At 11 am traffic screeches to a halt before a signal on Bangalore's MG road. A few frustrated pedestrians make their way through a maze of auto-rickshaws, cars and motorcycles. In the far corner, a tired police officer squints over the steady stream of vehicles to see if anyone has skipped a red light. It is no surprise that there is no shade; all along the main road, any sign of vegetation has been cut down to make way for infrastructure. The few trees that remain are behind private compounds.
Bangalore's dwindling green cover is not new to commuters. It is a common sight to see trees being felled to make way for big infrastructural projects or housing every day. But it is the extent to which the green cover is fading that is worrying. Last year, it was reported that the city had no more than 15 lakh trees with only four wards outside the city premises showing signs of healthy growth.
Shubendhu Sharma, Ashoka fellow and Founder of Afforestt, an organisation that promotes the growth of urban forest, remains positive that citizens can reverse this trend. Sharma's own passion to grow "urban forests" stems from a volunteering opportunity with famed Japanese ecologist, Akira Miyawaki. Miyawaki gained popularity in the late 1960s when he used a unique approach to restore tropical forests and natural ecosystems to their former green splendour. Fascinated by Miyawaki's success, Sharma adapted it to his home city, Bangalore, triggering a movement in urban forestry.
To most of us, the idea may seem utopian; anyone living in Bangalore can talk at great length about the lack of space in the city. In local apartment complexes or in suburban residential colonies, there is barely room to park a bicycle, let alone find a spot to plant a tree. But Sharma's new approach got me thinking of other possibilities.
Image by Afforestt
Increasing local green cover is not an easy endeavour but Afforestt's steadily growing clientele is proof that the solution is working; not only does the organisation provide end-to-end services where the team plants and manages a forest according to the Miyawaki method, it also offers on-site consultations for corporates, academic institutions and individuals who want to increase the greenery around them.
When I ask him about the challenges he faces in ensuring that his clients take care of the forest once it has been planted, Sharma patiently explains: "One of the biggest lessons I've learnt is that the client has to be as committed as you are or you have to take up the responsibility of delivering a self-sustaining lush green forest in a period of 2-3 years. There's no other way." He says, "We install the forests and train our clients to take care of them but we monitor the growth by the way of measuring trees, and their growth rate is calculated. If people find it hard to maintain it well, we have to discuss the target growth rate so that we can make corrective measures immediately."
Image by Afforestt
This steadfast commitment has indeed gone a long way. The organisation has helped create 45 forests across 13 cities in India and is increasing its engagement with communities to ensure more people can participate actively in the forestry movement. Satellite studies in Bangalore have shown that land area used for infrastructure has quadrupled between 1973 and 2007, leading to a severe water crisis. But afforestation is proving a powerful solution to this.
While Sharma's work towards increasing Bangalore's green spaces is reaping rewards in turning the city's empty, dry spaces into lush forests, other social entrepreneurs in the city like Kuldeep Dantewadia are tackling issues closer to residents; managing waste in their homes and streets. Dantewadia is the Founder of Reap Benefit, an organisation that focuses on changing public behaviours towards waste management. Reap Benefit's solution is simple; creating spaces that are participatory for citizens, specifically youth, will help them respond to environmental concerns they witness in the city better.
"It's easy to take the first steps," he suggests, "we can simply begin by segregating wet waste at home. Almost 60% of the waste generated in our homes is wet and simple composting is hassle free and can be easily done. We can also save 50% of the water we consume by installing low-cost interventions like flow restrictors at home."
"From every corner, people poured out of their homes to celebrate trees; in streets, parks, bazaars and community grounds."
Dantewadia's personal approach to changing behaviours has been instrumental in changing how schools can positively influence environment-conscious habits in young children. Today, the result of Reap Benefit's DIY solutions and low-cost technological innovations such as De'Grade (a enzyme powered compost accelerator which helps you manage wet waste), Up'Grade (a mechanism for community composting and waterless urinals (for local schools without water access) has led to saving nearly 2,100,000 litres of water and diverting 200,000 kilos of waste in the city. For his work, Kuldeep was awarded the prestigious Ashoka fellowship in 2013.
Cost-effective, simple solutions like the ones offered by Afforestt and Reap Benefit play a unique role in shaping our cities for the better. What's more? They prove that small steps we take can go a long way in creating a city space we long for.
Last month, as the Jacaranda and Copperpod trees blossomed to full bloom, carpeting the city's dusty streets in hues of violet and yellow, neighbourhoods came alive with song and dance. Bangaloreans came together to celebrate trees at the second "Neralu" (shade) festival. The Neralu festival is the country's first ever tree festival completely conceptualised, crowd-funded and created by citizens. From every corner, people poured out of their homes to celebrate trees; in streets, parks, bazaars and community grounds. That moment, one thing was clear to me: a sense of community can indeed move mountains. And this was just the beginning.