Clever or sordid? Debate rages over Cubbon Park redesign

Smart city works in Cubbon Park are under threat following allegations that authorities are harming the ecology of Bengaluru’s premier lung space.

Walkers and regular visitors say that Bengaluru Smart City Limited (BenSCL) has ignored the fundamental features, topography and ecology of the various locations in Cubbon Park where it is carrying out development works. BenSCL denies the charges, calling them “unnecessary distractions.”

Parts of the 300-acre Cubbon Park are being upgraded and receiving new attractions as part of a Smart Cities Mission project that began two years ago. The project took place in two phases, each costing Rs 17 crore. As the rills (rainwater channels), ponds, paths and bridges are being redone, new themed gardens, nature and heritage trails, smog towers and recreation points are also emerging.

The grouse of environmentalists is that the work is not holistic. “Cubbon Park is a major lung space and has its own history,” says renowned conservationist Suresh Heblikar. “It is the natural wetlands, ponds, levees, depressions (sunken places), bamboos, grass, shrubs and other trees that make Cubbon Park what it is. Any intervention there will disturb the biodiversity and ecological balance of the park,” he explained, saying they should not be disturbed.

An expert suggested that BenSCL had neither understood the topography of the park nor obtained a hydrological report before starting work. “A hydrology report will tell you about water flow, amount of water available, drainage and other water-related aspects,” said Dr. Inayathulla M, director of the Institute of Hydrology. at the University Visvesvaraya College of Engineering (UVCE). “Given the ecological sensitivity of Cubbon Park, it is important to plan the work based on this report.”

BenSCL insists the report was never part of the project. “Neither we nor the horticulture department experts saw the need for a hydrology report because we weren’t making massive changes,” a senior official said.

Regular visitors, however, say the wetlands are “definitely disturbed”. Cubbon Park Walkers’ Association member Sunitha Kumar provides an example. Unlike the earlier project to build bridges over the wetlands, storage structures are installed there. “It will disturb the wetlands, which help maintain the water table,” Kumar said.

The president of the association, Umesh S, does not hesitate to criticize the project. “Smart city works have become a lucrative business, and efforts are being made to realize the whole park,” he said.

He suggested that exotic and undesirable plants that have never been seen in the park be planted. “The native grass variety was removed and replaced with Mexican grass,” Umesh said. “It only spoils the biodiversity of the park.”

Another issue is the removal of large numbers of bamboo from and around Bal Bhavan, a children’s recreation center located at the Queen’s Circle entrance to Cubbon Park. “The area was called Bamboo Island, and many species of birds and reptiles called it home,” Kumar said. “The bamboos have been cleared, and barely 10% of them have been replaced.”

That’s not all. In many places, palm trees have been planted instead of bamboo. According to Kumar, clusters of trees help in the sequestration of carbon dioxide, thereby controlling rising temperatures. Carbon sequestration is the process of capturing and storing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere so that mercury does not rise. Bal Bhavan’s plans have also not been made public, Kumar adds.

BenSCL Managing Director Rajendra P Cholan said they did not go for public consultation on Bal Bhavan works because it was the responsibility of Karnataka Bal Bhavan Society.

According to him, unlike Cubbon Park, Bal Bhavan has a committee and board members who make the decisions. And work at Bal Bhavan only started after the company gave the green light, he adds. But any work resumed outside of Bal Bhavan has undergone countless public consultations, he insists.

The company’s chairman, Chikkamma Basavaraj, also denied the charge, saying the work plans had been approved by experts. “We consulted experts and environmentalists before starting work. It is almost impossible to reach all citizens,” she explained.

She justified the razing of the bamboo grove, saying the aim was to prevent fires. “The bamboo that was cut was over 100 years old and could have caused fires. Considering visitor safety, we had to reduce it,” Chikkamma said.

To compensate for this, “enough” bamboo is planted in suitable places with the original nature of Cubbon Park in mind, she said.

The general criticism has put BenSCL in a corner, and officials are struggling to make their point.

“All work is scientific and has only been undertaken after taking suggestions from experts,” said Vinayak Sugur, Chief Engineer, BenSCL.

Another official called the developments “disheartening and discouraging”. “It becomes difficult to work when people doubt what you are doing. We care about the ecology of Cubbon Park and will ensure that it is preserved,” the official said.

According to the official, the project started almost two years ago but there has not been much progress due to these disruptions. “We did a public consultation before starting the work and took all the suggestions. What else could we do?

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