In namma Bengaluru that celebrates greenery through tree festivals, tree surveys, tree plantation drives and large scale terrace gardening, a study shows that despite their low economic profiles and lack of resources, slum dwellers do love to plant  trees. Most of the plants found in the slums under focus had some medicinal value.

In the study "Vegetation in Bangalore’s Slums: Boosting Livelihoods, Well-Being and Social Capital" published in Sustainability 2014, 6(5), scientists Harini Nagendra and Divya Gopal assess the social importance of vegetation through empirical assessment of 44 urban slums in Bangalore to understand the socio cultural importance of greenery in the context of urban poverty and highlight the role of vegetation in slums.

The objectives of the study were,

  • Assessing the species-specific characteristics (medicinal, culinary, ornamental, shade-giving) of the vegetation in slums and relating this to their contribution towards health and well-being.
  • Evaluating the contribution of trees towards social capital by recording the occupations and activities carried out under their canopy, as well as the role played by trees in providing facilities such as physical support.
  • Assessing the cultural services provided by trees in slums that strengthen social capital, by focusing on the sacred species found in slums.
  • Identifying, through interviews, requirements of urban greenery and using these to propose strategies for the improvement of the livelihoods of slum dwellers.

Methodology

  • 44 slums in the BBMP limits were identified after visiting all the 114 slums listed in a recent National Institute of Urban Affairs report.
  • A complete census of the vegetation (both trees and plants) within the core structure of the slum as well as that around the slum periphery was carried out, with all trees and plants identified to the species level.
  • Visual observations of the utility of trees as well as those mentioned by the slum dwellers were documented.
  • Sacred trees in slums were recorded separately.
  • Shrubs, herbs and creepers (referred to as plants hereafter) were also identified to the species level.
  • The presence of plant species were documented instead of abundance and species richness, i.e. the number of species per study site, was recorded for each slum.
  • The types of pots used to grow plants were also recorded.
  • Open-ended group interviews in all slums, in order to understand the preferences of slum inhabitants for vegetation in their neighbourhood (the respondents were mainly women with a group size of 5–8 individuals per slum).

And here is what the study showed:

  • A total of 553 trees belonging to 46 species were encountered in the 44 slums - 95 species of shrubs, herbs and creepers. (The categories based on attributes are not mutually exclusive, some species have more than one use.)
  • The most dominant tree was Moringa oleifera (drumstick tree), widely consumed as a vegetable.
  • Nearly half the tree population in slums had medicinal properties, while one-third were grown for their fruits. Muntingia calabura (Singapore cherry tree) and Mangifera indica (Indian mango tree) were the most popular fruiting trees.
  • Albizia saman (rain tree) was the most dominant ornamental tree found, while Pongamia pinnata (pongam tree) was the tree largely grown for shade.
  • The most common plants were Ocimum sanctum (holy basil / tulsi) and Aloe vera (Indian aloe), both with important medicinal properties.
  • Plants with ornamental and medicinal uses were almost equal in proportion Epipremnum aureum (money plant), Rosa species (rose) and Jasminum species (jasmine) were the most common ornamental plants present in more than 60% of slums.
  • A small proportion of plants were grown for consumption such as Carica papaya (papaya), Musa paradisiaca (banana), Momordica charantia (bitter gourd), Dolichos lablab (hyacinth bean), Solanum lycopersicum (tomato), Ricinus communis (castor), Oxalis corniculata (common sorrel) and Piper betle (betel plant).

Notably, almost all the plants encountered were actively planted by the slum residents.

  • Trees also appeared to have an important utility function as physical entities in addition to their species-specific sacred, cultural or other properties. Most trees were observed to support clotheslines.
  • Other practical uses include supporting tents, wires, and more. About 10% of the trees supported multiple uses.
  • Tree shade is much sought-after in slums, as it provides respite from the hot tropical sun.
  • A range of occupations were observed taking place under tree canopies, including the sale of flowers, making of brooms and incense sticks, operation of mechanic shops, tea stalls and telephone booths.
  • Women in slums were observed conducting domestic chores such as cooking (using fuel wood), washing clothes and dishes and grooming under tree canopies; while children were often found to be playing under the shade of trees.
  • Space constraints in slums resulted in Innovative Gardening. There were more ‘potted’ plants than those growing directly from the ground. The pots used addressed key issues of limited space and finances. The types of pots seen were earthen pots, plastic pots, cemented structures, plastic bags, discarded paint containers, earthen water pots, plastic buckets, metallic cans, hindalium pots (an alloy of aluminium), battery cans and aluminium buckets. The potted plants were located on window sills, parapets and roofs. Although some slums had no trees, all of them had plants with a species richness.

Lack of resources never an issue

The study concluded that despite evident socio–cultural dependency of slum dwellers on greenery, vegetation in slums remains low.

  • Even with severe space and financial constraints, the urban poor still managed to grow potted plants using innovative resources.
  • Policy makers, government agencies, NGOs, and other agencies working towards the alleviation of urban poverty need to acknowledge the significance of greenery and include a green agenda in the strategies they employ. For instance, policy makers could organize workshops on sack gardening and other forms of urban agriculture that might further enhance the livelihoods of the city’s poor.
  • A well-thought-out and inclusive strategy of greening should be employed wherein the preferences of slum residents are used to guide interventions and to monitor programme sustainability and success. Vegetation in slums functions as a common pool resource and should be expanded and managed accordingly.