Cities are in crisis, with worsening air quality, pollution on the rise, loss of green cover and basic amenities like water in short supply. In the midst of all this, our public parks remain our saving grace. Cities, which were designed and built to serve the needs of the people, soon found that human need far exceeded supply, as urban centers grew to accommodate business opportunities and the resultant economic and commercial activities and transactions.
As economic hubs, they face the natural fallouts and vagaries of man-made growth. As they grow, they put more pressure on locally available resources. Unfortunately, this kind of growth and its consequences have not been studied, investigated or even monitored. Hence, the unexpected changes and challenges it brings place an even bigger burden on the administration, making governance wayward and messy, eventually compounding the problem.
Let’s take the issue of Cubbon Park, one of Bengaluru’s heritage green landmarks. It must be seen from the standpoint of the pressure that has mounted on the urban development department and the BBMP, which has to carry the yoke of issuing clearance for building a seven-storey high court annexe.
The High Court does need additional space, as legal cases and responsibilities have grown in volume. The court’s halls, aisles and corridors are heavily congested, so it is logical that they ask for the adjacent building, once an office of the Election Commission, to be razed and a new structure built in its place. The High Court Justice also said in his ruling that not a single tree is to be felled.
While this argument is all very well, one cannot fail to consider the consequences of such a decision. A new judicial complex – and the many hassles of construction work that come with it, will affect the life, environment and very being of the iconic landmark park for many years.
Cubbon Park was created in 1870, in the then Central Administrative Area, when Major General Richard Sankey served as as the British Chief Engineer of the erstwhile Mysore State. At that time, it covered 100 acres and has subsequently grown to an expanse of about 300 acres. It was first named Meade's Park, after then acting Commissioner of Mysuru, Sir John Meade. Later, it was renamed Cubbon Park, after Sir Mark Cubbon, the longest-serving commissioner of the time.
Sir Mark Cubbon, whose statue is now situated at the Bandstand, was a frugal man himself, despite being associated with this sprawling lung space. He lived a simple life, in modest accommodations (these are now in the State Bank of India campus, adjacent to St Joseph’s High School on St Mark’s Road). I learned that for as long as he was here in Bangalore, he took great care of Cubbon Park. There weren’t too many hotels or guest-houses during his time, so when friends or relatives came to visit him, he would put up tents in the park and ask them to stay there. He never once entertained the idea of putting up structures that would in any way spoil or deface the park!
Obviously, a lot has changed since then. Numerous structures have been added to the park – Century Club, a Tennis Court and Club, Bal Bhavan, the Central Library, Aquarium and even the fish-food stall, which sees hundreds of visitors everyday. There is also the Press Club and of course, the newly-proposed judicial complex. The new seven-storey building, if it does come up, will block and mar the panoramic view of the entire park. The Heritage Committee of Mysore may give its clearance, as well as the Archaeological Department, but there is the Revised Master Plan (RMP-2031) for Bengaluru, under which the plan must be approved before work begins.
The draft of the RMP-2031, which has been submitted to the government, has 12 heritage zones that include Cubbon Park and the buildings within its premises.
Let us, for one moment, assume that work proceeds on the building. Will it mean the end of the park? The park may continue to exist but what will become of its sanctity as a lung space, what environmental value will it possess? The High Court might have ordered that not a single tree is to be felled but how can this be achieved? It’s unimaginable.
Bengaluru has grown exponentially and while it was once abundant gardens, parks, lakes, waterbodies, flowers, a salubrious climate and numerous heritage buildings, much of this has been lost. Only a handful of political leaders from among the many who have come and gone, took cognisance of these treasures.
Everybody is and will continue to chase affluence, but will affluence ever compensate for the flavour, the chaste air, the fragrant winds and the verdant beauty of Bengaluru? Cubbon Park fills the hearts of all those who visit it with great joy, will we lose that now? Is the resultant pollution, the ever-increasing volume of vehicles worth it? What will the construction of a new complex mean for the rich flora and fauna of the area, including the many species of birds, butterflies and small animals that exist within – and contribute to that thriving ecosystem? What will it mean for all the people who live around the area?
Parks are a part of the city’s soul, not just part of the tally of its environmental resources. We need to imagine the impact this will have on the environment and the quality of life for everyone in Bengaluru, keeping in mind the value of the past, the present and the consequences for the generations that will follow.
—The author is an Environmentalist and founder, Eco-Watch