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What does it take to make Bangalore ecologically smart?

Delivering the inaugural MR Krishnamurthy Memorial Lecture at IIM Bangalore, author-activist-academic Prof. Harini Nagendra delves into the city’s history to highlight a community-centric approach for nature-based solutions

21 August, 2023, Bengaluru: The XVIII International Conference on Public Policy & Management, hosted by the Centre for Public Policy (CPP) at IIM Bangalore between 22nd-24th August, began with a pre-conference lecture on ‘Making Bangalore an Ecologically Smart City’, by Prof. Harini Nagendra, Director of the Azim Premji University Research Center, this evening. The lecture is in memory of Prof. M R Krishnamurthy, textile management expert, nephew of Sir M Vivesvaraya and staunch Bangalorean, and is keeping with the conference’s theme of sustainability.

In his welcome address, Prof. Gopal Naik, Chairperson, Centre for Public Policy (CPP) at IIM Bangalore and the Jal Jeevan Mission Chair, spoke of the objectives of CPP in terms of capacity building and outreach. He also highlighted the academic programs, including the Mahatma Gandhi National Fellowship Program, designed and delivered by the Centre.

 “It is a pleasure to deliver the inaugural Prof. MR Krishnamurthy Memorial Lecture. As a tribute to someone who loved Bangalore all his life, I want to talk about how the city has changed over time in terms of its ecology,” said Prof. Harini Nagendra, focusing on the social and ecological vulnerability of the massive conversion of forests and rural areas. 

Lack of data and ill-fitting solutions

“In the Global South, and especially in India, cities are under provisioned to provide basic infrastructure but have unprecedented rapid rates of growth. The challenge of urban sustainability is growing, especially along the periphery. Yet there is an utter lack of data, from research papers, on urban sustainability. So, we get studies and ill-fitting solutions from contexts which are not ours,” she observed.

Exploring the idea of ecological smartness or going back to our roots, Prof. Harini Nagendra remarked that nature in cities is part of their culture and so it becomes important to involve the residents, through collective management, in conservation efforts. 

Using digital elevation models and moving through the periods of the Gangas, Cholas, Hoysalas and the Vijayanagar empire, she explained how communities had always managed the region’s ecological landscape (‘bailu’ or flat land, ‘malnad’ or hills, and ‘sandra’ – from samudra or large water bodies/ lakes), responsibly. “Bangalore grew because of its ecology but we have forgotten this in the last few years. Economies – paddy cultivation, fruit orchards and flower farms, grew because of its deep lakes, tanks and irrigation systems. This shows the city was always embedded in nature” she said, pointing out that each of the subsequent rulers, from Kempe Gowda to Hyder Ali and Tipu, protected the landscape of connected lakes. “Though they also used them as the first line of defense in wars, they also always restored them. She pointed out how maps from the time of the British show they planted trees like the canopied evergreens like rain trees and copper pods as the region was hot, and built tanks (Sankey Tank, Miller’s Tank, etc) and lakes, and added that once the dependence on local water bodies was replaced by reliance on piped water supply, the community became distanced from its water sources.

Community at the heart of conservation

Explaining it further, Prof. Harini Nagendra drew attention to inscriptions which revealed that communities in the local landscape created and maintained lakes, tanks and wells as acts of community service and charity. Curses for violators were thrown in for good measure! “People had a three-dimensional appreciation of nature - they included wells underground and trees over ground. We have lost that imagination. Bangalore had a tradition of ornamental gardens suited to its ecology. Now we have landscaped exotic parks with very little bio-diversity support,” she said, adding that two spaces in cities - slums and sacred spaces – were the ones with local useful species and incredible bio diversity. “Today, ecology is now valued in terms of monetary value; we have forgotten its multi-dimensional value.”

What can Bangalore do? “Find nature-based not only on tech-focused solutions, focus on home-grown solutions, pay attention to ecological wisdom, and keep communities at the centre while building a different imagination when it comes to conservation,” she said.

About the speaker:

Prof. Harini Nagendra also leads Azim Premji University’s Center for Climate Change and Sustainability. Over the past 30 years, she has been at the leading edge of research, examining conservation in forests and cities of South Asia from the perspective of both landscape ecology and social justice. For her interdisciplinary research and practice, she has received a number of awards including the 2009 Cozzarelli Prize from the US National Academy of Sciences, the 2013 Elinor Ostrom Senior Scholar award and the 2017 Clarivate Web of Science award. Her publications include the books, ‘Nature in the City: Bengaluru in the Past, Present and Future’ and ‘Cities and Canopies: The Tree Book of Indian Cities’, as well as the forthcoming book, ‘Shades of Blue: Connecting the Drops in India’s Cities’ and over 150 research publications including recent papers in Nature, Nature Sustainability and Science. She writes a monthly column titled: ‘The Green Goblin’ for Deccan Herald, and is a well-known public speaker and writer on issues of urban sustainability in India. She also writes a mystery series set in 1920s Bangalore, ‘The Bangalore Detectives Club’.

For the detailed schedule of the conference, please click here.

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