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Can the millions in urban India live among greenery?

An interview with urban ecologist Harini Nagendra

Large swathes of wilderness alternating with pockets of urbanization may be a reality in some countries, but in India boundaries are soft. Where a city ends and where a village begins in its outskirts is somewhat fuzzy. Rapidly developing megacities like Bangalore and Pune, localities like Gurgaon outside New Delhi, have been subsuming surrounding villages into their ever-expanding boundaries for the last couple of decades.

Many people from rural India have migrated to cities looking for better opportunities, furthering space problems in already swollen urban areas. In this setting, how realistic is it to set aside land for metropolitan parks and preserves?

Growing up in Bangalore meant Harini Nagendra saw its transition from a charming, slightly sleepy green city to one of the software development hotspots of the world. Currently a Professor at the School of Development at Azim Premji University at Bangalore, she has been working on urban ecology since her return to India after her post-doctoral stint with Elinor Ostrom, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009.

Harini Nagendra in the field. Photo courtesy of Harini Nagendra.

“I was living in a city, seeing first hand all the changes that were going on, and got interested in urban ecology. I work on biodiversity, lakes and environmental change. I hope to soon expand my project to include a lot more places all over India, to understand how urbanization is impacting ecosystem services and the ecology,” she said.

Nagendra has done much of her work on urban ecology in Bangalore because she feels a connection to her hometown, and, in a country with hundreds of regional tongues, speaking the local language makes a huge difference. In comparison to other cities around the world, Bangalore has a very high diversity of tree species—something both heartening and distressing when considering the number of trees Bangalore has been losing over the last few years to road and rail expansion.

Nagendra believes that public interest in creating green spaces is not the problem; she tells stories of an 85-year old woman fighting for her park, and a man converting the garbage dump near his house to a little community park at his own expense.

“I don’t think people lacking motivation is an issue at all. It’s also not about lack of space for planting. It’s more the lack of will and vision on the part of the planners—the Bangalore municipality does not want trees on the road, because according to them, when you widen the road you eventually have to cut the trees down and people protest,” said Nagendra.

The rural/urban divide is not all that sharp in the outskirts of Bangalore. Many villages have recently become part of the Bangalore municipal area, and the shift from a local governance system—the Panchayat, or the village government in India—to being a small ward in a large municipality is taking its toll on the local people. Jurisdictions are not yet clear. Erstwhile villagers have no clue about the city administration system, and Nagendra feels they are often left out of the equation.

During her work with urban lakes in Bangalore, Nagendra has observed changing uses of the freshwater ecosystem—from a place where villagers washed their cattle and their clothes, to its incorporation into an upscale gated community where city dwellers jog in expensive running shoes.

A panoramic view of Bangalore, India. Photo courtesy of Muhammad Mahdi Karim under the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2.

“It’s sad at one level because most of these lakes once they are restored cut off all the traditional uses of the lake. They basically become urban lakes where the focus is on recreation—walking, bird watching,” she said. “Many of the lakes typically have slums somewhere close by and as it gets gated and controlled, those people are left suffering a lot more.”

This creates challenges from a social perspective, as it is typically the poor and people practicing traditional livelihoods, such as fishers and fodder collectors, who are most impacted by these changes. Gating and controlling access to the lake also impacts the ecology, though. Bangalore’s lakes, as with the lakes in much of southern India, are not naturally occurring but have been created and maintained by local communities for centuries. Thus, for instance, collection of grasses and water weeds in the marshy areas of the lake by fodder collectors helps to clear the water surface from excessive growth of vegetation, while constant monitoring of lake water quality by fishermen helps communities to tackle sewage inflow quickly and effectively. Excluding traditional users from access to these lakes, and converting them into purely recreational spaces can have long term impacts on their ecology.

Nagendra says urban ecology can be maintained if we tackle the issue through negotiation with policy makers and administrators, as well as community involvement. But she sees education as the most powerful tool.

“If we can really fix our primary education, get our government schools in better shape and fix this gap between students who grow up with so much more access to information, I think that’s the way forward,” she said. “If you motivate them, they are going to take up various positions of power in another ten years.”


Harini Nagendra: I was in New Delhi when I was very young, but I did most of my schooling and a bachelor degree in science from Bangalore. I then joined Indian Institute of Science for an integrated Masters-PhD program, which initially had nothing to do with ecology! After my first project on cell biology, I realized I was not cut out for spending hours in the lab working on cells and cultures. What drew you to ecology?

Harini Nagendra: The Centre for Ecological Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science was having its tenth anniversary celebrations, and William Hamilton was coming to deliver a lecture. We had done a class on evolutionary biology, and I had heard about Hamilton, and went along to hear him talk. But they had shifted up their schedules and I ended up hearing Madhav Gadgil [a noted ecologist and social issues expert in India] instead! I had just finished one of my projects toward my Integrated PhD degree, and I was supposed to do one more. I was getting very frustrated with the labwork, so I went to him and asked if I could do a project with him. I enjoyed working with him, and then started my PhD with him, on something completely different. But I am glad I shifted.

The city of Pune, India seen from above. Photo courtesy of Subhashish Panigrahi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. What was the focus of your PhD research?

Harini Nagendra:It was on the use of satellite remote sensing coupled with field studies for biodiversity assessment in the Western Ghats—basically how do you use remote sensing for biodiversity monitoring. It was not remote sensing by itself, but coupled with field assessments. For instance, how you’ll use stratified sampling, how do you scale up from small plots to landscapes to regions, and then to the entire Western Ghats—that was my thesis.

There was no remote sensing equipment at Centre for Ecological Sciences at that time, and we had to learn how to do remote sensing the hard way—using freeware, finding the computers, setting them up—a lot of learning. We didn’t have money for statistical software, so I had to learn coding, and code my own software. It was really nice, and I learned a lot.

At that time, the Western Ghats biodiversity network was set up—a network of undergraduate colleges from across the Ghats were working together to assess its biodiversity. I ended up interacting with a lot of people, and enjoying myself a lot. And then you started a postdoctoral fellowship?

Harini Nagendra: While working on my PhD, I was getting a sense of the fact that a lot of the changes were happening because of humans. I started wanting to do something that was more interdisciplinary, with more of the social sciences. That’s when I moved to CIPEC—Center for the Study of Institutions, Population, and Environmental Change at Indiana University. It was this big National Science Foundation project—they had funded a slew of interdisciplinary centers looking at environmental issues. This one was co-founded by Elinor Ostrom.

Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom – renowned for her work on communities and conservation – planting a tree at one of the community managed lakes in Bangalore. Photo credit: Harini Nagendra.

It was a very vibrant place. They had setup research sites in the US, in East Africa, in Latin America, and they wanted to work in South Asia, where they had a lot of forest plots from a previous network. And they wanted to work on India and Nepal. It was a good match—they were looking for someone with geographic expertise, I wanted to do a postdoc with the social aspect, but still work in the Indian or South Asian context. Those three years were an excellent learning experience—I worked with ecologists, with anthropologists, geographers. A lot of us from different parts of the world, working in different places, sitting together and discussing and starting off collaborative projects.

I also worked with Elinor Ostrom a lot at that point—getting a better idea of governance issues, political science, how do you look at collective action and how people can be part of a solution in forest protection, not just part of a problem. From there, we started looking at a number of places across south Asia.

FOREST COVER IN INDIA WITH SATELLITE IMAGERY When did you start working on ecology/sociology issues in India?

Harini Nagendra I had a five year Swiss fellowship—the Branco Weiss Society in Science fellowship—from 2003 to 2008. The fellowship funds interdisciplinary research in the life sciences, allowing researchers to look at the society—science combination. I could live anywhere and work anywhere, and I moved back to India. I joined as an adjunct fellow at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE).

I continued working with CIPEC and setup a series of sites where we are looking at land cover change and forest change using satellite images. We are trying to get a sense of where things are disappearing, and where they are coming back. We combine this research with some ground truthing—going out into the field and actually enumerating forest cover. Satellite images show us only trees, we don’t see what species are present—so what’s going on at the species level? is there regeneration, for instance. We are trying to get a more nuanced picture.

We also interview local communities, to find out why land use is changing. If it’s a protected area like a national park, we interview the park administrative staff and the local people they interact with.

In India, I have sites at Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve in Maharashtra state, Pench National Park in Madhya Pradesh, and Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary in West Bengal. I also have worked at two sites in Nepal at the Chitwan National Park and in the Kabrepalanchowk district in the middle hills of Nepal.

Protesting around a polluted lake – Bangalore. Photo credit: Harini Nagendra. And then you started working with urban ecology?

Harini Nagendra: Yes. I was living in a city, seeing first hand all the changes that were going on—that’s how I got interested in it. It’s now become a significant focus of my work. I work on biodiversity, lakes and environmental change. I currently have a PhD student working on Delhi. I hope to soon expand my project to include a lot more places all over India, to understand how urbanization is impacting ecosystem services and the ecology. Why did you start with Bangalore and Delhi?

Harini Nagendra: I started work in Bangalore with the idea that it should not just be research for research’s sake, but have a direct link with policy and education. It’s much easier for me to do it in Bangalore because it’s my city. Also, it’s a city which I think has a lot of unique characteristics of its own in terms of development. A part of the work I am doing is not just about ecology, but also about people’s relationship with nature. I’ve been interacting with the local communities. Being local makes a big difference—the language you speak, the emotional connect you share with people.

Apart from that, I feel Bangalore is a great place because it was always the Garden City of India, and people here have a certain affinity with nature. They have a lot of lake protection groups, lake revival going on in Bangalore. We have done studies on home gardens for instance, and the kind of biodiversity that people have in their homes is really impressive. And, most of them don’t use pesticides and herbicides.

Delhi—because it’s the capital, and it’s very interesting to study a lot of governance and other initiatives emanate from there. You can see Lutyens’ Delhi—large parks, very well planned, well maintained—you can see that so clearly; and then you have completely random development going on in Gurgaon. A very interesting contrast in terms of growth style.

What I want to do now that we’re getting to know more about these two cities, is to move to the next phase of this, and start looking at smaller towns, because that’s where rapid urbanization is taking place in India.

Young girls in India. Photo by Nancy Butler / How do you characterize the urban biodiversity of Bangalore?

Harini Nagendra: Bangalore has a much greater species diversity than cities in other parts of the world. Many cities tend to plant just a few select species—maybe ten species constitute a lot of the trees. In Bangalore, there is no dominant set of species, it’s really diverse. Street to street, you’ll see a different set of species—you will easily see 40-50 species on our streets quite easily. But in terms of density, it’s very low compared to many places in the world. There’s a lot of space for planting, especially in the peripheral areas of the city.

ENCOURAGING URBAN INTEREST IN NATURE When interacting with people in these cities, have you found it difficult to involve people in initiatives such as neighborhood greening?

Harini Nagendra: I must say I have had mostly positive experiences in Bangalore. For example, a woman of 85, a homemaker, mother of 10 children, she fought tooth and nail to save a local park from being taken over. This other person—the front of his house was used a dumping yard, and he would keep getting it cleaned up at his own expense. His kitchen garden was on the other side and he couldn’t work because of the stench. After spending a lot, he created a small garden that he fenced off. He said that there was no dumping after that; neighbors he had never spoken to for the last 10 years keep coming up and saying how nice it is to have a garden. He got to know the neighbors, and it has become a community area with benches where people hang out and talk. I get so many stories like that whenever I go talk somewhere.

Kaikondrahalli Lake, which has been recently restored through an innovative program of community government partnership. Photo credit: Harini Nagendra. Do you think there a difference between Indian cities in terms of how people perceive nature?

Harini Nagendra: I agree. Pune, Bangalore, Mumbai—in these places there is a culture of people getting passionate about the environment and doing something about it. What is the secret to getting people to care?

Harini Nagendra: What I have seen is, with a lot of tree planting organizations, it’s just about planting a tree, by itself. A tree by itself may not lead to something long term; planting a tree along with a bench where people sit, flowers, people’s recreational activities. That’s when I think it really takes off in a way, because it’s not a just a tree on a road, but a part of your community space.

People should also be informed of the benefits of having trees. We’ve done studies to show the environmental benefits of having trees. They really cut down pollution levels massively. They give you a lot of shade, they can reduce the air temperature by as much as 5°C (41°F) on an average, and can even reduce road surface temperatures by up to 25°C (77°F). Shade will also encourage walking and cycling, and in that sense, you really need trees for a sustainable city, you really need trees. What are the barriers to a greener Bangalore?

Harini Nagendra: I don’t think people lacking motivation is an issue at all. We’ve seen people in slums growing plants in old caps, buckets, old aluminum vessels with holes in them—anything that they find, they put a plant. It’s somehow different if you plant it—if a community takes it up on its own, its your own thing, you do it differently.

It’s not about lack of place for planting, it’s more the lack of will and vision on the part of the planners. You will see the Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) [the equivalent to a city council] say that we should not have trees on the road, because then when you widen the road you eventually have to cut them down and people protest. They also cite issues of practicality—they say you need to have a huge budget for people to sweep the roads and remove dropped leaves.

What is lacking is a space where communities can plant. My mother has been living in the same house for at least 30 years, and she’s given up planting anything on the footpath. The moment she starts a garden on the footpath, someone is going to come and dig it up to lay a telephone line, or an electricity line—I can’t tell you the number of times she’s tried planting a garden. It’s heartbreaking beyond a point. Do you think outreach is a way out? Or is this sense of community something that has to evolve more organically?

Harini Nagendra: Some of it has to come naturally. But people who go around and talk to the public about trees—there are a lot of them in Bangalore—also help. Sometimes, somebody wants to cut down a tree because the roots are growing into their house. Or, for the all important profit motive. If someone explains to them the importance of that tree, and how it’s in a way more than just timber or some concrete, they [end] up not cutting them.

We have been planning a simple manual of sorts—with information about common species. What species do you plant if you’re planting in a house? What species do you use if you want fruits, what kind of fruits, do you want the trees to attract birds (or not!), or do you just want shade? What do you plant on a road? In an apartment complex? It will be nice for people to have this information readily available.

THE BRIDGE BETWEEN RESEARCH AND POLICY What do you think are the barriers between research and policy? In your experience with engaging with BBMP, how open are they to suggestions from scientists?

Harini Nagendra: At the national level it’s obviously a lot more difficult to influence policy. But if you’re just looking at the city scale, there are many ways to influence policy. One way is to directly engage with policy makers, but that has challenges. You have to keep trying, but there will be successes and failures. For example, we’ve been really successful working with the BBMP at the lakes.

That’s because it’s their job to protect and manage lakes; working with citizens and local communities makes it easier for them. There’s also a lot of pressure on lakes from a lot of different groups—there are civic groups that work on lakes, legal complaints on lakes by communities. Under such pressure, the government becomes proactive. Also the people involved have been very open. A lot of positive changes have happened with the lakes.

On the tree front it’s much harder—focus of people and the government is to get traffic to flow smoothly. I think research can be really useful if it can stimulate public attention, media attention and popular opinion, to get people to push the government. Or maybe acting as evidence that can go into court cases for instance. These other ways of influence are as important, I would say, as directly engaging the government.

I really like working with schools, because schools and colleges—if you motivate them, they are going to take up various positions of power in another 10 years.

An urban night scene in India. Photo by Nancy Butler /

It must be a challenge to negotiate with people in a city like Bangalore, especially in areas recently merged with the metropolis. There are so many people, all with different priorities. How do you fit them all in?

Harini Nagendra: For the negotiation part, it makes a huge difference that I speak Kannada, the local language. Large apartment complexes have been cropping up everywhere in Bangalore. At public meetings, there will be apartment dwellers who are a mix of Kannada and non-Kannada speakers; the members from the erstwhile village that is now transforming, who speak Kannada and Telugu [language of the neighboring state], and the BBMP authorities are also more comfortable with Kannada. If you only speak in English, the dynamics of the discussion changes. Who gets to participate? Being a local makes a huge difference.

A lot of the work we do with lakes is to look at these peri-urban lakes, and look at the services they provide to the people who live around it. If you look at the way lakes are being restored and managed collectively, it’s very good at one level—you are involving local groups that are coming up. It’s sad at one level because most of these lakes once they are restored cut off all the traditional uses of the lake. They basically become urban lakes where the focus is on recreation—walking, bird watching. What do you do with people who use the lake differently—cattle washing, fishing (not commercial, but for local consumption)—that has stopped. Fodder collection, reed collection, people washing clothes get stopped. Having a local borewell to supply the local panchayat, or slum, gets stopped. All of these traditional, local uses of the lake are completely getting thrown down and lastly, pushed out of the equation.

Now you have a lake, a fence around it, and you can come in, jog and walk and use the lake non-consumptively. That is a big problem. Many of the lakes typically have slums somewhere close by and as it gets gated and controlled, those people are left suffering a lot more. Cattle in an urban setting? That is a little hard to imagine.

Harini Nagendra: India has no strict boundaries. There are families within the city have been rearing cattle for generations. City governance, or any larger scale governance, seems to be unable to act in a way that allows for local flexibility. Mahadevpura constituency in Bangalore is a good example—it is a peri-urban area, half of it is within Bangalore, half outside. If you talk to the people from the lakes—not the apartment dwellers but the area that used to be a Panchayat (a form of village governance in India), but is now part of BBMP—they say straightaway that they have problems. If they have some issue, like if they don’t have water, the villagers are made to go from one office to another. The local office says you need to go to the central office, and vice versa; there are always jurisdiction issues. These people who don’t have access to email or the internet, with no means to finding out who is responsible for them, have to keep running around, and none of their problems are solved. Any tips on how to deal with the bureaucracy?

Harini Nagendra: A colleague and I were working on the Mahadevpura lake, a peri-urban water body in the outskirts of Bangalore that came under BBMP control recently. We put together a massive, comprehensive report—the executive summary itself was ten pages long! While interacting with the BBMP, I realized that we don’t really need that—we need to digest this information into three points. Make it as simple as, Do 1,2,3.

A vendor at the market. Photo by Nancy Butler /

A SOLUTION IN EDUCATION What is the way forward?

Harini Nagendra: It’s a huge monster of a problem, but we have to tackle it from different angles—the community side, the policy side. Where I am most hopeful is the education side. If we can really fix our primary education, get our government schools in better shape—and fix this gap between students who grow up with so much more access to information.

Informally speaking, students from government schools know a lot more about the local ecology. Students have told me stories of parakeets who used to visit these mango orchards near one of the lakes. Kids would run there and drive the parakeets away, before and after school, because the parakeets can peck ripe mangoes clean in half an hour. By the time the students got there, the parakeets would’ve already pecked at some mangoes; the students make a beeline for these mangoes because apparently parakeets can pick the sweetest mangoes even in a split second.

On the other hand—there is a eucalyptus grove near one of the lakes, and I observed a family walking there. The parents encouraged their kid—who goes to one of the private schools—to go ahead and play. The kid from the “good” school said there may be tigers in there [there are of course no tigers there]. The ecological sensitivity is completely lacking in these students—but these are the kids who will be making decisions when they grow up, not the kids from the mango grove.

I personally feel if we can fix this imbalance in the kind of education in the long run, it can help. Urban green spaces are very important for growing cities in India (and anywhere in the world, of course): they provide a whole host of ecological and environmental services that help clean a polluted city’s air and water, support biodiversity, and create recreational spaces that are very important for stressed city residents. But even more important is their role in creating a place where city people (especially urban children) can learn about nature. In Indian cities, where the focus seems to be increasingly on infrastructure expansion, at the expense of urban green spaces, public support and awareness for environmental issues can be a powerful force in shaping a greener future. Maintaining and restoring green spaces and wetlands is an essential prerequisite for such change.

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