Birds? What birds? Bird Race? What Bird Race?

The stinking carcass of what was the Vrishabhavati river. Once a pristine river, now an enormous canal of pure sewage.

Bangalore is finished. For years, the demise of this fair city was foretold by heads much wiser than mine. I have been a prophet of doom as well, to the amusement of anyone who took the trouble to listen to me.

What I did not expect was that demise to occur so soon. Cheerful optimist that I am, I always hoped that my grim predictions and the ecologists’ dire warnings would be proven wrong.

But no. Doom is here. It is today. It is now.

I finally had to accept this reality during the annual Bird Race on Sunday last.

Since a decade, the third Sunday of January has been the day of the Bird Race. Sponsored by HSBC, the Race was one event that birders would look forward to. Although no prize money was involved, winning the Bird Race was a matter of prestige in the birding community. Competition was fierce albeit cordial, bird tallies and sightings were taken seriously, often resulting in furious arguments. There were bad eggs who would cheat, but the majority of us birders were scrupulously honest in our reporting. Invariably someone would sight a rare species and win the Bird of the Day prize – as my team did with our sighting of the Grey-necked bunting. Well, my friend Sumesh and his team saw it too and shared the prize with us, but I’d like to think we saw it first!

Until one fine day, the organisers decided abruptly to remove the competitive aspect of the Race. If a race is not competitive, then how is it a race? Whatever be the reasons, the Race stopped being a race. That resulted in the best birders in the city dropping out of the event, and the overall quality of birding going downhill.

Even so, some of us would participate in the event for the sheer love of the sport and for the sake of our feathered friends. The problem with our feathered friends, unfortunately, is that very few of them are left in Bangalore.

Birds are primary indicators of impending disaster. Bird populations in Bangalore have drastically declined, many native species like the sparrow are gone, and most of the migrant species that would visit us every winter have stopped.

What else do you expect? Trees butchered, lakes filled with human waste, or better yet, choked with chemical foam. Where there were parks there are over-crowded malls. Where there were grasslands there are enormous condos. Where there were farms there are huge IT corporates. Where there was a century-old well there is an open-air toilet. Where there was a 400-year old banyan tree there is a parking lot. Where there was a pond, there’s a slum.

Corporate greed and political gluttony are not new to Bangalore. But now there is savage glee, brutal rapacity, blatant disregard for the law, a terrifying recklessness, a complete lack of discrimination.

We started the Bird Race long before sunrise, so that we could be at our first location, Rishi Valley school, at the crack of dawn. Only to find that all our favorite birding hotspots have been replaced by rubble and garbage heaps. Apartments and an effing industrial estate right in the middle of what is supposed to be a forest reserve.

Kanakapura road, our favorite birding route, has been destroyed in less than a year. Every last banyan tree, each of which was a century old, butchered. Every quiet little waterbody, that existed since the times of Kempe Gowda, buried under debris and shit. Ancestral homes raped out of shape to make way for Namma Metro. Cement dust, construction debris, migrant laborers crapping in the open, deafening noise, a million honking vehicles, chaos.

Every place we went, it was the same hellishness. Not one village, not one hamlet, not one lake, not one tree has been spared.

Birds? What birds? We were grateful for the few that we could sight. Since the Bird race is not a race anymore, we were not too worried that our tally was “just” 110. During the dinner meet at the end of the day, I found out informally that this was the highest tally for one single team, but that doesn’t matter. Three years ago, we would rack up a tally of 130 species without breaking a sweat.

What matters is that just three years ago, the evening meet was held in a large hall, with 300 birders and enthusiasts in attendance. Exhausted with an entire day’s birding, they were still excited to be there and the atmosphere was electric.

Mitch Leachman, Exec Director, St Louis Aubudon Society talks to the sparse audience
Mitch Leachman, Exec Director, St Louis Aubudon Society talks to the sparse audience.

This time, the meet was in a hall so small that the ceiling could scrape your head. And this time, I counted hardly 70 of us. The mood was gloomy, the birders dejected. Even the normally cheerful compere of the event wondered if there would a Race at all next year. Notwithstanding the excellent movie on the Amur falcon that we were shown, there was an air of despondence and resignation. The food was bad. The gulab jamoons were nice though.

Bangalore is done. For years, the scientists warned the government that the city was reaching the point of no return. That point has been crossed.

Nothing can save the city. Worried citizens have done what they could. Several have taken to the streets in protest. Some have taken the government to court. Some have tried to rejuvenate local waterbodies, and have faced criminal intimidation and outright violence. I applaud them all. And I feel for them all.

Too little. Too late. Bangalore is done.

Nothing can reverse the horrific damage. Nothing will bring back our lakes and our trees. Nothing will bring back our birds.

Four thousand permanent migrants every day. Three thousand new vehicles registered every day. 11.5 million population. Increasing at 10% per annum. One of the highest populations of stray dogs – and highest population of stray dog activists. Highest number of pedestrian deaths. Depleted water table. Worst air quality.

I cannot leave the city. I have no options. If you can relocate, do. If you can’t relocate, then no matter how rich you are, brace yourself. Learn to live without water. Learn to sleep in the midst of constant honking and drunken brawls. Learn to inhale the stink of human waste instead of real air. Get yourself vaccinated against rabies. In Bangalore, rabid stray dogs have the sole right to life – unlike you.

Dog activists don’t care if your child is eaten alive by street dogs. When a city tells you that the life of a mad dog is more important than a four-year human infant know that you are living in a doomed city.

I no longer need be a prophet of doom. Doom is already here.

If you die within the next decade, consider yourself blessed. You will wind up in Hell, but you are going to a better place, believe me.

And as for the birds? They are the lucky ones. Birds have wings. You don’t.


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