Monday, November 7, 2016

Samar Halarnkar - The end of nature: Why India is becoming a drier, hotter and angrier country

Over 90 years, the Western Ghats lost a third of its forests, according to this paper released in 2016 by scientists of the Indian Space Research Organisation. The forest area lost is equivalent to nine times the size of Goa. Innumerable species have been lost, many before they were discovered…The most dire warning about the declining health of the Western Ghats came more than four years ago, when the Indian government banned the release of a report of a 325-page scientific study, Report of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel, and forbade its 14 authors, which included some of India’s best biologists and four government officers, from discussing it.

Every day, as I left home and walked along the footpath near my house, battling cars that try to occupy it, I glanced irritatedly at the little mess of leftover rice-and-god-knows-what that I shuddered at and jumped over. I was delighted when the WhatsApp group of the local residents’ associations posted photos of the dirty patch I encountered and others like it. The unanimous decision: We will ask residents to stop creating this mess that attracts dogs and crows. Why, I mused, must people make this mess on our already crumbling footpaths?

I got my answer the next week, and it made me feel guilty, ashamed and ignorant. You see, the reason people from my neighbourhood’s last surviving little houses put the rice out was because they were acting on fading impulses and memories from a gentler and greener time – when nature was a part of daily life and Bengaluru was a city of trees and gardens big and small. “Bengaluru residents have not just been aware of the biodiversity of their gardens, but have made active efforts to support this biodiversity,” writes Harini Nagendra, a professor at Azim Premji University, in Nature in the City, her evocative exploration of the city’s natural history. “More than half of the residents engaged in practices such as placing a plate of warm rice (often with ghee [clarified butter] added outside the kitchen to feed crows, while they left water baths for birds in the summer, and sugar and milk for ants and reptiles.”

No smart cities without nature
Having experienced Bengaluru’s lush past since my family first came here 47 years ago and having lived through innumerable gardens that my father tended, I was aware of the broad brush strokes of the city’s changing history. But Nagendra’s book merges disparate brush strokes to paint a big picture of the ancient relationship between nature and a city of nine million that is now, simultaneously, the epitome of Indian metropolitan prosperity and chaos.

Nagendra’s book made me realise how far nature has receded from our lives. Butterflies, birds, reptiles and mammals are on their last legs in all of India’s cities. As they and the greenery that sustains them fades, it is important to realise that the smart-city era can never be realised without a sustaining natural environment. Indeed, the absence of nature is making our lives more unbearable. We may ignore the correlations and causations – or simply be ignorant, as many policy makers are – but scientists are clear about the devastating effects that the end of nature is having on India, within cities and without.

Nature’s diminishing effect is most obvious in physical terms: As trees, lakes and open spaces disappear and are replaced by closely spaced multi-storeyed buildings – increasingly violating zoning and setback laws – Indian cities are turning into “heat islands”, environment researcher Max Martin wrote in IndiaSpend in July 2016, after a review of scientific studies in five cities.

“Trees, shrubs, grass and soil absorb heat and cool the land, but since these are increasingly absent in Indian urban design, and what existed is being cleared, what’s left is concrete and asphalt, which soak in and intensify the day’s heat, staying hot for many hours at night,” wrote Martin. The result: warmer nights and hotter days in Delhi, Chennai, Thiruvananthapuram, Guwahati and Kochi, according to a number of independent studies that Martin reviewed. It goes without saying that roads and cities bereft of trees are hotter, more starved of water and ever more difficult to endure. And that, as science keeps reminding us, makes us stressed, angry and depressed.

India joins the sixth extinction.. read more: