Money can’t replace nature in cities

Nature is essential for human survival and the growth of cities. Bengaluru is no exception. Due to lack ofaccess to a perennial source of water, such as a river, for centuries, residents depended on rain water, harvested and carefully utilised from a series of interconnected lakes, ponds, kalyanis and open wells.

An archival record of Agara lake in 870 CE shows that this practice is at least 11 centuries old. Many lakes were maintained by local residents as community service. Binnamangalam lake was dedicated to a temple by a merchant couple from Domlur in 1266 CE. Ramasamundra lake was dedicated to the support of ‘animals, cattle, birds, and all living beings’ in 1340 CE.

Lakes and trees in the early city

Later rulers of Bengaluru continued the practice of building reservoirs, a practice central to the growth of the city. Kempe Gowda I and II are believed to have enlarged Dharmambudhi lakeand constructed Kempambudhi, Sampangi, Agrahara and Karanji lakes. During Shahji’s reign in the mid-17th century, Bengaluru is said to have had lakes ‘as big as a sea’.

Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan used the marshy wetlands around lakes to protect the city, as they hindered the easy movement of bullock carts carrying the cannons of the British army.

In the 19th century, the British constructed the Shoolay, Halasur, Sankey and the Millers lake series to provide for the growing cantonment. They also began to plant large numbers of trees from the mid-19th century, in response to complaints of excessive heat due to increased urbanisation. Maps of Bengaluru from 1791, 1885 and 2015 show a substantial increase in the number of trees in the city over time.

Until the early 1890s, lakes and wells were discussed in archival materials as sacred, and protected resources. By the turn of the 20th century, they began to be described as polluted, filthy, and sources of infection. Trees, in contrast, continued to be desired and planted well into the 20th century. What caused this abrupt aboutface in public opinion for lakes, but not trees?

Piped water and air conditioning - the apparent substitutability of nature

By 1892, Bengaluru confronted frequent drought. The Mysore state, innovative employer of new technologies, began to construct dams outside the city, importing piped water into Bengaluru from distant areas. This marked the beginning of the end for lakes and wells, no longer essential for the daily needs of city residents. Bengaluru had close to 2,000 open wells in 1885, and contained less than 500 in 1935. By 2014, this number had dropped to less than 50.

Yet, tree cover continued to increase until the late 1980s. A semi-arid, hot, dry and dusty landscape, new settlements of Bengaluru were assiduously greened by people who valued the importance of shade. If we could have imported cool air from distant rural regions, we may not have planted as many trees then.

Today, when the water from the Cauvery is fiercely contested, we begin to recognise the value of the local chain of water conservation that was so rudely broken in the 1890s. Most lakes in the heart of the older city are gone for good, converted to malls, bus stands, stadiums and housing. Sadly, trees are now going the way of lakes, felled across the city for various transport projects.

Perhaps, it is the widespread availability of air conditioning that has led to our rather tame acceptance of the rampant and ongoing destruction of lakhs and trees. Yet, we are tied to our local landscape – facing unprecedentedly intense summers, and intensely thirsty years ahead of us. With all the money in a city, we can’t substitute for the value of nature.

Harini Nagendra is a Professor of Sustainability at Azim Premji University, and author of Nature in the City: Bengaluru in the Past, Present and Future.