- Anoushka Dasgupta
The best of times, the worst of times – Bengaluru's cityscape through the decades
Updated: Aug 15, 2022
Industrialization and the IT boom has catapulted Bengaluru to the position of ‘The Silicon Valley of India’, but it has come with massive changes to the natural landscape. Yet, there are efforts being made to retain the ethos of this city.
One may assume that a city which is called the Garden City and the Silicon Valley of India in the same breath would boast a rich intermingling of wildlife, culture and industrialisation. Ever since Kempe Gowda, a chieftain under the Vijayanagara Empire, laid the foundations of modern-day Bengaluru, the city’s identity has evolved through the ages. Historically it developed under the kingdoms of the Wodeyar dynasty and Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan, followed by an influence of British rule. During the rule of Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV in 1927, Bengaluru earned the reputation of the ‘Garden City’ and the ‘city of lakes’, and developed into a city that welcomed immigrants from nearby states. It has now grown into a force to be reckoned with in terms of infrastructure and development. With this development, however, came a slew of problems for the natural landscape and biodiversity of the city.
Mystery of the disappearing lakes
The Bengaluru Urban district was home to as many as 837 lakes till a few decades ago. This interconnected network of lakes in the city has been the lifeline of the city dwellers. Historically, not only did these lakes provide water for essential drinking purposes, but they were also a bountiful source of water for irrigation and fishing in a land that did not have access to perennial water sources. Communities were built around these lakes, which became an integral part of the culture of Bengaluru.
These lakes have also been an important habitat for a rich diversity of plants, insects like dragonflies, birds like the Eurasian spoonbill and spot-billed pelicans among many others, and other animals that use them as water sources. They also help in regulating the temperature and weather of the small regions surrounding them. This dependence on lakes has been established through the ages.
However, with the waves of industrialization that swept over Bengaluru, the city expanded and people's dependence on the lakes reduced with access to piped water. The expansion of the city also led to human encroachment onto these numerous lakes. According to a report on lake encroachment by the House Committee in 2017, 88 out of the 837 lakes in the Bengaluru Urban district have vanished. Factories, apartment complexes, tech parks and human settlements have encroached and caused the disappearance of these lakes.
Several lakes have become the sites for now famous structures in the city. The perennially populous Majestic bus stand was originally the site of the Dharmanbudhi Lake. Harini Nagendra, an ecologist and Director of Research Centre at the Azim Premji University says in her book ‘Nature in the City: Bengaluru in the Past, Present and Future’, “A number of lakes were drained as part of misguided efforts towards malaria eradication, including Dharmambudhi lake.” Lakes like the Shoolay Lake have been converted into sports stadiums, while the large Koramangala Tank has been taken over by a residential venture, National Games Village.
Not just encroachments, these lakes are being choked by dumping of untreated industrial and domestic effluents. Noxious foam often forms on the surface of lakes like Bellandur and Varthur as a result of chemical and biological surfactants from the sewage and industrial wastes. Lakes in the Peenya industrial belt are burdened with heavy metal wastes too, which trickles down to livestock and crops using the lakes as a water source, thus causing health problems to humans as well. The city once famous for its lakes has also had its unfortunate moments of infamy when several lakes have caught fire. It has been theorised that organic waste being dumped in the lakes could be a cause of these fires, since they make the environment suitable for the accumulation of highly inflammable gases like methane. The Bellandur Lake has caught fire multiple times, including a horrifying 30 hour-long inferno in 2018.
The lakes that once used to be the essence of this city are now overrun with pollution and encroachers that have driven away the flora and fauna that inhabited them. Lakes like Bellandur Lake used to host several bird species like kingfishers and parakeets, and reptiles like monitor lizards, which have now jumped ship.
The green quandary
While the wounds of losing valuable lakes of the city run deep, the salt in these wounds is the slow replacement of the verdant green cover with a grey concrete jungle as the city expanded. The later part of the 20th century took Bengaluru’s expansion to new heights. It became the burgeoning centre of the country’s IT industry. Previously rural and peri-urban spaces like Whitefield were integrated into the urban meshwork of the city. This development, however, came along with several losses to large tracts of the natural landscape, which were converted into residential and industrial areas.
Large projects like the Kempegowda International Airport, Bengaluru, while improving accessibility to the city, have had an adverse effect on the local wildlife. A study in 2010, by researchers from GKVK, Bengaluru, showed that the establishment of the airport resulted in large-scale changes in the landscape, green cover, weather and subsequently, the diverse population of birds and butterflies. There was a 50% reduction in the individual number of birds, while the reduction in number of species was more than 50% in the regions of Bettakote State forest and Ramanahalli, whose bird fauna has been stated to be most affected by the construction of the airport.
Several mega developmental projects have been proposed, for which massive deforestation would be required. Some projects like the Rs 1,700-cr steel flyover project, that was to run from Chalukya Circle in the central part of the city to Hebbal junction in the north, were abandoned due to the massive backlash against the project from the citizens and activists on grounds of the project needing around 800 trees to be cleared.
However, other projects like the Peripheral Ring Road project, which is a proposed eight-lane bypass to link Tumakuru Road and Hosur Road, have been given the go-ahead. It requires deforestation of a whooping 38,000 trees. This level of deforestation is going to have an alarming effect on the environment. In fact, there are ten other proposed developmental projects like phase II of the Metro construction and widening roads like Jayamahal Road and Sankey Road. These projects are going to require the clearing of vast tracts of green spaces, estimated to encompass 60,200 trees. Ironically, the Karnataka Forest Department has proposed to fell over 6000 trees to construct a lake, which ordinarily would promote biodiversity, but in this case comes at a hefty cost. In a city whose forests have extended their benevolent cover for the city to flourish and thrive, the mammoth-scale deforestation spells despair for the human and animal residents alike.
Wildlife has an urban address
The city is home to a rich variety of wildlife and vegetation. While the urban wildlife has reduced over the decades, as told to The News Minute by noted environmentalist A N Yellappa Reddy, several wild species have accustomed themselves to the urban spaces and made it their home. Animal rescue and rehabilitation organisations like Avian And Reptile Rehabilitation Centre and People for Animals are often called to rescue wild species ranging from birds like black kites to snakes like the Russell viper. The elusive urban wildlife in Bengaluru is truly fascinating for wildlife enthusiasts in the city. One such example is the canopy-dwelling slender loris. While industrialization and loss of green cover cut their habitat into fragments, they are now often found at the Hennur Lake Biodiversity Park. Surveys carried out in 2016 by the Urban Slender Loris Project show that connected canopies are instrumental to their survival.
Bengaluru is also alluring to several migratory birds like (but not limited to) Garganey duck and Pintail duck and some sandpipers. It is also a host to several passage migrants that make their way further south in India through Bangalore. Avid birders revel in the bird biodiversity in the city, with rich birding sites like Hessaraghatta Kere and Valley School. Online databases like eBird are useful resources for birders to keep track of local and migratory birds. However, the number of migratory birds being drawn to Bengaluru has gone down. A recent study highlighted the reduction of migratory birds, which they hypothesise might be due to some changes in their breeding grounds rather than the migratory sites themselves. They also noted an increase in the number of local birds. As told by Ravi Jambhekar to The Indian Express, this could be due to factors like lake restoration and creation of islands in the lakes to help the local birds to thrive.
Photographer: Anoushka Dasgupta
Shielding the city, one lake and tree at a time
The city’s environmentalists, conscientious citizens and governing bodies have realised the urgent need to restore parts of the natural landscape before Bengaluru chokes on the dust left behind in the race towards its own development. In 2019, a video describing the plans for the new terminal of the Kempegowda International Airport, Bengaluru went viral. Described as ‘Terminal in a Garden’, the terminal builds on Bengaluru’s reputation of being a ‘Garden City’, as it aims to have lush greenery and water bodies, much like an actual forest within the terminal. They are also targeting sustainability in the form of energy savings and waste and pollution control.
Local governing bodies and citizens of the city have also started restoring encroached and polluted lakes. The Karnataka government has reclaimed over 250 acres of encroached lakes, including Gantiganahalli Lake in Yelahanka Hobli and Hoovinakere Lake in Anekal by removing illegal encroachments and allowing freshwater supply to the lake again with no hindrances.
One of the activists helping profusely in this task is Anand Malligavad. A mechanical engineer by training, he used a budget of Rs 1 crore from the CSR fund of Sansera Engineering to revive a 36 acre large Kyalasanahalli Lake near Anekal in just 45 days. They used natural materials to create bunds and separations. They also ensured that the local villagers living on the land around the lake took an active part in maintaining the rejuvenated lake, thus involving the direct beneficiaries of the lake – always a vital part of sustainable environmental conservation.
The conservation of green spaces is also an integral part of preserving the city’s essence. While it may sound counterintuitive, occasionally, parts of the green cover may need to be cleared to give way to newer generations, as seen in the clearing of the 40-year old bamboo grove in Cubbon Park. 200 of these bamboo trees, that had reached the end of their lifetimes, were cleared in 2018, and replaced with 400 new plants of twelve varieties. Bamboo plants can be a boon to combat carbon dioxide accumulation and degraded lands. It has been observed that they can absorb carbon at a rapid rate and can also replenish soil fertility in degraded land stretches. Infosys has grown around 32,000 bamboo trees of the Bheema variety which can absorb 9 times more carbon dioxide than the normal bamboo tree, which themselves have a high rate of carbon dioxide absorption. In 2016, they were exploring its additional use in making paper, furniture and even energy in the form of fuel.
A project by an NGO, Say Trees, is also involved in creating man-made Miyawaki forests all over the city in areas like KR Puram and Banaswadi, and in other states of the country as well. The speciality of these forests is the dense growth of different species of plantations like mango, moringa etc. in small areas, where they coexist and ultimately form a self-sustained system. This also contributes towards harvesting groundwater in residential areas where it has been depleted. These forests are ideal for crowded urban areas like Bengaluru.
The city of gardens and parks has had some important changes made to its parks as well. For instance, in Lalbagh Botanical Gardens, a low-lying area that was previously used to dump dried leaves has been converted into a floral cornucopia, with flowering plants like orchids, ferns and lotuses being planted in this ‘Sunken Garden’. Other projects aim to effectively utilise recycled wastewater. This ‘Grey to Green’ project has been undertaken by Centre for Social and Environmental Innovation (CSEI), Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and Environment (ATREE) in association with Bengaluru Apartment Federation (BAF) and Karnataka State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB). The current usage of treated wastewater by housing societies occurs mainly in a decentralised manner, during which a large volume of this water goes to waste. The project seeks to tackle the requirement of large amounts of water to maintain the numerous parks of Bengaluru, by using treated wastewater from decentralised treatment plants in the city, thus tackling both problems with a single move. At the same time, Citizens For Citizens (C4C), a citizen run organization, petitioned to turn Cubbon Park into a no-honking zone, which would promote the peaceful existence of the flora and fauna of the park. In a study by Savitha Swamy, Harini Nagendra and Soubadra Devy, it is evident that small green spaces like parks are instrumental in supporting biodiversity.
Conserving the natural spirit and culture of the city
According to the National Biodiversity Authority, Bengaluru hosts two biodiversity heritage hotspots in Nallur Tamarind Grove and the University of Agricultural Sciences, GKVK campus. Biodiversity heritage sites are unique and ecologically fragile areas that possess rich biodiversity. The Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike’s (BBMP) Biodiversity Committee has also recognized Roerich Estate as a biodiversity heritage site.
Along with biodiversity, Bengaluru is also rich in a cultural heritage that its inhabitants consider sacred. And these two go hand in hand. Religious sites across the city, including churches, temples and mosques, have one common thread – the trees and biodiversity they house. Harini Nagendra in her article in The Deccan Herald talks about documenting over 5,500 trees in 62 different sacred spaces across the city in 2011. A more recent study on tree shrines, or kattes documented 121 species of trees like neem and peepal flourishing in 69 sacred sites across the city. These places have a deep socio-cultural link to the people, in addition to providing shelter to urban wildlife. These places infuse a sense of community in biodiversity conservation, be it in kattes across the city, the Lakshmipuram cemetery in Halasuru or the 152-year-old All Saints Church.
These spaces help teach the importance of coexistence of human cultural activities and the wildlife that could be impacted by these activities. In the midst of conversion of spaces into parks, restoration of lakes and other measures to conserve biodiversity, sacred sites are a symbol of the culture of the past, present and future joining hands to conserve the essence of the Garden City.
The city is growing at an astronomical rate, as is the industrialization that comes with it. However, in our quest to chase ‘development’, the very foundation of the city – the flora and fauna we share the city with – needs to be conserved as well. Merely protecting endangered species on the IUCN Red list is not enough. In an article in Citizen Matters, ornithologists like Subramanya S draw attention to the fact that an area’s biological importance cannot be determined only by the number of endangered species, since every species has a role to play in the local web of the ecosystem, it is important to keep the common species in the city, common as they are! In this light, we too, as inhabitants of this city, have our own roles to play in the quest to conserve the biodiversity of the city in the shadow of urbanization.
Anoushka Dasgupta is a freelance science writer and aspiring researcher, with a Master’s in Biotechnology and a passion for behaviour ecology and conservation. Her work has appeared in The Wire, The Print and magazines of the Indian Institute of Science.