The Giving Trees

An ecological history of Bangalore from early 6th century BC to now is optimistic about ordinary citizens’ efforts to sustain and restore nature.

Written by UMA MAHADEVAN DASGUPTA | Published: August 27, 2016 12:20 am
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Every time I visit the National Gallery of Modern Art, Bangalore, in what used to be the old Manikyavelu Mansion, I spend some time in the garden gazing at the lovely trees, seeking what Marvell called a “green thought in a green shade”. Each tree in the NGMA gardens is a work of art in itself and deserves to be looked at. Some of these trees are the oldest in the city.

This and other havens of green have given Bangalore its richly deserved title of Garden City: the arching canopies of the great trees on the old airport road; the avenues named after the sampige (champaka) and margosa (neem); the beautiful tree-lined roads of the Indian Institute of Science; the historic Cubbon Park, laid out a century and a half ago in 1870, which has many splendid trees including the first silver oaks introduced to Bangalore from Australia; and the quietly beautiful jewel in the heart of the city, the Lal Bagh botanical garden (originally called the Cypress Gardens) which dates back to 1760 and the time of Hyder Ali, and which, thanks to the work of many committed horticulturists since then, has grown into what is now a national treasure.

Not only these great public parks and avenues, but also the beautiful raintrees and copper pods lining some of the old streets of the city, and the tiny little bits of green scattered among the city’s residential neighbourhoods, cared for by those who live in its shade.

Inevitably, in growing cities, space for nature shrinks in response to the demands of a growing population. Today, Bangalore is a rapidly growing city with a population of over one crore. Harini Nagendra’s book is a study of the interplay between nature and urbanisation, using the Garden City, which is also one of India’s largest and rapidly growing cities, as a case study. It traces the ecological history of Bangalore from early 6th century BC settlements to its present status as a 21st century IT city, and its rapid, remarkable transformation from colonial cantonment town to independent state capital. Referring to inscriptional records and historical texts, she points out that the green cover and intricate network of parks, gardens, lakes and sacred spaces that gave Bangalore its title of Garden City was “not solely driven by English aesthetics. These efforts were also inspired and shaped by much older, local, and traditional conceptions of nature as sacred and alive, embedded in the landscape that was an integral component of daily lives and livelihoods.” She mentions how fascinatingly, in the middle of the 19th century, visitors to the city described it as “completely hidden” under a dense canopy of trees.

An ecologist by training, Nagendra has worked with Elinor Ostrom who won the Nobel Prize in economics (the only woman to win the economics Nobel) for her work on how local communities can work together to protect and manage the commons. This is also the perspective that informs Nagendra’s richly textured, interdisciplinary and deeply optimistic study. Drawing upon field-based research, the book brings in a range of voices of common people including homemakers, slum dwellers, street vendors, bamboo weavers, civic groups and others, as well as archival and historical records, landscape paintings, satellite image studies, geographical information system (GIS) analyses, and other studies, in its exploration of how, despite the encroachment and degradation of lakes, parks, gardens and greenery over the years, ordinary citizens, local communities, social movements, and the state have worked to nurture, sustain and restore nature in the city.

To quote just one example of the level of detail in Nagendra’s book, I was struck by the difference in road asphalt surface on Bellary Road: as much as 51.5 degrees Celsius at 3 pm, while under the shade of the street trees, it was 32.5 degrees Celsius, a difference of 19 degrees. Especially for the homeless poor on the streets, trees provide the shade within which they live and earn their livelihoods — to hang clothes to dry, to attach tents or stalls, and even to tie the makeshift sari cradles in which they rock their babies to sleep.

As citizens, and as custodians of our shared environment, if we are to live and work productively in our cities, we need to work together to help sustain nature. Whether it is the elderly woman in a slum who has planted and firmly protected two trees next to a private well to prevent the water from evaporating, or the committed forest officer who has greened entire sections of the city, their contribution is part of a legacy to future generations of the city and should be recognised and supported. We must pay attention to the health of nature in our cities, or pay a great price. Nature in the City is a thoughtful, affirming and profoundly important book.

Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta is in the IAS, currently based in Bangalore

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