Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU
EARTHSCAPES: May 20, 2001
Urban havens: Nero's fiddle?
Utkarsh Ghate, Sanjeev Nalawade, Seema Bhatt
Utkarsh Ghate is Secretary, RANWA; Sanjeev Nalawade is Lecturer, Ferguson College, Pune; and Seema Bhatt is an independent biodiversity consultant based in New Delhi.
Urban biodiversity - what a misnomer, one might think. Not quite, for a closer look reveals that India's burgeoning towns and cities actually harbour a variety of habitats: waterbodies, parks and gardens and forests. Some have old monuments and wonderful old trees. This mosaic attracts a host of species by providing appropriate places to inhabit, food and water the year round, or even by providing garbage dumps that attract scavengers such as vultures.
D.V. Jainer/Telepress Features
A checklist of birds in Delhi reveals over 400 species, one out of every three bird species in the subcontinent. Pune shelters over half the species of higher animals recorded from the entire Deccan plateau. Such high diversity in a relatively small expanse, can partly be attributed to the location of some cities in the transitional areas of various biogeographic zones.
Mumbai's biodiversity is a product of the confluence of the Arabian sea to the west and the Western Ghats to the east. Pune is situated between the dryland plateau to the east and the wet Western Ghats mountains to the west, accounting for its high mammalian and fish diversity. The Himalayan influence on one hand and that of the desert on the other, probably explains for the high diversity of birds and fish in Delhi. A few cities, such as Mumbai, Chennai, Chandigarh, and Bhopal, even have officially declared wildlife reserves, cheek by jowl alongside skyscrapers. Chennai, Mumbai, and Vishakhapatnam contain important coastal habitats, with mangroves, sea turtle nesting sites, and other interesting flora and fauna.
The recognition and understanding of urban biodiversity is not new. Major General H.P.W. Hutson's The Birds About Delhi was published in 1954, followed by another book on birds by Usha Ganguly in 1975. The great ornithologist Salim Ali recorded, in his small patch of garden in the middle of Mumbai, the same migratory species of birds coming for several years running. The Zoological Survey of India has recently published a thick professional compilation on the entire faunal wealth of Delhi. WWF India has published a checklist of the fauna of Bangalore, and experts have documented the rich diversity found in the Kolkata Salt Lake wetlands. In Pune, the Ecological Society and Research and Action in Natural Wealth Administration (RANWA) have published an assessment of species diversity in various zones of the city. Studies and publications on plant diversity, on the richness of parks and gardens, and other aspects of the vegetation of cities, abound in India.
Urban biodiversity varies with habitat types and human impact levels. The diversity of fungi, herbs and trees, for example, seems to be as much or more in human impacted habitats than in low impact zones. But the diversity of sensitive organisms like fish or birds tends to be lower in impacted habitats. Although urban areas maintain considerable biodiversity, unique or rare species may often be replaced by more stress tolerant species such as crows and mynas. The conversion of old houses into skyscrapers has often triggered loss of populations of squirrel or snakes or civets. Conversion of old growth wilderness areas to manicured parks may result in many bush-dwelling or tree-nesting species disappearing.
For the last few decades, urban areas have been expanding at an average rate of a kilometre and a half a year, encroaching surrounding agricultural lands and forests. The most affected ecosystems have perhaps been riverine vegetation, grassland and scrub. Many cities today host over a million vehicles, requiring ever-expanding roads and spewing out immense pollution. Studies reveal the local extinction of nearly half the fish species recorded earlier from Pune's environs, as a result of haphazard urban growth.
Destruction of urban biodiversity is not only a matter of aesthetic loss. Natural habitats provide fresh air lungs, sinks for air and water pollution, buffers against maddening noise, natural air-conditioning in the blistering summer, critical hydrological functions, and of course a quiet refuge for the citizen tired of a stressful existence. If one were to quantify these benefits, they would easily run into thousands of crores of rupees. Take just one example: a substantial part of Mumbai's drinking water supply comes from reservoirs protected by urban forests like Borivali . . . where would its citizens be without this?
But with growing urbanisation and the demand for more housing, transportation and so on, does urban biodiversity stand a chance? The answer to this may be positive, if urban dwellers appreciate the natural wealth that they have within their immediate environs. Urban dwellers have become increasingly aware of wildlife and biodiversity in the countryside, but ironically very few of them realise that the very "wildlife" that they seek after travelling several hundred kilometres may sometimes be found in their own backyard.
The first task is therefore of education and awareness, both of the extent of biodiversity and of its important role in our lives. Nature clubs and residents' associations need to encourage short trips to urban havens of biodiversity to inculcate love and respect for the same. This will in turn generate action. Citizens can put pressure on the administration to plant appropriate tree species, or to ensure that biodiversity conservation is an important consideration in urban development plans. An innovative exercise carried out in a number of cities is a tree census, which gives a good idea of the diversity and number of trees, and changes in these parameters over a period of time. In many cities, protection by local authorities, coupled with the vigil by nearby residents, has facilitated regeneration of natural plants and revival of native fauna such as birds and butterflies. Even seasonal puddles formed in these areas, harbour moults of dragonfly nymphs, indicating ongoing colonisation and establishment of even organisms that are highly susceptible to seasonality. Increasing tree cover of suitable species in the Rajneesh Park at Pune, may have helped predominantly Western Ghats butterflies such as the Blue Mormon, seldom seen in the city earlier.
Citizens can do a lot towards the protection of their immediate environment. Delhi's wonderful Ridge forest today survives because of citizen protests and vigilance (see box). Chennai's turtle nesting sites have long been protected by the famous "turtle walk" initiated by students and young professionals. Kolkata's wetlands at least partially survive because of a number of NGOs, and resistance against concretisation by traditional fisherfolk who depend on them for livelihood. Many small groups have triggered locality specific data literacy. Prakriti Samsad, a birdwatcher's group in Kolkata, has been monitoring the bird population in the city. Similarly, the NGO Kalpavriksh has carried out monthly bird counts across Delhi for over a decade. Students from Pune University have initiated monthly monitoring of the living wealth of their campus, and the nearby wetland at Pashan. Many urban administrations have also responded positively, by declaring protected areas, enacting legislation like Urban Tree Acts, and integrating some biodiversity concerns while making their master plans.
The recently initiated National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAP), a Ministry of Environment and Forests project that is being technically executed by a group of NGOs and government officials, re-emphasises the importance of urban biodiversity as a component of the nation's environmental security. Several plans focussing on urban areas are being developed under the NBSAP. The Vidarbha Natural History Society is putting together a plan for Nagpur as an ecocity. The Delhi, Chandigarh, and Pondicherry plans will also focus on various aspects of urban biodiversity. Hopefully, with this and other renewed efforts, the neglect by urbanites of nature that is closest to them, would change to an enlightened model of urban development in which non-human creatures also have pride of place.
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