdown, we are zeroed in on a land in a mountain area near Cauvery Reserve Forest. The village was started in October 2020, and now it has two mud houses, one wooden house along with two eco-toilets, and some vegetable farming is being done,” he explained.

In his own words, a self-sustaining village should be a place where residents are able to produce at least 80 per cent of their food and dairy consumption. Also, fodder for their cattle or livestock is self-produced and the needs of livestock is also taken care of internally. Besides food consumption, there must be a rainwater harvesting for drinking water and a proper channeling of flowing water which can be stored in ponds. This water can be used for farming, gardening, for livestock as well as in the washrooms.

“The traditional wisdom of nature farming is used in a self-sustainable village. It helps avoid the expenses on seeds and chemical fertilisers. Also, there must be one or two ash crop depending upon the size of the land which will help the village to sustain financially and invest in more activities. Further, after self-consumption of vegetables and staple crop, some produce should be left to regrow within the land. This cycle of growing one’s food and reseeding will generate organic food within three to four years. Later on, these seeds can be shared/sold to nearby farmers who will grow it in their land. Thus, these seeds can be packaged and branded and sold in the market which again will help generate income for the village to sustain its activities, construction activities, labor charges, and livestock,” he said.

He believes it is important to “use local resources like local mud, local labor to build mud houses or earth architecture in the village which will help increase the employment”. “This concept of mud houses and retreat houses also invites tourism which in return help generate income for the local youth,” noted Arora, who entered Limca Book of Records and India Book of Records in 2016 for covering the 700km Golden Triangle on cycle — connecting Delhi, Agra and Jaipur — without a break in just 69 hours.

As of now, Arora’s natural farming practices involve producing vegetables for self-consumption which includes cabbage, green chilies, tomatoes, okra, bitter gourd and marigold flower without use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. “We would like to expand to sell outside along with turmeric (cash crop). We have also got some trees which gives us good produce of raw mango, jackfruit and tamarind which is locally cherished for various purposes in Tamil Nadu and whole of South India. We are also growing other trees like cherry, mangoes, sapota and some for avocados. These trees are being grown with the method of natural farming which includes preparation of Mother Earth with red clay soil, lake soil, and compost. Another method which we are doing is integrated farming, where these trees have been planned and planted within a certain distance from each other like 25 feet from each other in a row and 30 feet in a column from each other. In between this distance, other crops like turmeric or peanut will be grown. For the supply of nitrogen to the land we are using the stems of some local tree which naturally gives good nitrogen to the land and we don’t need any chemical fertilisers or pesticides for natural farming,” Arora, who has two elder brothers who are bankers, said.

For pesticides, decaying neem leaves are used by mixing it with turmeric powder or garlic water. “We are also using panchgavya as fertiliser which is made of besan, clay mud, cow dung and cow urine,” he mentioned.

While Krishnagiri remains his most cherished memory, all the other experiences that “I have got working with farmers and learning various skills from tribals in Chattisgarh, working with wood sculptures and handicraft artisans in various states are the best memories.”

ankit arora Ankit Arora also believes that it is important to “use local resources like local mud, local labor to build mud houses or earth architecture in the village which will help increase the employment” (Source: Ankit Arora)

These days, he’s also “trying a new thing which is walking around the places”. “I recently walked in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu to go more into interior places. I also worked with a community of single mothers in Belgaum, Karnataka where I taught them to make wooden utility items like kitchen cutlery, and chopping boards. I had used these skills in our eco-village also to make our own furniture out of waste wood, and kitchen cutlery out of coconut shells. I will be teaching these skills to other communities in other villages,” he shared.

Top 5 learnings in his entire journey?

*Connecting with communities can teach us many things about life skills.
*Everyone must go out and explore something in order to learn more. The knowledge received in this way can’t be taught by a college or a university.
*It’s extremely easy to connect and talk to strangers. People want to meet and know each other despite of negative rumours spread all around.
*We must go out and learn how to make connections with people from different cultures and different languages ​​to mix with them. A journey like this helps us to embrace other’s lifestyle and have empathy with them.
*The more we experiment, the more stories we will get in real and these stories help build ourselves.

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