Green were the citizens?

Last Friday, 12 green activists protesting the tree cutting on Sankey road were arrested. Though the most of the trees were not saved, it sure brought back memories from two decades ago of a similar, but successful protest in 1991. A group of young men including Vinay Baindur, Mahesh Kumar, Sudhir Jayaram and Gururaja Budhya, were able to prevent a number of trees in Malleswaram from being felled.

These young men petitioned the Governor, to save the trees. Three of them were detained by the police . Many in this group have gone on to play a major role in creating civic awareness about governance issues in the city through organisations such as CIVIC and CASSUM.

The struggle in 1991 kept these trees alive for two decades. Not anymore? Pic: Vani Murthy

The trees they saved in that day of protest are the trees that now stand in front of Mantri Square – unfortunately, these are now facing the axe again, for road widening – but these protests were able to preserve the trees for at least two decades.

Bangalore was always known to be a pretty laid back place. If you were full of fire and ambition, in the 1970s and 1980s, you had no business being in Bangalore – at least, that was the commonly held assumption. You lived in a spectacularly green city with wonderful weather year-round.

When the rest of India was reeling under the relentless summer heat or all but dissolving in the rain, or shivering in the winter breeze, you could find Bangaloreans taking a leisurely stroll around the city, walking to or from one of the many scenic parks and lakes, visiting temples or churches which had their own inimitable set of majestic trees. Or they were heading back home to old bungalows with large yards full of fruit and flowering trees, oozing with character. Just chilling. And we were proud of it.

Those days have changed. Perhaps it is true that the people of Bangalore were never as indolent as we imagined ourselves to be, but certainly, our city now beats at a very different pace. With the kind of work schedules that most people have these days, who has the time or energy for leisure? Many today seek entertainment through commerce and malls have replaced nature spaces and become the choice of many for weekend recreation. Easy to drive to, easy to park, and clean enough or large enough to spend a lazy day in. Can we still say the same of many of our lakes and parks?

Does arm-chair activism save trees?

Unfortunately, it seems far easier to complain bitterly in print, in person, or to our friends and neighbours, about the state of Bangalore’s depleting green cover- than to actually do anything about it. Witness some of the experiences of the green group Hasiru Usiru, which has been working to protect several of the city’s iconic green roads – Nanda road, Bellary road, Jaymahal road and Sankey road, amongst others – from tree felling in the name of the Metro, signal free corridors, underpasses, flyovers and other supposedly essential what-have-yous.

Despite having hundreds of members registered on the web, and a number of people who participated in intense email discussions, when it comes to organising protests, very few turned up. A good turnout could be about 200-300 people, but that is rare. Even on issues that people feel very strongly about – such as the cutting of trees on Nanda road – it is hard to make people give up even a half day of their weekend to come out and protest on the streets.

It is tempting to compare this to our supposedly indolent past as a city full of people who were not believed to get out and do much.

Cubbon Park, one of the few surviving green spaces in the city. File Pic.

In 1998, when one of our two heritage green spaces – Cubbon Park – was threatened by denotification – the citizens of the city came out in full force to protest. Over a six week period, thousands of children, women and men gathered in the park to protest, and tens of thousands of people wrote protest letters.

 

 

What has changed in the city in the meantime?

Why is it that citizens do not come out in the same numbers to protest against environmental issues that clearly, they feel very strongly about?

Lack of numbers was the undoing of this protest at Sankey road last week. Pic: Yogaraj S Mudalgi

Some explanations that have been offered range from the number of recent migrants to the city, who supposedly lack the same sense of connection and roots, to the increasing fragmentation and disconnect that city life encourages. The second explanation may be more plausible than the first. Certainly, the groups of informal protesters at a number of meetings across the city contain many who say they have moved into Bangalore less than a decade ago, but already feel a part of the city, and want to do their bit to protect the green spaces and maintain the character of the city to which they moved.

Citizen groups working on restoration of the Kaikondrahalli lake on Sarjapur road, and the Puttenahalli lake in J.P. Nagar, also contain a mix of long term locals and recent residents. There is much to be said for a city that leads people to fall in love with it in just a few months of living here – and however much Bangalore has changed over the years, it still retains that indescribable essential charisma.

Yet, there is a substantial fraction of people who don’t think they can do much. Although most indicate their anguish about the type of unplanned development that is taking place, they also express a feeling of hopelessness – with statements like “why waste our time when nothing will come out of it”.

It is not just protesting

Yet there are a growing number of groups working behind the scenes to do their own bit for a greener city – perhaps not through protests, but in a number of other significant ways. The Birdwatchers Club of Bangalore, a group of experienced birdwatchers, leads nature walks around Lal Bagh, Hebbal lake Bannerghatta and Sarjapur Road on each Sunday of the month. They patiently guide first timers through intricacies as how to hold a binocular, and how to identify birds from a field guide.

Bird watchers. File Pic: Deepa Mohan

Some of the older naturalists in the city including M.B. Krishna, S. Subramanya and S. Karthikeyan have been responsible for training and motivating an entire generation of ecologists and nature activists in the city, and have authored a number of landmark reports on the city’s biodiversity and wetlands lakes as far back as the late 1990s.

A number of organisations also work on a range of other issues important for a sustainable city. Rain water harvesting is propagated by associations such as the the Rainwater Club. Solid waste segregation and recycling are made easy and widespread by organisations like SAAHAS, which has penetrated areas across the city, from corporate bodies to local slums, while Daily Dump has popularised composting at the household level. Both of these organisations have contributed to the reduction of the massive amounts of solid waste that Bangalore generates each day.

Linked with composting is the notion of terrace gardening and home gardening, promoted by people like Dr. Viswanath and organisations such as Purna Organics and the Bhoomi Network, which attempt to reduce the city’s food footprints, provide urban residents with ways to access quality food without harmful pesticide residues. These programmes are also active in a number of schools across the city, with the added benefit of teaching school children in cities about where their food comes from, and ensuring that they stay connected to their countryside.

A new group of anonymous citizens who term themselves the Ugly Indians have worked with civic agencies to clean, green and reclaim the large stinking waste dumps in the center of the city. A number of committed people such as G.V. Dasarathi and Mayank Rungta of Ride a Cycle Foundation and Bangalore Bikers Club strenuously promote the use of environmentally friendly means of transport such as bicycling and busing to work, and have succeeded in converting a number of residents.

There is also an informal group that term themselves “Friends of BMTC”, with Ramesh Sivaram and others working to map out new bus routes, and popularise the use of the bus by corporate employees and others who normally use personal cars to commute.

Each of these efforts have left their mark on individual homes, schools and corporate campuses. And as important, if not more, have been efforts to reclaim our public spaces, and our environmental commons. When access to green streets, lakes and parks is dwindling by the day and when the voices of citizens are increasingly being excluded from planning and consultative activities, the Environmental Support Group has engaged tenaciously in long drawn legal battles to reclaim our natural commons.

Green warriors

The sustained efforts of Leo Saldanha, Bhargavi Rao, Mallesh, Sunil Dutt and their colleagues have resulted in landmark judgements on street trees, lakes and other commons that have made it possible for us to have a hope of preserving areas such as Agara lake that were slated for privatisation.

Residents cleaning up Agara Lake. File Pic.

Other groups such as the Koramangala association were able to reclaim the Mestripalya lake after a long legal battle (and are now working with the BDA to ensure the lake is developed in an ecologically sensitive, citizen friendly manner). A number of other citizens have individually fought hard won battles to reclaim encroached parks and lakes too. 85-year-old, Honnamma Govindayya, a home maker, fought ten-year-long battle to save a park in Jayanagar from construction and won in 1995. Senior citizen, Venkata Subba Rao, who took legal action to prevent the auctioning of a lake in Jayanagar is another such example.

Citizen associations in areas like Malleshwaram, Jayanagar and Koramangala have also emerged as are active forces in city debates on greening, using practical experience to develop formidable expertise in areas as diverse as lake rejuvenation and tree censusing, that they are now sharing with other similar minded groups.

Most of these groups only run because of the intense effort put in by less than a handful of people working incessantly. If only more of the people who express interest could be motivated to participate, then these groups could envision transformation at a much larger scale.

Virtual networks

The increased frequency of electronic information exchange has changed the nature of this discourse. It is easy to get information about activities, ideas and methods from the internet, and this can save much legwork in the “real world”. e-networks like Praja are helpful in facilitating the discussions of ideas and solutions for a sustainable Bangalore.

It is also easy to fool yourself into feeling that you are doing something significant by sending a long email or pressing “Like” on a Facebook page to indicate your fervent desire that someone, somewhere will go out and ‘Save the Tiger.’

Internet makes it easy for idea exchange about urbanisation and its environmental impacts in an increasingly globalised world. But we need to keep in mind that action, to be effective and sustained, must be rooted within its local context, and this requires sustained footwork. The recent protests against tree felling in Malleswaram and Sankey Road by local groups are a strong case in point – when local residents are involved, then these protests take on a very different tone. It also has greater chance of sustained, effective dialogue on the issue.

Clearly, our involvement with the city, virtual and physical, will significantly determine the nature and form of environmental change over the next several years. While both forms have their strengths, we must be careful not to think that we can replace one with the other and yet be effective.

About Harini Nagendra 7 Articles

Harini Nagendra is a Professor at the School of Development, Azim Premji University, and and Asia Research Coordinator at the Center for the Study of Institutions, Population, and Environmental Change, Indiana University.

3 Comments

  1. This reminds me of how the civil society group Mysore Grahakara Parishath managed to keep a close watch on the notified trees on Mahatma Gandhi Road, Lalitha Mahal Road and in Sidhaarth Nagara and averted cutting of more than 402 trees in the name of road widening. Myself and my friend who is a retired Geologist, even tied Yagnopavitas (the sacred thread) around many trees to indicate that the trees are god’s gift and man should not hurt them. Some of us are going around Mysore with pick axes to create sink pits around tree trunks where bitumen and tar mix have been packed to kill the trees in an unnatural way.

  2. Totally agree.

    Too many e-protestors, not enough people willing to get away from their armchairs and get on to the streets.

    Your comment “…feeling that you are doing something significant by sending a long email or pressing “Like” on a Facebook page…” sums it up.

  3. I heard about Sankey Road protests only around the afternoon of the day it was happening. Well into the night, ESG sent an email to its subscribers about people being arrested and what had happened.
    Not a single word was heard about any protests being ‘planned’ for that day afternoon. By the time I heard of it, I was busy in office at the very other end of the city, and dependent on buses. All I could do was resort to what is called ‘arm-chair’ activism.
    In a different era before the 2000s everything was accessible from everywhere. It was easier for word of mouth to get people. These days when people work all the way from Whitefield or near Kengeri, there needs to be better coordination. Groups like ESG or Hasiru Usiru need to ensure people know about these protests at least sometime before it’s happening and not just tell about the arrests after that.
    I have never lived that side of Bangalore, but as a Bangalorean by birth, I can identify with trees in the city and what they mean to it. I wanted to be part of the protests, but getting real time data as its happening all of a sudden or after it happens is really not that useful.
    There are many groups now, they just need to better coordinate things.

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