As the world moves towards an environmental crisis, Bangalore citizens fight to save the remaining green city from the developers.
It was Friday evening, birds chirped into the silence as the sunset. Hues of red, yellow and orange flooded the sky above Avalahalli forest. Gene, a 60-year old cyclist, sat on the rocks, mesmerized by the forest. Most of his evenings were spent either walking or cycling on the trails of the forest. That evening, however, was different.
He watched in surprise as a cycle came flying and fell near him, followed closely by the cyclist. He told Gene that he was being chased away by a cop. Soon, the cop showed up on his bike and stopped in front of Gene. The cop accused him of starting the fire that had just begun in the forest. The forest was in danger.
The green cover of Bangalore has been under threat over the past few decades. A report by the Environmental Information System (ENVIS) states that Bangalore’s vegetation has decreased from 68.27 per cent in 1973 to 25 per cent in 2012. As of today, less than three per cent of Bangalore’s green cover is left and continues to be in danger of further reducing as development in the city continues.
Turahalli, a forest in the south of the city that used to be 590 acres, has now reduced to 519 acres. Avalahalli, a 494 acres forest near Yelahanka, faces the upcoming threat of the Peripheral Ring Road (PRR). These threats are alarming to bikers, bird watchers, and environmentalists.
“I didn’t know if I should have laughed or cried,” said Gene as he recalled the incident to Shashankh CK, a mountain biker, to whom these incidents were all too familiar. According to CK, the cops would come and drive people out by spreading rumours about leopards, fires and elephants in Turahalli. “Turahalli is a very small forest,” said CK smiling, “there are hardly any animals to begin with, perhaps some snakes.” He said that the authorities would blame the mountain bikers for killing the frog population in attempts to drive them out.
The Tale of Turahalli
In 2003, the Society for Promotion of Adventure and Rock Klimbing (SPARK) petitioned the Land Acquisition Officer of the Bangalore Development Authority (BDA) to not acquire Turahalli. They believed that there was a real possibility that the BDA would raze the forest to the ground and turn it into residential and commercial layouts. Multiple petitions were filed with the Kaggalipura Range Forest Officer, resulting in police action taken against private developers who were going after the land. However, according to CK, these efforts were in vain, as no plan was in place to protect the forest from these developers.
Turahalli was the first place where a downhill race was held by the Bangalore Bicycling Championships (BBCh), also the first downhill race in India. People came from Pune, Kerala, and soon everyone was getting into the sport of mountain biking. “I started mountain biking post that craze,” he said. CK began his journey in mountain biking at Turahalli, the forest made him “feel like a kid again”.
He described Turahalli as if it were another world altogether. Dense trees flourished in the forest. There was a time when the buildings were mere lights from afar from atop the hill. However, with time the lights came closer until the buildings stood at the very edge of the forest.
In 2011, the construction began eating into the forest. CK and his friends would see construction workers squatting as they defecated near the trails. “Soon, the hill was levelled out, fenced and plotted out for peoples picking,” he said, “It hit us, there was an entire portion of the forest in which we could never ride again.”
He said that mountain bikers along with birdwatchers, cyclists, and walkers attempted to stand together against this “development”. But they soon realized that no one was listening. Then one day, one building popped right up in the forest.
The ENVIS report observed that there was a growth of 586 per cent in built-up areas with a (corresponding) decline in the vegetation of 66 per cent, over the past four decades in Bangalore. In 2013, ENVIS estimated that there were approximately 14 lakh trees in Bangalore.
“Trees were being cut and replaced with buildings”. CK noticed that a lot of people who lived in those buildings began taking responsibility for the forest. But not long after, the riders and climbers were blamed for polluting the environment. “We would get yelled at,” he said, “We weren’t welcome there anymore.”
CK along with Shariq Rehman and other riders, grew up in Turahalli, building trails and riding. “It is a little bit of history lost there,” he said. CK believes that the development was solely to blame for the loss. “They will cut more trees and there would be fewer birds,” he said, that’s why “development” would be a bad thing for places like these.
Dangers to the Environment
ENVIS reported that in recent years, the increase in vehicular traffic and development around Bangalore has increased the amount of carbon emission and suspended particulate matter. The air pollution and reduction in green vegetation has induced the ‘urban heat island effect’.
This effect occurs when cities replace nature cover with dense surfaces that absorb and retain heat. This increases heat-related illnesses and mortality. According to the ENVIS report, this effect has also caused a variation in Bangalore’s microclimate.
The reduced tree-human ratio threatens the climate further. According to the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), the ideal tree-human ratio is seven trees per person. Bangalore’s population was approximately 123.27 Lakhs in 2020. ENVIS’s observations were of 2013 and Bangalore’s green cover has reduced since which means that there are less than 14 lakh trees for more than 123.27 lakh people. Significantly less than the ideal ratio.
“The reality is that in the name of development, we have dug our graves,” said Sandhya, a climate activist in Bangalore. Sandhya quit her corporate job as she was overworked, this gave her a chance to introspect. She realized the importance of conserving the environment which she hoped a lot more people would realize.
Sandhya has lived in Bangalore for over 20 years and has noticed massive changes to its green cover. “MG boulevard, Bannerghatta road were spaces that were green pathways,” she said, “They lie barren today in the name of development.”
She said that these developments have affected the climate in multiple ways. She has worked in lake conservation and said, that water bodies are like a string of pearls, connected, making it is important to preserve all of them. According to her, getting rid of the vegetation that surrounds these lakes, becomes a threat to their existence.
“There hasn’t been adequate rainfall and this has increased the air pollution and decreased water quality,” she said, “All a consequence of the decreasing vegetation.” She believes that the Peripheral Ring Road would be a danger to the environment and is not justified during the raging pandemic.
The Peripheral Ring Road
Gene and three others authored a petition standing against the Peripheral Ring Road project, mooted in 2007. The aim for Gene and the others is to protect Avalahalli, which would be destroyed with the construction of the PRR. The project aims to ease the (in)famous traffic in Bangalore but would harm the lakes and reserve forests it plans to run through in the process.
According to the petition, the project’s initial cost was Rs 550 crore. The project’s cost has ballooned to Rs 21,250 crores since. “It would be cheaper if they made it out of gold,” said Gene. The original funder, the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), who was involved in the project since its inception in 2007, pulled out in 2021.
Gene said that the PRR harms not only Avalahalli and the lake right next to it, but 15 other grounds, lakes and four reserve forests as it runs around the city. “The project threatens 160 distinct bird species in Avalahalli along with various other botanical wildlife,” he said. Gene called Avalahalli “the place” for cyclists, runners and pedestrians. “There is no other infrastructure made for these people,” he said.
The petitioners argue that the Bangalore Development Authority (BDA) were inaccurate about the number of trees that would be cut. “They started with 300 trees,” he said, “Recently when BDA was asked to revise their environmental impact assessment by the Supreme Court and it revealed that over 33,000 trees would be cut.”
The project is destructive in every way possible. “If only building this PRR and destroying trees would solve traffic problems,” he exclaims, “In the process, we lose our green cover which is less than three per cent, and it won’t ever come back.”
“Unless you turn off the tap, the bucket is going to keep overflowing,” he said. He explained that building a new road would momentarily take the traffic off and ease congestion. However, that space will soon be filled up again.
“Unless you turn off the tap, the bucket is going to keep overflowing.”
Gene hopes to spread awareness about this alarming issue among the masses. Sandhya believes that awareness alone won’t be enough. “Awareness is such a dirty word, people are aware but what do they do about it,” she asked, “Questioning and challenging policies are what is needed to make a difference.”
The Lies, The Truth, and The Rest
Dr Harini Nagendra, an ecologist, and Professor of Sustainability at the Azim Premji Univerisity, with Seema Mundoli and Ranjini Murali, have done a study of the environmental and the ecological impacts of tree-felling and road widening of Bengaluru’s surrounding roads.
The report contains findings from a rapid environmental assessment conducted to assess the environmental impacts of the widening of roads around Bangalore. “The PRR area is too large to cover, hence we assessed only a few sites,” said Dr Nagendra.
The study covers six stretches – Budigere Cross (Hoskote) to Mylanahalli, Nelamangala to Madure, Madure to SMVIT cross on Devanahalli Road, Kanchugaranahalli to Jigani, Bannerghatta to Besthamanahalli and Besthamanahalli to Hoskote.
She said that although the official numbers of trees that will be cut on these stretches are yet to be released, newspaper reports estimate that 8,561 trees would be cut to cover a total distance of 152.03 km. According to her report, however, the numbers seem inaccurate and are likely to be much higher.
The study found that contrary to the newspapers reports of 869 trees to be cut in the 15 km Nelamangala to Madure stretch, 929 trees would be cut. While on the Kanchugaranahalli to Jigani stretch, covering 33.2km, reports suggest that 184 trees be cut, however, her study estimates about 1,000 trees were already marked to be cut. The study also states that several trees that were unmarked would also be cut during the road widening.
In addition, the study also found that several irreplaceable heritage trees would be cut, that includes three massive banyan trees with a girth of 14.9 m, 17.7 m, and 10 m, respectively. The study recorded 15 sacred ashwathkattes marked for removal. These trees have immense religious and social significance for locals.
14 lakes that lie on these six stretches have also been sampled in the study. It states that the project would severely affect groundwater recharge, flood control and biodiversity in these lakes.
Dr Nagendra found the focus on minimisation and mitigation to be missing, along with a lack of transparency and insufficient attention to detail in the infrastructure planned for Bangalore. “If you cut these trees, the heat would become unbearable,” she said, “Many of these trees are keystone species, at least 100 years old, it makes no sense to cut them.”
She said that it would take years to replace these trees, so planting replacement saplings would “make no difference in the destruction, that is already been done”. She suggested that planting trees on the side of the road would help in reducing air pollution. However, there has been no evidence of tree planting, their survival rates or records on the improvement of green cover by authorities responsible for constructions, she added.
According to the project report by the Bangalore Development Authority (BDA) dated April 2012, states that the Peripheral Ring Round of 116 km would relieve the traffic pressure on the Outer Ring Road (ORR). The report is the only official document about the PRR accessible online. According to Ranjini, the BDA has been asked to not respond to media due to the controversy around the project.
The report states that the BDA has observed that the ORR acts as a bypass for more than 10,000 trucks headed towards various destinations. However, because of the immense growth in intra-city traffic, the ORR stands under tremendous pressure. The parts of the city that have extended beyond the ORR have been a key factor in this increasing traffic. It further states that the increasing size of the population has put increasing pressure on the demand for land and transportation infrastructure.
The environmental impacts stated in the report only identifies the air pollution due to the construction activities, however, it fails to mention the trees that would be cut to build the road. In terms of mitigation measures, the report simply states that the BDA “may” insist on the developer to use clean and green technologies.
Namma Avalahalli, Turahalli?
Avalahalli is an oasis for riders like CK. The decision of constructing the PRR through Avalahalli will impact the future of the sport as well.
“Bangalore has become a dusty city,” he said, “The city had beautiful weather.”. He grew up in Bangalore and enjoyed December when the mist formed as he exhaled. He is scared that what is left of Bangalore’s greeny would soon see its end. Bangalore now, to CK is just dust. “We don’t have to look at the world to see climate change, it’s happening right in our backyards.”
According to Dr Nagendra, we can still save the environment. “Stringent policies should be made to protect the heritage trees and they should be identified as soon as possible.” She suggested that cutting off the old trees be stopped immediately while a committee should be responsible for mapping down the old trees and declaring them as heritage trees.
“Stringent policies should be made to protect the heritage trees and they should be identified as soon as possible.”
She also emphasized the need for an aggressive tree-planting policy around Bangalore, the need to identify spaces to plant the right size of trees. “Set this up as a very collaborative, decentralized, project, ward by ward,” she said, “Run it through different communities and societies – colleges, schools, NGOs, other groups in the area so that it is done transparently.” She added that Bangalore desperately needs this “aggressive transparent program,” one that people can “monitor and track .”
“Aggressive, transparent program.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommended a minimum green space of 9.5 m²/ person considering the oxygen and moderation of the microclimate of an urban environment. Vegetation like trees and landscape dominated by paved surfaces play a vital role in moderating the climate and reducing greenhouse gases. This, however, seems to be impossible for Bangalore, as plans for constructions on its dense forest continue.
The threat to the environment expands globally. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) noted that the earth observed a global temperature rise throughout the years. A result of increased carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere and other human activities. According to NASA, the years 2016 and 2020 were tied for the warmest year on record.
Dr Nagendra, Ranjini Murali, Seema Mundoli, Sandhya, Gene, Shariq and CK are only a few of the many people concerned about Bangalore’s environment. “I guess, humans, love roads more than they will ever love trees,” said Shariq. Gene and the others hope that people take action and come forward to help save the rest of Bangalore, something they feel is a farfetched dream.