The last decade did not begin on a promising note for the environment. India raced past China to hold the dubious record of hosting the world’s most polluted cities. Diseases such as swine flu, dengue, and chikungunya became commonplace, fuelled by unhygienic approaches of waste disposal. Because we cut down the trees and filled in the lakes, Bengaluru faced summer temperatures touching 40°C for the first time.
Despite restoring a number of lakes with significant citizen effort and public money, we lost the wetlands that protected and recharged them, leading to cycles of flooding in the monsoon, and drought in the summer.
It was not just the bio-geographic accident of being located on a plateau that gave Bengaluru its reputation of a “salubrious” environment but also the uncounted effort of its people over centuries. Built in an inhospitable, rocky landscape teeming with tigers, lacking shade and access to water, the founding of Bengaluru is a tribute to the environmental foresight of our founding forefathers and foremothers. New settlements were developed by building tanks to store life-giving water. Using this water, settlers built villages and constructed temples, irrigated paddy fields, dug wells, and planted trees, improving the quality of the environment to suit their needs as they extended their dominion over the land.
Role of environment
Earlier administrators respected the role of the environment in shaping human lives. A range of rulers — the Gangas, Cholas and Hoysalas, Kempe Gowda and his descendants, the Maratha rulers Shahji and Venkoji, the Mysuru Wadiyars, Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan, and British administrators — made the growth of Bengaluru possible by planting more trees, and creating new tanks. Since the environment around Bengaluru was hot and dusty, shade and water were considered extremely important to make the city liveable. Hundreds of wooded groves or gundathopus and ashwath kattes were created and they were wooded with keystone species such as pipal and banyan, providing weary travellers and local residents with resting areas and outdoor community meeting rooms. The centuries-old story of Bengaluru’s growth contradicts the many myths we unquestioningly accept: that urbanisation and environmental protection are incompatible; that pollution is the price we must pay for development and economic growth; and that cars, buildings, and a growing economy are more essential to life and well-being than clean water and fresh air!
In fact, the opposite is true. Over centuries, even millennia, Bengaluru grew because people protected and nurtured the environment by planting not just a few occasional trees, or digging a handful of wells or lakes but in numbers that boggle the imagination.
In the mid-19th century, there were close to 20,000 lakes in the Mysuru region, including Bengaluru — Old Bengaluru had close to 2,000 wells densely packed into a small area. Lakhs of trees were planted in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s across localities such as Jayanagar, Indiranagar, and Koramangala, transforming dry and dusty neighbourhoods into lush green landscapes.
Unfortunately, by the 1990s, administrators and planners had lost the plot. They forgot that Bengaluru was, at its core, a garden city and a Kalyananagara, city of lakes. We, the people, were equally culpable. If it were not for a handful of remarkably committed individuals and civic groups such as ESG, CIVIC, Hasiru Usiru, and CAF, Bengaluru would be left without most of its lakes and trees today.
But history, they say, tends to go in cycles.
The last decade has seen a turning of the tide. People get what the policymakers do not — we need a healthy environment for a good life. Public apathy has given way to a rising tide of civic activism. The success of the #steelflyoverbeda campaign and public interest litigation petitions against tree felling, the increase in citizen-driven restoration of lakes and waste segregation efforts, show us the possibility of an alternative future.
Public protests have been a key feature of the last decade. To mobilise change, we need to get our elected representatives and bureaucrats on board. What better way to do this than to hit the streets in large numbers? In the 2000s, there was widespread belief that social media activism could be the key. But while the Internet can mobilise millions of social media warriors, it can be difficult to get even a handful of people onto the streets.
In this decade, campaigners effectively learnt how to combine social media with physical activism. And as the recent protests in Bengaluru demonstrate, it is possible to get lakhs of people to come out onto the streets in peaceful, yet determined protests, spurred by a belief in doing what is right.
The next decade promises to be a time of unprecedented challenge. We live in an era of climate change, exacerbated by societal disruption and economic stagnation — a wicked combination of factors that can fuel a downward spiral. But the past decade gives us hope — cautiously grounded, but hope nevertheless!
When people reclaim their cities, and understand the importance of the environment in their everyday lives, then we can dream of redrawing the next decade using an optimist’s mirror.
(Harini Nagendra is professor of Sustainability at Azim Premji University, and author of ‘Nature in the City: Bengaluru in the Past, Present and Future’)