Look to the past for a better future

Harini Nagendra June 21, 2020 09:40 IST
Updated: June 21, 2020 09:40 IST

If we could plant trees in the lakhs in the 1970s and 1980s, we can do so again. If we could dig lakes over a thousand years ago, without technology, surely we can restore lakes in the 21st century

Fifty years ago, Bengaluru was an idyllic place to live in, popularly referred as a “pensioner’s paradise.” The city attracted people because of its cool climate, scenic vistas of trees, parks and lakes as far as the eye could see. Now, Bengaluru’s air and water are highly polluted, tens of thousands of trees that characterised the city have been cut down, and scores of lakes have been lost to the juggernaut of “development.”

How did these events come about?

Bengaluru is an unusual city with a long history of human settlement. Despite having been settled for at least 8,000 years, the landscape lacks access to any large, perennial water sources. Over a thousand years ago, early settlers developed a way to deal with water scarcity. These settlers recognised the importance of trees and waterbodies, digging tanks, and rainwater channels, constructing wells, and planting trees.


Older imaginations of the Bengaluru landscape, captured in a number of ancient stone inscriptions, spoke of “the wells below and the trees above”, showing us the importance accorded to elements of nature.

Subsequent rulers, from Kempe Gowda to Shahaji and from Hyder Ali to the British and the Mysore Wadiyars, continued to recognise the need for shade and water for human comfort. The British planted tens of thousands of trees, a tradition that the Mysore Wadiyars encouraged and promoted in other parts of Mysore State as well. Numerous new lakes were created in Bengaluru to supply the city with water.

The disregard for lakes began to take hold towards the end of the 19th century. In the 1890s, when taps began supplying water from lakes outside the city, several waterbodies inside the city were drained and converted to open grounds, and later to built areas. Still, many lakes such as Ulsoor Lake, Kempambudhi Lake and Jakkur Lake remained. These were idyllic spots for children and adults, who narrate fond memories of swimming, fishing and climbing trees to play ‘marakothi’.

Trees continued to be valued across the city until the mid-1990s, for their shade, fruits, and gorgeousness. Many of us, who consider ourselves to be “old” Bengalureans, fondly remember playing cricket with “cork balls” made from the pulp of the rain tree [which hurt if they caught you on the shin or thigh!], and scaring unwary children with red “nails” from the sepals of the Gulmohar tree. It did not matter that these were exotic, foreign trees, imported from faraway lands. We adopted them, and made them our own, along with the naturalised tamarind and coconut, exotic butterfruit and wood-apple, and familiar mango and neem.

Economy vs. ecology

But the growth of people and economy outstripped the growth of ecology. The IT industry boomed in the 1990s and 2000s and its precursors, the public sector industry, garment industry and electronics industries, surged between the 1970s and 1990s. Between them, they built the foundation for the growth of Bengaluru. From a population of 16,15,000 people in 1970, the city has over 12 million people now: over 7 times more people in just fifty years!

In the mid-1950s, Jawaharlal Nehru urged planners to “Prepare a master plan for Bangalore as it should be twenty or thirty years later. Every little thing that is built by public authority or private persons must fit in with that master plan and nobody should be allowed to spoil it”.

What a grandiose idea. And what a failure in planning, if we look back at the city through a contemporary lens! Once known as India’s garden city, Bengaluru is now often derisively referred to as a ‘garbage city’.

Food scares abound; while fears of the coronavirus surge around us, a cholera epidemic is also on the rise. Nature deprivation has exacerbated mental health issues in an already fragmented city. Climate change is the dystopian cherry on this distorted cake, promising a future of heatwave, floods, droughts, and epidemics.

Sadly, the imagination of urban “development” includes the need for roads, elevated corridors, underpasses, signal-free highways, and more roads – but completely disregards the aspirations of residents for a good life.

To ensure clean air and water, we need healthy, thriving ecosystems – lakes, wetlands, gundathopes , parks, grasslands and the like. But Bengaluru’s planners continue the relentless assault on ecosystems. In the latest in a continuing saga of ecological travesty, they plan to cut tens of thousands of trees, including many centuries-old ficus species, claiming that they can be easily replaced by planting saplings. The jewel in Bengaluru’s crown, the Bannerghatta National Park, is going to be stripped of 100 of protected forest in the eco-sensitive zone around the park, robbing the park wildlife of its already miniscule buffer.

What citizens can do

When political will is lacking, what can citizens do? Quite a bit, if we put our minds to it. The few lakes that have been restored in recent years, sporadic people-initiated tree plantations in various parts of the city, occasional ward committee meetings, and dedicated bus lanes to boost public transport. None of these would have happened but for the relentless work of committed urban environmentalists and activists. But without the support of our planners and elected representatives, we cannot really hope to move the needle beyond this point. We need systemic assistance for a systemic change.

A glimpse into the past shows us that the future remains in our grasp. We can bend the curve, and reverse the trend of environmental deterioration. In the 1970s, 80s and 90s, areas such as Jayanagar, Indiranagar and Koramangala were systematically greened by visionary Forest Department officials, like S.G. Neginhal, working in collaboration with local residents who came out in the hundreds to water and protect young saplings in the summer. Many of these trees have now grown to impressive size, guarding our roads like sentinels, and buffering Bengaluru from the worst effects of a heatwave.

If we could plant trees in the lakhs in the 1970s and 1980s, we can do so again. If we could dig lakes and channels over a thousand years ago, without technology, using only our bare hands – surely we can restore lakes in the 21st century. All this requires is a fundamental change in mindset.

Much has changed over the course of a half-century. We need to relive the past to revive our imaginations.

A different future can be imagined, an urban utopia, which we can move towards with renewed purpose.

(Harini Nagendra is Professor of Sustainability at Azim Premji University. Her recent book is ‘Nature in the City: Bengaluru in the Past, Present, and Future’.)