On a learning trail 🌱 (guest post)

The morning air was crisp and cool, and the world was waking up to the sounds of chirping birds and squeaking squirrels foraging for food. My plan was to walk through the campus of the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore along a serviced trail that stretched nearly 6 km.

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Inside the IISc, Bangalore campus

This stretch has twin benefits; one, it provides ample opportunities for nature lovers to reflect on landscapes; two, it gave visitors a glimpse of the various hubs within the institute that served an endless stream of students and scholars for over a century. There was much to learn.

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The tower in the Central Office at IISc, Bangalore

Skirting the boundary walls and steering along well-paved roads, I reach the first and most prominent spot in the campus at a distance of 2 km, the Tata Memorial. This is a landmark and most touristed spot in the campus which provides the visitor all that he wished to know about the history. Indian Institute of Science or, locally known as the Tata Institute was conceived and initiated by Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata (industrialist and founder of Tata group of companies) as early as 1889 to be built as an institution of higher learning. Despite his yearnings, this could be realized only after his death in 1904. The institution was shaped jointly by Lord Curzon (Viceroy of India, 1899–1905), Sir William Ramsay (Chemist and Nobel Laureate), Dewan of Mysore State Seshadri Iyer (on behalf of Krishna Raja Wadiyar IV, Maharaja of Mysore), and the State of Karnataka and commenced functioning in 1909. Since 1958, it is a deemed-to-be-university and one among 6 institutes that was granted the Institute of Eminence status in 2018. The institute’s first Indian Director was Sir C.V. Raman the Nobel Laureate.

“There is one kind of charity common enough among us…it is that patchwork philanthropy which clothes the ragged, feeds the poor and heals the sick. I am far from decrying the noble spirit which seeks to help a poor or suffering fellow being. However, what advances a nation or a community is not so much to prop up its weakest and most helpless members, but to lift up the best and the most gifted, so as to make them of the greater service to the country” Jamsetji Tata

Screenshot 2020-08-16 at 12.53.38Moving along, my next stop is a mini bamboo forest which portrays the Institute’s tolerance for biodiversity and preservation. A nature’s gift to humans, the bamboo plant is endowed with resilience and universal value. They grow rapidly and serve as good candidates for afforestation, preservation of flora and aesthetic appeal. The natural composite structure and economic value are manifested in their utility as building materials and rafts, a consequence of high strength-to-weight ratio. Several mini-forests of bamboo can be spotted at different locations in the campus which help to sustain the eco system.

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The liana vine strikes an impressive pose with a labyrinth of stems twisting, turning, weaving, entwining, and climbing at the IISc, Bangalore campus

Close by, a liana vine strikes an impressive pose with a labyrinth of stems twisting, turning, weaving, entwining, and climbing. Like an agile acrobat, the vine twists and turns to reach the canopy for light and survival; it connects other trees but does not seek parasitic support for growth.

As I tread further along, I could not cease to wonder how painstakingly the biodiversity in the campus was enabled by human interface. A large estate team, with inputs from the Centre for Ecological Sciences, responds diligently to the plant-animal-human balance of system. 

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Plant-animal-human balance at the IISc, Bangalore

Insects, reptiles, frogs, monkeys, squirrels, birds of several species, and snakes are common visitors to the campus. As the ecology flourishes, all of them thrive and cohabit. With constraint for space, everyone makes peace among themselves and so also the plant species. The trees compete in reaching to the sky as the canopy allows only bits of light to pass through. The dense foliage overhead causes the average temperature to be lowered in the campus (by at least a couple of degrees below that in downtown areas) and results in increased humidity levels. The tree cover is also responsible in raising the water table close to 10–20 feet from ground level. In all, the campus breathes an improved quality of air with reduced suspended particles and sulphur compounds. 

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The breadfruit tree at IISc, Bangalore

At the 4th kilometre, near the south-eastern corner of the campus and close to the Mechanical Engineering building, stands a handsome breadfruit tree abound with thick, bold foliage, round and oblong-shaped fruits as if welcoming visitors. In full bloom, this tree offers a beautiful and pleasant sight to the beholder.

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The breadfruit is fat free and high in fibre

Packed with carbohydrates and rich in nutrients such as calcium, potassium and iron, the breadfruit is fat free and high in fibre. It is very versatile and a gourmet’s delight in many forms; roasted, baked, pickled, fried, curried or as dessert.

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The IISc campus has 4 trees per person while Bangalore has a mere 0.1

A study of land use and vegetation density by researchers at IISc in 2014 (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/318316406_Trees_of_Bengaluru) using Indian Remote Sensing satellite data and World Health Organization’s estimates revealed that a tree density of 32–55 (trees per person) would be required to compensate the carbon released by humans. This is based on the equation of CO2 gas outflow (525–900 gm per day per person) and absorptivity of the gas by one hectare of trees (6–8 tonnes per year) from atmosphere. The latter averages to a carbon-capturing value of 6 kg per tree per year. Gandhinagar (Gujarat), the top tree-city in the country, has 4 trees per person while Bangalore has a mere 0.1. The corresponding figure for this campus was deduced as 4 trees per person considering the student population of 4000 with faculty and staff cohabiting with 22000 trees in an extent of 370 acres. 

Walking along the southern perimeter wall of the campus, the electrical engineering and material science departments come in to view. Besides being the first to introduce master’s programs in engineering in India, the Institute conducts integrated doctoral programs in Biological, Chemical, Physical, and Mathematical Sciences for natural science graduates. It was ranked second in the world by QS World University Rankings in terms of citations per faculty and is the only Indian Institute in top 100 (64th rank) by Round University Ranking, RUR 2020. The National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF) ranked it the top university in India during 2018 and 2019. That’s carrying forward the academic legacy.

A key driver for many academic accomplishments is the JRD Tata Memorial Library. Established in 1911, the library is credited with an impressive repository and provides physical and online access to a large store of information, research journals, and books. Off-campus access to archives of journals from reputed publishers (American Chemical Society, Royal Society of Chemistry, Elsevier Science, Wiley InterScience, Springer Publishing Company, Nature (Journals) and Oxford University Press) is available to registered users. With a large number of current periodicals, journal titles, and books, the JRD Tata Memorial Library has the best-in-class collection of science and technology tools in the country. 

J.R.D. Tata Memorial Library completed its centenary year of establishment in 2011
J.R.D. Tata Memorial Library completed its centenary year of establishment in 2011

Two former directors, C.V. Raman and C.N.R. Rao, have been awarded India’s highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna. Four former directors, Sir Alfred G. Bourne, Sir Martin O. Forster, Sir C.V. Raman, and Sir J.C. Ghosh have been knighted. There are no Nobel laureates among the alumni but notable are three Rhodes Scholars and several Fellows of the Royal Society. 

I was consumed by feelings of admiration and gratitude for the founding fathers in evolving this great institution through thick and thin; a plan that extended well beyond the limits of normal imagination at that point of time. As I returned to the point of start, I was warmed by a sense of optimism, a sign that life in the campus would sustain and nurture many more generations. The vision of JN Tata has added enduring value to this country. 

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The author Saji can be reached at sajisalk@gmail.com.

Till next post, take care !!

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