Harini Nagendra, author of 'Nature in the City: Bengaluru in the Past, Present, and Future', was speaking at the Bangalore Literature Festival 2017 on Sunday. 

Nature in the city What present-day Bengaluru can learn from its past to save itself
Features Books Monday, October 30, 2017 - 07:59

Bengaluru, for decades, has been known for its pleasant weather, attracting people from the length and breadth of the country to settle down here. 

It was however not always like this when the first settlers arrived in the region centuries ago. The weather used to be relatively hot and this part did not have a lot of trees. 

"Villagers who came in successively worked to improve the environment to make it liveable," explained Harini Nagendra, author of Nature in the City: Bengaluru in the Past, Present, and Future, while speaking at the Bangalore Literature Festival 2017 on Sunday. 

"So they dug tanks that we call lakes today, created water connections between them to store rainfall, planted trees to make it cooler and created different kinds of irrigated agriculture. More the people, more the number of trees and lakes. So they transformed the landscape which is very clear from the sets of inscriptions," Harini said. 

Several rulers of the region, from Kempegowda to Shahaji (Shivaji's father), Tipu Sultan to Hyder Ali and even the Britishers, continued the same tradition.

Over time, as the city began to expand exponentially and with the advent of technological advancements, this relationship between nature and the residents slowly fell apart. 

"What for me was striking was that we tend to think that it is inevitable that nature perishes in cities. Clearly the early settlers did not think so. At some point, the relationship breaks down because we stop looking at local sources," she continued. 

"Take for instance pipe water. When you can get water from a pipe, you don't need wells, you don't need lakes. You stop looking at them as sources of water. Then the whole idea of them as sacred or life-giving goes away. So in a space of five to six years, they go from worshiping lakes to dumping corpses in them. Similarly with trees. Till the 1980s, we kept greening Bangalore. And then the cars came in and we started cutting down trees," she added. 

Harini, who is also a Professor of Sustainability at the Azim Premji University, put in nearly 12 years of research into writing the book. 

Speaking to TNM at the sidelines of the event, she said she thought of working on a book on the city's ecology as she felt there was not enough work going on in this space.

In 2007, when she had a daughter, the author thought what kind of future would their child have growing up in the city which was paving the way for 'development'.

"It started with a very practical thing. Looking at if there are activist groups or citizen groups that are working on lake conservation or those that are stopping tree felling. What kind of data do they need and can we provide them with that data. From there it spiralled into a completely different, obsessive sort of a journey that led to this book," she shared. 

Of the several findings, one that she finds quite problematic is the state of water bodies in and around the city. Of late, some lakes, such as the heavily polluted Bellandur and Varthur, have been in the spotlight for spewing foam. 

But there are several others, like the Rampura lake which is downstream of Varthur, that are not being talked about. 

"Seeing the plight of farmers who have lived there and the cattle that are in that water. Looking at what devastation we who are upstream in the city have caused to these downstream areas. Or even going to Mahabalipuram, which is the city's big waste dump, has changed my whole attitude towards waste," she stated.  

She also added that the approach to tackle such issues should take into account the bigger picture. Like instead of just treating one lake at a time, lakes that are connected to each other should be treated together so that one does not pollute the other in the sub chain. 

According to Harini, there is hope that we can overturn the current destructive trend with help from both the government as well as the efforts of various active citizen movements that put pressure on the state for action. 

Referring to many cities in Europe and the US, she said that there are "a lot of these places where this curve has turned, at least partially, and innovatively."

The High Line Park in New York is a set of abandoned elevated railway lines that have been lined with plants and is now a popular tourist attraction.  

"We too need to think innovatively. Of course in Bangalore, you cannot expect a park the size of Lalbagh or Cubbon Park, but we can think of nalas or areas next to them and try greening them," she said. 

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