Lessons of nature

Lessons of nature

Transformation tale

Butterfly Park in Agastya Foundation campus. Photos by Author and Agastya Foundation

The 172-acre verdant campus of the Agastya Foundation at Kuppam, 90 km east of Bengaluru, is a study in the regeneration of nature in a land that had been systematically denuded of its forests and exploited in pursuit of gold mining at the KGF and its outskirts.

Having been degraded, it had lain in total neglect for nearly a century at the tri-junction of the states of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.

The landscape of these hills and valleys was bleak and barren. The blazing inferno of summers would scorch the earth and turn it into an oven. It was difficult to get water even at the depth of 1,000 feet.

But the fate of the land began to change by the turn of the century when the organisation selected the area to set up its campus to nurture scientific thinking among school children hailing from underprivileged and rural families.

Shaded by canopies

Today, the premises stands transformed with canopies of nearly 85,000 trees providing shade for a variety of creatures. At the last count, it had over 600 plant species, 104 species of butterflies, and 21 species of reptiles.

The foundation built 22 mini checkdams and dug eight percolation pits to capture maximum amount of water flowing down the hills, which receive the annual precipitation of nearly 80 centimetres. 

A technical study conducted by the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) team in 2014 revealed that vegetation cover increased from 11% to nearly 19% in the campus and the vicinity and the Agastya ecology team estimated that the vegetation cover increased  to nearly 30% by the end of 2016.

Agastya is now a midway stop for around 20 species of migratory birds.

Regeneration

A noted environmentalist from Bengaluru, Yellappa Reddy, one of the founders of Agastya, says when they chose the piece of land, it was barren and a massive effort went into regenerating it. Nothing except weeds grew there. But being part of the Eastern Ghats, it received sufficient rains to be developed into an ideal campus for an educational institution.

A team of experts from the IISc, botanists and hydrologists devised a cogent plan to develop the campus as a self-sustainable model soon after the land was acquired in 1999.

To begin with, nearly a lakh of saplings were planted across the area. As a water-conservation strategy, semi-circular saucers were dug on the slopes and full-circle depressions were created around each sapling after each had firmly established itself.

These saucers were capable of trapping 10 to 30% of rainwater. They encouraged infiltration progressively. Today in every saucer, the root biomass grows laterally as well as vertically, facilitating the rainwater to seep to greater depths thereby recharging the aquifers.

Says Laksh Kumar, project manager, Ecology, at Agastya:”Thanks to the water-conservation efforts, water can now be struck at a depth of 210 feet in the bore wells located on the campus, while in surrounding areas, the average depth ranges between 550 and 600 feet.”

Another measure was to use drip irrigation for the landscaped gardens on a 10-acre area.  

Waste recycling

The campus generates power by tapping renewable sources like solar and wind energy even while drawing extra requirement from the state power grid. Biogas supplements the LPG cylinders for cooking purposes, while the slurry from the biogas plant is sent away as manure for vegetable gardens.

The campus recycles nearly 2,000 litres of wastewater generated daily to be used for irrigation. The wet waste from the kitchen and dry leaves are turned into compost. Only the non-biodegradable waste is sent over to Kuppam town for the town’s civic-disposal system.

Thematic gardens

Agastya developed a series of herbal gardens themed after description in the hoary scriptures and ancient medicinal tomes, each dedicated to trees of specific properties. Mulikavana, which came up in 2005, is a herbal garden patterned after three geoglyph figures of a man, a woman and a child. Pancha Valkala has keystone species such as banyan, peepal, Indian fig and Mysore fig.

Gayatri Vana hosts nearly a hundred varieties of plumeria where flowers in entire VIBGYOR colours can be seen. The two-acre Shabari Vana is meant for trees of endangered species.

Currently it has 80 trees of 40 species. Panchavati garden, Saraswathikund and Balavana are other thematic gardens developed here. A butterfly park came up in 2014 for the development of a habitat for different butterfly species within the campus. A total of 103 species were observed during the period. 

The vegetation in the campus now hosts 55 species of spiders. An 18-member ecology team of Agastya is engaged in outreach work by distributing medicinal plants to over 50 villages in the region.

Ramji Raghavan, a co-founder, says, “Perhaps our work in revitalising the land of Agastya will be our most enduring legacy.”

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