The Wilting of The Garden City

When Sohrab Mistry relocated to Bangalore 20 years ago his new home did not have any ceiling fans.

Bangalorean, Tara Joseph always went to church bundled up in her cashmere coat.

As for Anand Gowda, cycling to college, to a friend's home or to the cinema was the quickest means of transport in the city.

The three still live in Bangalore, but they no longer recognize their city. Joseph's cashmere coat has not been aired for more than nine years. Mistry has had to fit an air-conditioner in his bedroom and Gowda finds cycling so challenging now that he no longer dares to deploy his rusty bike.

Forty years ago Bangalore was paradise, with its tree-lined roads, flower-laden traffic islands and, more importantly, a comfortable climate. "We wore cardigans in June," recalls Elizabeth Menezies, 59, an Anglo-Indian school teacher. 

Today, little remains of all that. The temperate climate, green avenues and the string of tanks and lakes are fast disappearing into smoggy nothingness. A deadly cocktail of development and urbanization has translated into increased vehicular traffic, sky-rocketing carbon dioxide emission levels, a burgeoning population and mushrooming corporate and residential buildings. 

The drying up of the lakes and denuding of the green cover has led to a dramatic change in the city's climate. Scientists at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bangalore, who have been monitoring the growth of the city, its temperature and rainfall over a period of nearly 20 years, have the most dismal statistics to prove that Bangalore's temperate climate will soon be history. The study by the IISc team, published in the September 2009 issue of the International Journal of Geoinformatics, shows that the mean temperature of the city has increased by about two degrees centigrade in the past two decades.

Using space-borne remote sensing equipment, temperatures were monitored by T.V. Ramachandra, K. Uttam and their team of researchers. The study was conducted between 1990 and 2009. Says Ramachandra, "The annual mean has gone up between 1.5 to 2.5 degrees in some areas."

Figures of Doom 
Greater Bangalore Land Cover Statistics (in hectares)
(IISc research figures)
Year Built-up Vegetation Water Bodies

The analysis also showed a positive correlation between the increase in paved surfaces and land surface temperature. According to the report, "As much as 466 per cent increase in paved surfaces has led to the increase in temperatures by about two degrees centigrade." Researchers found that an "increase in paved land and concentrated human activities often leads to increased land surface temperatures". These are known as urban heat islands. Bangalore has three heat islands - towards Whitefield and Hosur where there is a high concentration of IT companies, the Peenya Industrial Zone in north Bangalore and the sprawling high-rise residential complexes of south Bangalore. In fact, Bangalore's International Tech Park (ITPB), near Whitefield, is so built up that "80 per cent of the surface around it is paved," remarks Ramachandra.

Apart from the paved surfaces another heat source are the buildings themselves. Most new structures are designed according to architectural design styles emanating from the West, where buildings are designed to trap the heat. "Such buildings in Bangalore's tropical climate are hardly energy efficient," observe the IISc researchers.

As temperatures rise, so does the use of appliances like air-conditioners and air coolers, which only leads to a further increase in temperatures. It is not surprising therefore that Bangalore's carbon footprint is growing progressively larger with each passing year. 

The sea of traffic on the ribbon thin roads, which have hardly been widened since the days of the Raj, are choked by a dramatic increase in vehicles. A report of the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB) shows that the increase in vehicles, both two wheelers and four wheelers, have contributed to the heightened levels of air pollution. According to the KSPCB report released in January 2008, two-wheelers have risen from 0.75 million in 1997 to over 2.04 million by 2008.

The IISc scientists have supporting evidence. In 1987, Bangalore had only 400,000 vehicles. By 2006 their number increased to an alarming 23,00,000. Of this, two-wheelers comprise as much as 72 per cent; cars and vans, 15 per cent; auto rickshaws make up 3 per cent; buses some 2.75 per cent, while other forms of transport account for the remaining 2.6 per cent.

Bangalore Mobility Indicator, 2008, a study by the Directorate of Urban Land Transport (DULT) published in mid-2009, reveals that the average vehicle speed in the city is dismally low. The optimum speed of 40 kmph cannot be gained in Bangalore at all. In the central business district of MG Road, Commercial Street and Cubbon Road, the average speed is only 21.2 kmph. Added to this is the problem of parking space, which is practically non-existent. Says Vishal Mohan, a former student of Christ University, "Even within the IISc campus there is a parking problem and the institute boasts of 400 acres of land."

The much awaited Bangalore Metro, which is expected to help ease traffic congestion in the central parts of the city, has brought its own set of problems. Hundreds of trees will be felled to make way for the Metro and for road widening. The Bangalore Metro Rail Corporation Limited, which is implementing the project, plans to axe about 110 trees around the famed Cubbon Park and its environs. The original proposal was for felling of 70 trees. 

As if all this is not enough, to spur the state's growth further, large sections of farmland and forest areas on the outskirts of the city have been acquired by the state government without much thought for the future repercussions of such a policy. 

Meanwhile, the lakes and tanks - strung together like an irregular necklace - that the city was once famous for, and which traditionally supplied most of its water requirements, are disappearing fast. In 1962, as many as 262 wetlands existed in the city but by 2007 their number had dropped by as much as 58 per cent, according to a study by the Energy and Wetlands research group, Centre for Ecological Sciences, IISc. The BBMP (Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike) claims that of the 212 lakes today, as many as 42 have succumbed to 'development works'. They have been turned into hospitals, schools, government building, bus stands or stadiums. This of course is an old pattern. Bangalore's central bus terminus, Kempegowda Bus Terminal, was once a lake that was converted to its present use in the early-1980s, as was Kanteerva stadium that was built in the late 1970s and where sporting events and matches are now held. The pace at which land is being reclaimed from water bodies has got accentuated in recent years. 

Unfortunately, both private developers and the state government are responsible for the destruction that is taking place. Take the water situation. The city owes its water woes not just to the vanishing of water bodies, but also to fast plummeting groundwater tables. Despite the ban on bore-wells, many have been dug given intense water shortages. The fact that in places like ITPB, bore wells have gone down to as much as 1,000 feet is a graphic example of the crisis staring the city in the face. And even at that depth, trace elements show that the water is contaminated.

The latest attempt by the state government to recharge ground water has yet to be implemented. The law now dictates that all new building have to incorporate harvesting rainwater measures. Such a stipulation should have been introduced years ago. Today it seems too little, too late. 

For Bangalore's eight million residents, the alarm bells are ringing loud and clear. Will they rise to save their city? Or will the Garden City of India simply be allowed to wither away in the name of a 'development' that is skewed and environmentally unsustainable? 


More by :  Roshin Verghese

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