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21 October, 2016

Bengaluru's growth is irreversible


Bengaluru needed a plan in place in early 1990s when we knew we would reach this stage in urbanisation. How come we woke only now? Pic: Ameen Ahmed
I recollect those frequent return daily train trips between Tumakuru - Bengaluru between 1999-2002. All the discarded radio sets were slowly crawling back thanks to the couple of private FM channels that broadcast the latest songs. The Kannada Sanghas were equally active even back then. The newspapers would frequently report their demonstrations against the handful of FM radio stations airing Hindi songs that catered to the large influx of non-Kannadiga techies immigrating into the yet Garden City. The Arasikere-Bengaluru passenger train would slow down as it approached Yeshvantpur Junction. Mathikere tank adjoining the railway track to the north was still a decent wetland. I remember sighting flocks of Purple Moorhens running over the hyacinth leaves. And also the migratory waders from far off lands in a feeding frenzy on its shores. And one of those days I noticed people dumping garbage and construction debris in it. The pace increased over days and months. The huts came up then. One a day. Two a day. No one to stop. Last week I took a train trip from Tumakuru to Bengaluru after about 8 years since my last one. I saw this tank again and I wished I had not done so.

As 2000 passed, Bengaluru ate away all its sand and much of timber. In our drives around Tumakuru and neighbouring districts we could see the day light looting of the resources- chiefly sand and timber, for the buildings coming up in Bengaluru. Around the same time hundreds of thousands of mature indigenous British-era trees were chopped for Atal Bihari Vajapayee's pet NH Golden Quadrilateral project across the country, Bengaluru being no exception. Many of them ended up in newly set up brick kilns, some of them not far from the highways. The kilns were churning out bricks for a city that was engulfed in a construction frenzy.

Another British-era roadside tree that was felled for the expansion of National Highway No: 4 near Dobbspet in Nelamangala Taluk, Bengaluru District. Pic: Ameen Ahmed
Things started slowly appearing in the media in 2007-08 when villagers in neighbouring districts realised there was no sand in their streams and with that no water as well. People died as well, after sand caved in near many villages nullahs and water courses The trickle of sand laden lorries had turned into a torrent towards Bangalore. The demand was insatiable. Every one benefited. Yes, every one, including me. The sand in one of those lorries must have also been used for the construction of my apartment in 2002-03. The beneficiaries of this could also be many of our new tree huggers planning their next protest against the steel flyover.

Bengaluru needed a plan in place in early 1990s or at least in the mid-1990s when we knew we would reach this stage in urbanisation. How come we woke only now? Are we going to stop every new road expansion project in the city? Should the city's development come to a grinding halt just because we have realised our folly now? This steel bridge is an alarm call but it is not the last. No change in Governments can stop urbanisation. It is irreversible.

Yes. The process of improving public transport and universal access to it can (and should) be fastened. The weaning away from private vehicles to public transport should be gradual and time bound. The civil society can (may be it should) take a lead in it by ensuring vultures out to score political brownies are kept at a distance. Will it happen now when it has not happened in the last 20 - 25 years? Well, we can always try.

20 May, 2016

Tigers in Bangalore in the Colonial era

A version of this story 'The last of Bengaluru’s tigers' was published in 'India Today' in December 2014

A sketch of a British hunter on a tiger shikar (hunt).
SourceArthur J. O. Pollock, 'Sporting days in Southern India', 1894. 
In the 19th century the tiger was no stranger to undivided Bengaluru district which included today’s Ramanagar district. There are many accounts in the British literature on the presence of this magnificent cat here. Bengaluru figures prominently in the shikar literature as it was an important cantonment during the entire stretch of the British rule here which started with the annihilation of the Mysore army in 1799. The city was surrounded by open areas that had grasslands and the wildlife depending on it like blackbuck, lesser florican and great Indian bustard. Nevertheless, big cats like tigers and leopards thrived in pockets of woods in and around the city.

Tiger killing, a public amusement in early 1800s
Among the earliest narratives of the tiger around Bengaluru can be found in Francis Buchanan‘s book ‘A journey from Madras through the countries of Mysore, Canara and Malabar’ published in 1801 in 3 volumes. He mentions of tigers in Ramagiri hill near Ramanagar town and also near Chennapatna town both of which are about an hour’s drive today from the city. It may surprise many, but according to shikar literature, hunting of captured tigers was a popular sport right inside the city in early 19th century. The Maharaja of Mysore, who overlooked the affairs of the city along with the rest of Mysore kingdom from 1799 to 1831, used captured tigers for the amusement of state guests. Such guests, many of whom were serving British officers, were given a chance to indulge in spearing of big cats including tigers, leopards and cheetahs, the later known as the ‘hunting leopard’ in early shikar literature. Numerous men on horsebacks, elephants and even foot would take the captured animals in cages and release them in the open where hunters would spear them repeatedly till they met their gory end. One popular place where this ‘amusement’ took place was the old race course of Bengaluru. Gillespie.R.R ('A memoir of Major-General Sir R. R. Gillespie', 1816) mentions an instance of this happening in 1809. Col. James Welsh records his spearing of a tiger here that was captured near Closepet (former name of Ramanagar town) and brought here for this specific purpose. He also narrates another event of spearing a tiger in October 1811 in the same book ‘Military Reminiscenes Extracted from a journal of nearly forty years’ active service in East Indies’, 1830.
In his book ‘Thirty Years in India’, 1839, Major Hery Bevan of the Madras Native Infantry has documented his experiences between 1808 to 1838 as a soldier and shikari in India and recollects Maharaja of Mysore promoting the spearing of cheetahs as a ‘public amusement’. This sport seems to have stopped after the British imposed their direct administration of Mysore province in 1831 when they removed the Maharaja from power. In ‘My Indian Journal’, 1864, Col. Walter Campbell refers to Captain Welsh’s narration of tiger and leopard spearing as an event in the past but does not mention if the same was practised as he wrote it.

Sketch of a tiger attacking a shikar elephant
SourceMoray Brown.,J, 'Shikar sketches, with notes on Indian field-sports', 1887
Government reward for killing tigers 
There are British records of rewarding the killing of tigers and other big game like leopards and elephants ever since their capture of Mysore Kingdom and partition of its territories amongst the war allies in 1799. In December that year, Arthur Wellesley, then Governor of Seringapatam and Mysore, recommended the Government 'for an allowance for the destruction of tigers' in the neighbourhood of Chitradurga (‘Dispatches of Field Marshall Duke of Wellington, during his various campaigns in India, Denmark, Portugal, Spain, the Low countries and France from 1799 – 1818’, 1834). From 1831 to 1881, when Mysore province was administered directly by the British, the tiger was continued to be seen as a threat to humans even when it had not turned to killing humans or cattle. In July 1834 the British under Mark Cubbon, Commissioner of Mysore, brought about reforms of police in the province. A Hukumnama or code was issued that mandated the duties of the Armed Kandachar Peon or the police constable of today. Among the duties was the killing of tigers for which they were rewarded Rs. 10 for an adult and Rs. 5 for a cub! The Asiatic Journal & Monthly Register for British and Foreign ..., (Volume 19, No: 73, May 1834) mentions of tiger skins being brought into Bengaluru in ‘abundance’ from the ‘adjoining country’ to claim money from the Government which rewarded their ‘extirpation’. And that reward seems to have been increased later on. In ‘Thirteen Years Among The Wild Beasts Of India’, 1879, Sanderson.G.P. writes that the Government reward in Mysore province for killing a panther (leopard) was Rs. 25. For a tiger the reward was Rs. 30 which later was increased to Rs. 50. The price on the tiger’s head was surprising given this statement by Sanderson in the same book, ‘Man-eaters are exceedingly rare in Mysore and the surrounding territories. In the past fifteen years there has only been one of great note—the Benkipoor tiger.’ Year wise details of the number of wild animals killed, including tigers, can be found in some shikar literature as well as the Government documents of those days.

Wild animals hunted in British India in 1878
Source: '2 years in the jungle - the experiences of a hunter and naturalist in India, Ceylon, the Malay Peninsula & Borneo', 1904. 
Well-known illustrator Douglas Hamilton in September 1853 is credited with a hunting trip to Bidadi, today a densely populated suburb of Bengaluru, in ‘Records of sport in southern India...from journals written between 1844 and 1870’, 1892.

Today’s National Highway, then an abode for tigers
The observations on the tiger around Bengaluru by Major General R.S.Dobbs in ‘Reminiscences of Life in Mysore, South Africa, and Burmah’, 1882, are equally fascinating. Dobbs first visited Bengaluru in 1828. In 1835 he moved to Tumakuru, head quarters of Chitradurga Division, where he served as the division’s Superintendent for over two decades. Officers and their dependants intending to travel to Tumakuru from Bengaluru had to do so on palanquins, over a narrow track that crossed through thick jungle at some places. During nights the palanquin bearers would miss their way many times. He adds there was hardly any cart traffic during those days and travellers used carts to move light luggage only occasionally. It seems the condition of this track was so bad that a cart travelling on it would overturn many times. And he quotes one instance where a young missionary was told about a wild tiger that had crossed the track half an hour earlier with a cub in its mouth.  Dobbs is credited with developing the many roads of the Division later on including this cart track which today is a part of the busy National Highway no: 4 (NH4) that connects Mumbai with Chennai via Bengaluru.


Apart from shikar literature there are numerous references to wildlife by the missionaries of those days. Rec. William Arthur in his 'A mission to the Mysore with scenes and facts illustrative of India, its people, and its religion', 1850, has an interesting description of his journey to Tumakuru from Bengaluru where he mentions ’blaze of fires, lighted to keep tigers away‘ near the hillock of Shivagana not far from the stretch of road mentioned above. In ‘Sporting days in Southern India’, 1894, Captain Arthur.J.O.Pollock narrates about a tiger, in October 1881, whose beat extended from Devarayanadurga near Tumakuru to Magadi west of Bengaluru, which also covered the above stretch of NH4.

Records of tiger hunts and shooting begin to fade in the British literature of early 20th century. According to news report in the Nottingham Evening Post dated 9 March 1907, two village shikaris shot and killed a tigress within eleven miles of Bengaluru. That tiger was reported to have taken to cattle lifting. Kenneth Anderson in his books has written about hunting tigers in the areas Old Mysore state in 1950s and 60s, but not many of them are from Bengaluru district. Like any town and city across India, even Bengaluru has a rich natural history. But thanks to the writers of those days we are able to understand today how the wilderness around the city looked then.

19 May, 2016

Bangalore’s missing grasslands

By Ameen Ahmed

A version of this story 'When city was a jungle' was published in the Deccan Herald, Bengaluru (Nov 18, 2014)
The blackbuck is an indicator species of the grasslands. There are numerous hunting records of this mammal in and around today's Bengaluru (Bangalore).
Pic courtesy: HARI SOMASHEKAR
Today’s Bangalore is much different from the small town it was in 16th century, when Kempe Gowda founded it. Akin to any settlement in India those days, it was surrounded by farmlands, grazing fields and wilderness areas like wetlands, grasslands and forests. As time progressed the city grew, attracting the attention of its rulers. While its mud fort was enlarged and rebuilt with stone by Hyder Ali in the 18th century, the British after capturing Mysore Kingdom in 1799 made this town their new headquarters of the Kingdom. They preferred it for its elevation as well as ‘its position on the high road from Madras to Mysore’. Among others Lt-General Colin Mackenzie,C.B., a British officer, in his book ‘Storms and Sunshine of a Soldier’s Life’ (1884) described the city’s weather as ‘one of the finest in India’. Lewin B.Bowring the former Commissioner of Mysore province wrote in his book Eastern Experiences (1871) “The English soldiers are in the habit of playing cricket on the parade-ground for eight months of the year without any ill effects.”

With the new found love of the British for the town and the establishing of a cantonment nearby, Bangalore’s urban settlements began expanding rapidly with traders flocking to it. Its growth pace hastened after the civil administration of the Mysore province was transferred to the place following British takeover of the Government from the Maharaja of Mysore in 1831 citing farmers’ unrest.  In 1864, when the railway was opened, the town became a huge centre for trade in the entire British India with its population being second only to Chennai (then Madras) in the whole of southern India.

Moray Brown.J in ‘Shikar sketches: With notes on Indian field-sports’ (1887) wrote about the town becoming a base for British sportsmen from all over their empire who descended here drawn by the plentiful of hunting opportunities in the jungles within its reach, chiefly in the Anamalai and Wayanad regions.  Many of these sportsmen and officers left behind a wealth of written knowledge which today provides a window to the wildlife and wilderness areas around this city in the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries.
Grasslands like these have all but disappeared from Bangalore district
Pic: AMEEN AHMED
When grasslands exceeded the woods
The forests in the eastern parts of the erstwhile Mysore province, that includes urban Bangalore, are concentrated around the broken Closepet granite hill chain, whose well-watered valleys promote a luxuriant growth of woods. Undivided Bangalore district that included today’s Ramanagara District had forests and hilly areas in its western and southern parts while the central and eastern parts were more open. In fact a closer look at the British writings and illustrations suggest the vast countryside around the Closepet hill chain was actually open grassland area on which both domestic and wild herbivores like blackbuck thrived, closely followed by their natural predators like wolves. It may surprise many that some of the most commercially built areas of today’s urban Bangalore were actually places where grassland wildlife that are now rare and endangered once thrived.

One of the earliest accounts of Bangalore’s grassland wildlife are by F.C.Hicks in his book ‘Forty Years Among the Wild Animals of India from Mysore to the Himalayas’ (1910) where he recollected shooting 48 of lesser florican birds in one day and 56 on another in either January 1874 or 1875, in the district. This bird is today classified as ‘endangered’.

Lt. Col. Arthur.J.O. Pollock is another excellent source to learn about the state of Bangalore’s different wildlife and wilderness areas in the 19th century. He wrote in detail in ‘Sporting days in Southern India’ (1894) about his numerous hunts of grassland wildlife like blackbuck and lesser florican and wetland birds like the snipe, within and around today’s urban Bangalore.
According to him the blackbuck was always found in ‘maidan country’ – as the plains are also known, in herds ranging from six to sixty. Its favourite haunts were large plains spread with tracts of scrub jungle that had millet cultivated agricultural lands bordering them, which these animals raided at night. It is apparent according to his writings that such plains were found in plenty in today’s urban Bangalore.

Among the animals dependent on the grasslands is the wolf
Pic courtesy: HARI SOMASHEKAR
Bangalore’s areas where grasslands and their wildlife once thrived 
Pollock’s usual programme was to depart at night to reach Sarjapura at day break where blackbuck was found in plenty. The terrain there was undulating and scattered with clumps of shrubs of bajra (pearl millet). The blackbuck was stalked until 9 AM after which the hunters had their breakfast. Post-breakfast, the migratory bird snipe, that came out to seek the hot sun, would be hunted through the day.

Around Bangalore district, the places favoured by hunters seeking blackbuck were the casuarina plantations at Malur, Kolar District to the east and Chitradurga district to the north-west as well as the main road to Hassan from Bangalore in the west which ran through some excellent blackbuck ground.

Pollock mentioned the presence of ‘large grass slopes’ near Subedar Chattam area where he hunted lesser florican. This area today is located in the Bangalore’s central business district. The adjoining Tumkur district was also said to have ‘good’ habitat of this bird in 1890s, according to Russel.C.E.M in ‘Bullet and Shot in Indian Forest, Plain & Hill’.

Published in 1892, ‘Records of Sport in Southern India from Journals written between 1844 and 1870’ has some remarkable illustrations by Douglas Hamilton of the hunts of wildlife like bustard, wolf and even cheetah, that were carried out in the grasslands of south India. It has a wealth of information on the wildlife that once thrived in such open areas particularly around Bangalore.
What Bangalore has lost in its 400 year journey

The lesser florican is a grassland bird and was once hunted by the dozens in and outside today's Bangalore.
Pic courtesy: VISHWATEJ PAWAR
The city eats away its grasslands
In the race for development Bangaloreans have slowly elbowed out the rare wildlife in and around the city. Though mammals like leopard and wild boar have somehow managed to survive in many of the areas nearby the wildlife that is dependent on grasslands have vanished. The Indian wolf, Great Indian bustard and blackbuck are missing. There has been just one confirmed sighting of lesser florican in Bangalore district since the last one by Lieut. Col. R. M. Betham in December 1911 and not one Great Indian Bustard has been seen here in over a hundred years. One needs to travel hundreds of kilometres today to see any of those wildlife.

The grasslands and their accompanying wildlife started disappearing once we moved from our tradition of preserving pasture land for domestic and wild herbivores. In the past few decades these areas were increasingly seen as waste areas not worthy of being conserved. This attitude resulted in most of them being diverted for ‘development’ needs like housing and industries. Many of them were planted with water hardy exotic plants like eucalyptus which forced the grassland wildlife to move away permanently in search of pasture land. The easy accessibility to ground water through bore wells has resulted in many of the grasslands around Bangalore district being converted to cash crops like vine yards.

When urban settlements first came up in Bangalore 400 years ago the city had many beautiful animals neighboured its residents. Unfortunately their numbers and variety took a hit as the city ‘developed’. It will help if the residents of this wonderful city join hands to save the remaining grasslands and their wildlife in the nation as a compensation for what the economic progress has done to them inside it.