Bengaluru: Illusionary triumph of technology over ecology


We tend to think of cities like Bengaluru as ecologically homogeneous. Rather than local ecology or geography, it is likely to be ‘pragmatic’ considerations of distance to transport hubs, office, home or school, that shape our decisions of where to live, work and build. Yet the history of settlement and growth in the pre-modern landscape of Bengaluru reveals basic ecological wisdom that we need to recover from our ancestors.

Centuries before the creation of the market town by Kempe Gowda in 1537, inscriptions on copper plates, stones and monuments tell us of at least 75 thriving villages in the landscape of Bengaluru from 517 CE onwards.

Situated in the Deccan plateau, Bengaluru is in a semi-arid region where water is scarce.

Seasonal streams were exploited by early settlers in the eastern grassy plains, who cleared thorny vegetation, deepened existing wetlands and created tanks or lakes.

They used this water to create a flourishing agricultural and horticultural landscape.

In the west, with its undulating rocky terrain, establishing agriculture was more difficult, and cattle herding was the main form of livelihood.

Thus did the villages in this pre-urban landscape deal with variegated undulating terrain, soil and rainfall patterns, deftly managing nature to create tanks, grow paddy and millets, fruit and flower orchards, nurture cattle herds and take part in heroic battles of cattle raids, in a landscape surrounded by jungles and wild beasts.

These early settlements constitute a phase of ‘first nature’ when the shape and growth of the city responded to constraints of terrain and geography. Once Kempe Gowda and his successors created and expanded the market city of Bengaluru, urban development moved to a period influenced by ‘second nature’ when the city began to free itself of the apparent constraints imposed by nature.

Successive rulers reshaped the fundamental nature of the land, clearing jungles in some areas and encouraging dense growth in other locations as barricades against raids.

Aggressive tree plantation

The city was greened through aggressive tree plantation of exotics, with aggressive rainwater harvesting through creation of lakes and wells.

A crisis of drought led to the import of piped water from distant rivers, apparently liberating Bengaluru from its dependence on local nature in the 20th century.

This led to our current phase of ‘third nature’ where it seems as though we have attained the ability to achieve complete control over nature through technology. Wetlands are drained and filled, and rocky granite hillocks blasted and razed to provide apparently identical building fodder for the insatiable construction industry that seems to constitute the hallmark of a modern Indian city. Water, food, energy are seemingly inexhaustible resources to be imported from outside while waste can be sent out to unquestioningly engulf rural villages. Yet, this is a mirage.

The city cannot escape the limitations of ecology, as is increasingly evident. As the hinterland rightly refuses to absorb our waste, sewage and garbage accumulation increases epidemic outbreaks, such as dengue, and swine flu. Our ignorance of basic hydrology and rainfall seasonality leads to the truly ironic situation of flooding in the monsoon and droughts in summer. Air pollution is one of our biggest causes of death and reduced life expectancy. The continuing encroachment of forests creates repeated encounters with leopards, elephants and other wildlife.

The balance between nature and the urban landscape is misleadingly flexible: it has been stretched, bent and reshaped, but is now beginning to snap, giving us fair warning. We ignore the importance of nature in the city at our peril.

( Harini Nagendra is a professor of Sustainability at Azim Premji University, and the author of ‘Nature in the City: Bengaluru in the Past, Present and Future’, Oxford University Press, 2016)