I woke up this morning to the sound of crashing trees. My neighbour, who lives in a house that is probably half-a-century old, was getting six trees on his grounds cut down. The plot next door to his is the site of a construction project and the trees were being cut to make room for a new compound wall. As I watched through the window, the trees were brought down, chopped up and divided into timber and leaves. The leaves were gathered together in thick bunches and burned.
I have been expecting this day for some years now. While those trees did not belong to me, they had been the dominant theme of the view out of my window. My east-facing room had allowed me to watch the morning sunlight filter through their leaves every day for the seventeen-odd years I have been living in that house. However, my neighbour’s house and the old building next to it were both decades old, and anything old in the ever-changing city of Bengaluru is marked for demolition and transformation. My own house was built on a site which once hosted an eighty-year old family home where my grandfather had grown up (we didn’t have any trees to cut though). I knew that sooner or later, the trees would go.
The changes sweeping through Bengaluru’s landscape have been going on long before I was born. I recently stumbled across an old magazine article from 1983, which talked about how the city’s residents were worried about the new changes in the landscape, employment patterns, and businesses occupying Bengaluru. Thirty five years later, two new generations have grown up in Bengaluru never knowing a life without rapid change. Yet, they have never really adjusted to a life of such regular transformation. A few years ago, I had interviewed a retired bureaucrat who told me stories of how, in the 90s, citizens used to meet on weekends in public schoolrooms to plan environmental advocacy campaigns. Today, similar campaigns have only grown in size, planned on Facebook groups and WhatsApp communities, yoking one set of changes against others.
I remain in two minds about this. On one hand, like every old Bangalorean, I experience nostalgia for a city that once was. On the other hand, both my work as an urban researcher and my personal experiences tell me that bringing back the city of the past is foolishness. Indeed, there are many things about the new Bengaluru that I’m grateful for. There is less division between the old city and the cantonment with younger Bangaloreans caring less about such divides. Civic participation is growing, with more citizens taking active roles to better their neighbourhoods. The Metro has made people excited about public transport again. Ride-sharing apps mean that I need to worry less about being stranded in the city with no transport home. Newer large real estate projects have become smarter about their designs, trying to become more than just air conditioned glass boxes (they have, however, a long way to go before they become socially inclusive and eco-friendly spaces). Retreating into homogenous and exclusionary gated communities as a way to ‘escape the city’, while still common, is slowly being criticised.
Yet, my anxiety about what’s happening to Bengaluru doesn’t go away. This is largely because of how fleeting and impermanent everything feels. When the Bengaluru Metro opened the fantastic Rangoli Art Centre on M.G. Road, my first thought was “how long will this last, before some financial auditor labels this an unnecessary expense?”. The campaigns against the Airport Road’s Steel Flyover in 2016 were a fantastic demonstration of how citizens could get together to push for change. Yet, there is now the bigger challenge of elevated road corridors criss-crossing the city. Success stories of restored lakes have to deal with new challenges, such as waste dumping and wetland encroachment. Sometimes the pace of change can be overwhelming. Tree-felling is a good example, with trees that have stood for decades disappearing in hours. My work as an urban researcher requires me to keep track of all that’s happening in the city and I regularly battle waves of depression while trying to cope with everything.
However, I can’t afford to be naive either. My work and research show me how much of the current change in both Bengaluru and India is being driven by agricultural distress, economic displacement, jobless growth, lack of industry, and a global slowdown pushing excess capital into unhealthy sectors in search of returns. It’s possible that the current trend of breaking down old houses was prompted by a slowdown in selling larger township-scale projects, forcing some contractors to move to smaller sites in search of revenue. Construction remains an employment-heavy sector and in the absence of alternatives, we should acknowledge that construction provides jobs to people who cannot not find them elsewhere. Change has very real roots that one must deal with.
This is why, instead of just bemoaning change, it becomes necessary to understand its nature and yoke it to serve the goals we want to achieve. For instance, I no longer grumble about old buildings making way for new ones. Instead, I try and encourage people to consider new designs which would preserve existing greenery or make space for new trees. Instead of seeing lakes as a preservation of a rural or sylvan past, I now argue for seeing them as an alternative way of building urban public spaces (which, in fact, they are). I don’t claim these are magic bullets (nor should anyone else) and I continue to battle depression as I go about my work. Not everyone listens, not everyone cares. But it’s better to navigate a maze than to try and bulldoze through its bushes. Hopefully, once we find our way out, we’ll emerge more or less better than when we went in.