Home 2020 Declining Biodiversity in IIT Bombay

Declining Biodiversity in IIT Bombay

by Ganesh Chelluboyina

Maps of the institute invariably show a spur of land jutting out into the Powai Lake from the place where the trio postgraduate hostels stand. Upon this piece of land lies an impressive forest extending to the shores of the lake. This forest is part and parcel of IIT Bombay but rarely frequented by campus residents because the entrance to it is subtly hidden away from view. In fact, this peninsula, which has been known as Kol Dongri for long, can be considered an extension of the Sanjay Gandhi National Park to the north. Dubbed the El Dorado of birdwatching by none other than Dr Salim Ali (1896-1987), the “Birdman of India”, Kol Dongri is important for the unique geography that it sits on: it provides a woody and marshy ecosystem and is a waypoint for several species of migratory birds. Over the last couple of decades, Kol Dongri has been chipped away at for various purposes, most notably to build three student hostels and to house a construction workers’ camp. Today, the Kol Dongri forest has been reduced to nearly half of what it used to be just two decades ago. 

A Google search on IIT Bombay will lead one to find the following one-line description given by Google itself – “Founded in 1958, this technology and engineering university is known for its green, lakeside campus.” Clearly, the natural environment at IITB is seen as a defining characteristic of the physical campus and is well appreciated by Mumbaikars as well. How well are we doing at taking care of the wealth of greenery that we have been bestowed with, and are so known for? This article attempts to take a look at this very aspect. 

A gurgling stream in Soneri Baug (image credits: Aniruddha Dhamorikar, provided by Goldin Quadros) 

In 2008, the World Wildlife Fund carried out a study of biodiversity at IIT Bombay under the stewardship of noted ecologist Dr. Goldin Quadros. That there was a study carried out is testimony to the fact that this institute is considered a biodiversity hotspot, which is unique for a college campus. The study notes that the campus is important “not only from an education point of view” but also “as a green lung” and concludes that “the biodiversity of IIT Bombay campus comprises a total of 843 species of flora and fauna”. However this figure may, in fact, be an underestimation, as the study was “limited due to time and survey constraints,” Dr. Quadros says. Indeed, the campus consists of “diverse niche ecosystems, including lake and wetland, hill-slope, grassland patch and forest ecosystems,” says Prof Rohit Manchanda of the Biosciences and Bioengineering department. “The flora and fauna here are so rich and diverse because of the overlap of all these ecosystems,” continues Prof Manchanda. “The elimination of a single ecosystem would substantially lower the number of species seen here.” It is thus amply clear that the campus is a sanctuary in its own right. Recent developmental activities, however, bode ill to this sanctuary and threaten to obliterate the rich biodiversity found here. 

Flora and Fauna of IITB

In the map displayed below, the areas marked in green, located generally at the periphery of the campus, are the vegetated sectors (while the rest of the campus is the urban sector).

Map of IIT Bombay

These are the most important areas for sustaining the biodiversity IIT Bombay is known for, since they are connected to the Sanjay Gandhi National Park to the north. This is so because the urban forestry consists of non-native species and is highly scattered as it majorly comprises the greenery lining the streets. The WWF report notes that a comparison of the vegetated and urban sector “reveals the imbalance in the urban sector, where the percentage of flora is increasing and it does not support the fauna,” mainly due to “the exotic trees in the urban sector.” 

The most accessible spot is Soneri Baug, an expansive forest stretching from Jalvihar Guesthouse all the way up to the erstwhile Hostel 7. Many campus residents may have accessed this area while visiting the popular landmark, the Boathouse. A veritable hotspot for wildlife and popular among birdwatchers, recently-built infrastructure such as the Padma Vihar Guesthouse have displaced parts of the forest. The building of an access road cutting through the forest to facilitate the construction of Hostel 17 has further fragmented this ecosystem. 

Some general problems afflicting Soneri Baug include the dumping of garbage and alcohol bottles, as well as the illegal poaching of aquatic wildlife that include waterbirds. The recent move to dedicate a piece of land in this area to rehabilitate stray cows could further affect the ecological balance of the area. 

Another large biodiverse area is the thickly-wooded Kol Dongri, the largest unfragmented forest inside IIT Bombay. Not only is this location described as a paradise for birdwatchers by institute nature lovers and visitors alike, it is also the place to encounter indigenous fauna such as the ruddy mongoose, according to Dr Quadros. 

A Glimpse of Kol Dongri (Image credits: Sudip Das) 

This area was much more expansive until a portion of it was cleared to build the trio PG hostels. Today, straddling the edge of the forest is the construction workers’ colony mentioned earlier and heaps of rubble. Indiscriminate waste dumping and cutting of wood by residents of this colony are contributing to the degradation of this forest. The WWF report also mentions that trespassers are involved in trapping water birds and fishing along the shores of this area. 

Kol Dongri over the years: Satellite imagery between the years 2000 and 2018 shows the area of the forest in steady decline. In the latest year, 2018, it can be seen that the construction workers’ colony reaches down where once the heart of the forest was.(imagery courtesy: Maxar Technologies) 

The next vegetated region of significance is the well-known Sameer Hill, relatively undisturbed by development until now because of the unfavourable topography. This hill is significant for the slope ecosystem it harbours. However, even this relatively remote location may not be safe from development: a proposal has been made recently to set up a solar energy park on the slopes of the hill. The SAMEER institution in the area is a known offender, dumping waste along the periphery of their compound, while there is also another workers’ residential colony on the hill. 

Waste dumping in a hillside stream by SAMEER. (image: Zakia Khan) 

The area adjoining the municipal water pipelines, which when surveyed by the WWF was thickly wooded until Hostels 15, 16 and 18 came into being. This area, being closest to the National Park to the north, is one of the locations where frequent sightings of visiting megafauna such as leopards are noted. 

Finally, there are the forests of Peru Baug, an isolated sector of the institute due to restrictions on movement to the area. Located to the north of the pipeline, it adjoins Vihar Lake and comprises a couple of forested hills and an adivasi hamlet. While the WWF did not include this area in its survey, being contiguous with the National Park, it is almost certainly as biodiverse as the campus, if not more. The adivasis claim that they have lived on these lands for at least four generations, partly depending on the forests and lake for survival. Apart from the under-construction IIT Bombay Research Park, Peru Baug has been largely left untouched, unlike its counterpart along the Powai Lake, Soneri Baug. 

It is thus apparent that many quarters of IIT Bombay’s ecological sphere are under threat by both development and human activities. In the rest of the article, the role and influence of various actors on biodiversity preservation are examined in detail. Solutions are presented thereafter that attempt to strike a balance between the requirement of new infrastructure and conservation efforts. 

The Administration’s Role 

What is the institute administration’s role in all this? How do the Main Building’s policies augur for biodiversity? To answer that question, we must gain an understanding of the official machinery involved in the conservation of biodiversity on the campus. First is the Green Campus Initiative (GCI) committee, set up in February 2010 under the auspices of the office of Dean IPS. This committee was active in the early half of the last decade, even coming up with a 31-point report identifying specific action points encompassing campus ecology, energy and water. However, this committee has not met in the last few years, especially as the need for it has increased. After a period of dormancy, in IIT Bombay’s Strategic Plan Document of 2017, the importance of developing a cleaner and greener campus was reiterated, with this goal being elevated to one of the ten major long-term priorities for the institute. The existence of a Green Campus Committee was acknowledged, and further, the creation of a cell to implement the committee’s recommendations were suggested. However, good intentions have not been followed up by action, with no sign of either the Committee or the cell. Insight tried to follow-up with the Dean IPS about the current role of administration, but even after several efforts spanning several months, there was little to no response from him. 

What about the role of external influences? A cue for all IITs to begin involvement in conservation was given at the 46th and 47th meetings of the Council of IITs in 2013. It recognized that there was a need to ‘balance infrastructure needs with environment conservation and sustainable growth’, and, importantly, a ‘need to promote a healthy learning environment by creating sufficient open and naturally forested spaces.’ A number of recommendations came out of the meeting, most important among them being the establishment of a Green Office, the creation of a master plan for green infrastructure and regular ‘green’ audits. These points were reiterated in a letter to the Director from the Ministry of HRD in Dec 2013. While the foresight of the Council members is commendable, little in consonance with the spirit of the meet has been seen on the ground in this institute. Indeed, subsequent IIT Council meetings failed to follow up on the resolutions of 2013. 

The Campus Community 

It is thus clear that there is much left to be desired from the administration. That leaves the other major stakeholder in the field: the campus community consisting of students, faculty and staff. 

IIT Bombay has indeed had a rich tradition of concern for nature and a culture of preservation. Around 1976, a mobilization of students against the proposal to build a road cutting through Soneri Baug resulted in the formation of the Wildlife Club in 1977. Student interest in the club soared and it was soon made a Gymkhana body with an elected Wildlife Secretary and 

independent budget. According to Raintree, a magazine published by the PRO in the past, the club was not only active in tree planting on campus, but also published a thorough checklist of birds of IITB containing 180 species, organized field trips to national parks and birdwatching outings, screened wildlife films and held exhibitions. The club quickly garnered attention outside IITB as well, with the field director of Ranthambhore National Park inviting the club to participate in its annual tiger census. 

In 1989, when trees were cleared en masse to create parking space for an international pharma conference, IPCE, hosted by the institute, there was yet another uproar. According to Shirish Waghulde, a student at that time, students organized spontaneous morchas and protests against the move, which led the institute to undertake tree plantation soon after the event. This movement also gave rise to an environmentally focussed student newsletter, The Drongo, named after one of the species of birds spotted on campus. This newsletter sought to gather and inform concerned individuals, and chronicle various conservation measures undertaken by students themselves. One such activity was the planting of 200 saplings on the top of the then-heavily deforested Vihar hill with “the enthusiastic participation of like-minded people.” The students took great care to prevent cattle from grazing or trampling on the saplings, regularly carrying water up the hill to water them and protecting against fires by removing grass around the saplings. 

The Drongo complains bitterly about the administration of the day. In one issue, the Newsletter notes: 

When questioned by worried students on tree felling on campus, the DoSA immediately arrives at the conclusion that these students are Gandhian obscurantists. “Don’t you want SAMEER on campus?”, “Don’t you want housing for faculty?”, or “Don’t you want lights on streets?”; he will ask, implying that the degradation of the surroundings is the compromise between Development and Gandhian traditions. This obfuscates the irrelevant detail of the students’ ideology with the fact of needless tree felling. [sic] 

In later times, this interest in conservation waned as the academic curriculum became more intense (the duration of the B Tech degree was reduced from five years to four) and as the beginning of the internet age heralded the creation of a virtual world far removed from the real world. Over the past two decades, new infrastructure has been realized at a remarkable pace. While successive administrations have tried to do their best to minimize ecological impact, greater public participation could have resulted in more efficient infrastructure. The examples of Aarey Colony and IIT Madras exemplify the significance of popular opinion on infrastructure planning. 

The lively debate and media attention surrounding tree cover in Aarey Colony resulted in greater awareness of the issue of balancing conservation and development. Designs for the Metro Carshed were altered to reduce the environmental impact of the construction. Construction activity has now been additionally put on stay. While it is debatable whether this is justified given the advanced stage of works in the Metro project and the accompanying potential cost escalations, it is noteworthy that the voice of the common citizenry has made such an impact on policy decisions. Similarly in IIT Madras, home of the blackbuck and the spotted deer, measures for balanced development were taken following an outcry in 2013 about a significant loss in tree cover due to construction. 

You may also like

2 comments

Ganesh Chelluboyina April 28, 2020 - 11:44 pm

Our Distinguished Alumnus, Prof. Pratim Biswas (1980, B.Tech, ME) responded to this article and shared some interesting anecdotes from his own days at IIT Bombay. They illustrate the sea change that the campus has undergone in the many years that have passed. Please do read!

“I arrived to the campus of IIT Bombay as a child in 1967, moving from NCL Poona as my dad took up a position in the Chemistry Department at IIT Bombay. While the campus did not have the abundance of large trees it has now, I narrate a transformation that took place during every monsoon. With the rainfall, there was a system of gutters (natural) that used to fill up with rainwater gushing into Powai Lake. These water channels were a delight for the campus children, making their paper boats, having races and the like. The most interesting aspect was the spawning of fish from the lake – they swam upstream, laid their eggs, and there would be an abundance of the birth of new fish, that then made their way back into the lake. An ecosystem where frogs thrived was established – and sometimes, the little tadpoles were mistaken for the fish, as the children caught them and took them home in their glass jars. The ecosystem lessons we learnt could not have been taught in any classroom, not to take away anything from the fabulous KVP school that had some excellent teachers. When I walk on campus today, I wonder where the natural water draining system went – probably replaced by underground, engineered concrete/metal pipes that carry the water away. Probably there is a road or walkway built over these water draining systems also – due to the pressures of land use and catering to the growing population that occupies campus today.

Without knowing what a natural wetland was, I experienced one right in front of our house (A-9), where the BTR quarters used to be (I hear those are also being torn down). This area used to fill up with water during the monsoons, and was a delightful ecosystem. This is where I learnt about the beautiful flowering plant – the gloriosa superba (glory lily). Very interestingly, the frogs would take on a yellow color, to attract the opposite sex to then mate and carry on the next generation. What I then thought was cacophony, plays like music in my memory cells today! Today, I understand the importance of natural wetlands; and appreciated watching this every monsoon during my growing up years. Even before I left campus, the wetland was filled up and the BTR quarters were constructed. Two of my dearest friends from class moved in there, and these two folks also went through the five years at IIT B (Mechanical Engr) with me. It was great to have them next door to me, and I understood even then (~ 1975 or so) the conflicting choices between the environment (the wonderful natural wetland) and having my friends living next door to me. As we dispersed in 1980 to different places and have never lived next to each other all these years, I often wonder if some preservation of that natural wetland would have done wonders to all the generation of campus children that followed us. Or for me to revisit the wetland on the campus during a monsoon, and relive those childhood memories.”

Reply
Mallika Iyer May 1, 2020 - 11:40 pm

Very nicely written Ganesh. Interesting to note the efforts taken by campusites decades ago and to see the satellite.images. I have been in campus for the last 14 years and the change is very discernible. Hope articles like this and efforts like this green issue by Fundamatics are able to put the matter in focus.

Reply

Leave a Comment