Dr. TV Ramachandra is with the Centre for Ecological Sciences (CES), Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru. He has worked extensively on several domains including energy, wetlands, urban planning, solid waste management, and geographic information systems, across the Western Ghats and Bengaluru too. He is a recipient of the Parisara Award conferred by the Karnataka government, in 2018. In a tête-à-tête with HS Sudhira, Dr. TV Ramachandra gives us glimpses into his journey, and shares his hopes for the future.
How did you get interested in ecology and the Western Ghats?
When I joined Centre for Ecological Sciences (CES) in 1997, they had a field station in Uttara Kannada, which is a part of the Western Ghats. The first thing I was asked to do was go there. Besides, for my doctoral thesis, I was looking at hydroelectric—mini, micro and small hydel—projects, and that is when I realised that there is a link to ecology. Moreover, the locals there were asking for alternatives to the mega dams that they were protesting against. That was a good motivation to work towards a solution. We proposed an alternative to the Magod Dam, such that the submergence area came down to under 500 Ha from almost 10,000 Ha, by reducing the height of the dam from 107 m to 67 m. There was no compromise on the electricity generation of about 815 million units. We also suggested generating electricity for the locals in and around the dam rather than far-off users in cities.
Further, with the land saved from submergence, we quantified the amount of biomass energy that is available in the form of fuel-wood, etc. That amounted to almost 650 million units. Thus, saving the land from submergence was a blessing in disguise. Additionally, I identified many sites for mini, micro and small hydel projects, which had the potential of about 550 million units. So, in place of a single big dam aiming to generate 815 million units, the alternatives proposed had a net higher energy of almost 2000 million units (815+650+550 million units), besides reducing the submergence area. This was accepted by the Karnataka Power Corporation Limited (KPCL).
Looking back, I would credit the locals: their demand made us think innovatively. Each time I was in the field, interactions with them made me think about their demands. And of course, people like Dr. Subash Chandran have played a very important role in my career. Around that time, he had come to IISc during the final stages of his thesis. Every night, while going to dinner, he used to share his data about forests, and I used to share mine. I used to make 3D maps to show the distribution of evergreen forests, and that is where I started understanding more about ecology, hydrology, and their linkages. Essentially, the work I carried out on Bedti and Aghanashini rivers in Uttara Kannada shaped my career and gave me a good base.
And then you moved to Sharavathi?
After I finished my PhD, I got a project on the cumulative impact assessment of the Sharavathi River basin, wherein we understood the biodiversity-ecology-hydrology linkages. One of the things that stood out strongly was that catchments dominated by native species had perennial streams, those dominated by monoculture plantations had flow for only 6 to 8 months, while degraded areas had flow only during the monsoons.
What are some of the highlights of your work in Uttara Kannada using the ‘carrying capacity approach’?
After Sharavathi, we worked on the carrying capacity of Uttara Kannada district. Because of our 25 years of work there, doing this was not difficult for us. In the process, we also published about 50 technical reports, and a couple of journal publications. One of the unique aspects of this work was that we arrived at a valuation of forest goods and services: an estimate for how much an acre of forest is valued at. During that work, we realised that Uttara Kannada district, which once had almost 65% forest cover with evergreen forests, had reduced to almost 30%. We also showed how forest fragmentation was resulting in human-animal conflict in the region.
From the economic valuation studies for Aghanashini in 2008-2010, we estimated that in the form of fish, bivalves, sand, and salt, the value was ₹ 10-11 lakhs per hectare per year, besides the livelihood it offered to about 5000 families. When this was presented to the then Deputy Chief Minister, Mr. KS Eshwarappa, he acknowledged that he wasn’t aware that this alone was offering livelihood to so many families and that the ecosystem valuation was so high; he accepted our view and withdrew from the thermal project. It was the same study that also helped stall the Tadadi Port.
So, this led you to more work on the valuation of ecosystem goods and services?
Yes, assessing the kind of resources we get from the forests in Uttara Kannada, it was about ₹ 9,800 crores per year, in 2012. These are just the tangible benefits people get in the form of timber, minor forest produce, non-timber forest produce, fuel-wood, water, etc. If you add wild fruits, it can go up to ₹ 11,200 crores, and if you add oxygen, it will increase it by another ₹ 3,000 crores. But if you look at the GDP of the district, it is about ₹ 5,600 crores. Out of ₹ 5,600 crores, it is indicated that forests are only ₹ 180 crores. So the current estimates of GDP are incorrect, and perhaps if this is viewed in the right perspective, it can aid in the development of the district in a sustainable way. All the data for this valuation came from the records of the respective government departments only.
The Department of Economics at Karnataka University organised a one-day workshop about this and invited me to present the findings. There is concurrence from the economists there, but we now need our bureaucrats to accept this. This is why we need the auditing of environmental goods and services in the country; only then will we know the worth of forests or any ecosystem. Unless we do that, there can be mismanagement of natural resources, since the personnel responsible for them may not appreciate their correct valuation.
You have been advocating ‘cluster-based development approach’. How did that come about?
Working on the ‘carrying capacity approach’ and ‘valuation of ecosystem services and goods’ of Uttara Kannada district had given us insights into the resources available in the district. From there, we started looking at the kinds of resources that were available in different taluks. If some villages had mangoes or jackfruit, then having an industry related to that would be more appropriate. That is how the ‘cluster-based development approach’ evolved. This is a decentralised approach and not a new one at that; in one of our discussions, Gopal Kadekodi had also told me about this. We just took that idea forward by mapping the resources for each village and identifying what was feasible: for instance, whether some villages were more suitable for eco-tourism, agro-processing industries, or anything else. Indeed, based on this cluster development approach, there is some thinking going on at the Government of India level. The ministry is also undertaking a grid-based approach to monitor resources and area development, under programmes like Adarsha Grama etc.
And meanwhile you also worked on Bengaluru? How did that happen?
Another thing that happened during my PhD and afterwards was creating a ‘mini-forest’ in front of the erstwhile Centre for Ecological Sciences (CES) building, with some climbers as well. About 2 Ha was allocated by Prof. CNR Rao when he was the Director. This is when Prof. Madhav Gadgil was the Chairperson of CES and we also had Cecil J Saldanha, among others. The land was then mostly degraded, open scrub, but today, it is almost equivalent to a rainforest. We also have Slender Lorises now. And the ground-water table, which was at 150 feet then, has come up to 10-15 feet. Can you imagine this is inside the city? This is the model I am insisting on to the Government of Karnataka: to have one such forest in every ward, where the ground-water can be recharged and we can also get better oxygen. Besides that, we also created a lake inside the campus; it has an otter there now. In Jubilee Gardens, we have recently planted more than 400 saplings of ficus species, in Harish Bhat’s memory.
Of course, we ended up working on a host of things concerning Bengaluru. In the late 1990s, there were fish kills in Sankey Tank, and we started looking into it. It was also around the same time that some of the locals asked us to look into urban issues. We first mapped all the lakes in the city, and prepared a database including their status. We also proposed restoration methods; one such was adopted at Jakkur and has been a successful model now. This has not only restored the ground-water, but has also contained pollution. Our work on land-cover changes has also shown the extent of change and loss of vegetation and water-bodies in the city. Some of our work has been used in legal proceedings by the National Green Tribunal, particularly regarding the encroachment in Bellandur Tank.
On this note, I must acknowledge the academic freedom one enjoys at IISc. Had I been in any other place, I would have received warnings or notices saying that I should not have done this or that. But being here has allowed me to pursue several socially and environmentally relevant works, and even take on controversial issues like the Yettinahole, Bellandur Tank and Tadadi Port projects.
Tell us about the ‘Lake Symposium’ you organise.
When we started working on lakes, we wanted to involve school children. We started the biannual Lake Symposium in 2000, and have been doing this since then. It provides a platform for children, scientists and practitioners to deliberate over water issues. Several people like Prof. Raj Murthy from Canada, MA Khan of KK English School at Varthur, and many others have been associated with this for a long time now. Harish Bhat, whom we lost recently, was also one of them. The good part is that we have many students who take part, and have come forward.
The Lake Symposium is one of the very few such forums where children discuss lakes, water management, and many other environmental issues. They also present and share their work.
How has it been, nurturing so many young researchers?
In many ways, because of the youngsters in the group, I have learnt a lot. Sreekanth, Savitha, Karthick, Gururaja, Boominathan, and several others who worked with me, all had something new to contribute. The work by Karthick on diatoms led to the discovery of several new species there. And then there’s Gururaja’s work on amphibians. One of the highlights of his was work was the observation of ‘direct development’ in a Philautus species: it was skipping the tadpole stage, and the tadpole was developing inside the egg, and when the egg shell broke, the froglet was emerging. This is a very important observation from an evolutionary perspective.
Boominathan has worked very silently on the bivalves of Aghanashini. This was a crucial piece of work that was also responsible for stalling the 2000 MW ultra-thermal power plant and the Tadadi Port that was proposed around the Aghanashini estuary.
What lies ahead?
The future is in action – restoring lost patches of our ecosystem and ensuring water availability to people. All this requires careful planning and implementation. Because of land use and land-cover changes, we have already destroyed several tracts; they will now require detailed interventions to restore them to their earlier state. On the other hand, for people, there is the demand for energy and water. It is critical that we employ sustainable methods for meeting these demands and keeping our resources intact for future generations.