India’s green past, barren present

Stuck for an answer about the policies of a king or queen in the dim and distant past, students of history across India fall back on a stock refrain: The ruler is praised for remitting revenues, promoting the arts, setting up rest houses, and yes, planting trees along the roadside.
Pressed for an instance, they could come up with responses that vary depending on where they live in this vast land. In the north, it would be Sher Shah Suri (1540-45) and the trees along the Grand Trunk Road. In deep south, it could well be the Mangammal Salai, planted by the Nayaka queen who died in 1706. Even when little else — save for architectural monuments and legacies — survives from the past, trees remain a living link with it. The word “salai” in its original rendering specifically can mean “a tree lined avenue or road”.
For once, the laziest of school girls or boys is right. Travellers of the past record how central certain trees were, not just to the landscape but in the way it was recorded and remembered. Bishop Reginald Heber in the 1820s wrote of a giant banyan tree on an island in the Narmada which, it was said, could provide shelter and shade to as many as 7,000 people. Though he reverentially called it “one of the noblest groves in the world”, it was diminished in size a hit by a storm.
This was a giant of a tree, a veritable mammoth among its companions. Upstream of Bharuch, it even had a name: Kabirbadh. Its 320 trunks were additionally supported by over 3,000 prop roots. Even the floods that reduced it in size could not mar its majesty.
Later in the century, the Gazetteer of the Central Provinces refered to another such tree on the way from the provincial capital of Nagpur to Betul. This one could provide shade from the sun to as many as 500 horses.
Yet, it was in the southern peninsula that the ace historian of trade and transport routes in India, Professor Jean Deloche, finds tree-lined avenues the norm across centuries. Trees were the saving grace of road journeys from Vellore (scene of the famous Blue Mutiny of 1806, a dress rehearsal almost for the Revolt of 1857) to Bengaluru or from Ranipettai on the other bank on the Palar to Chittor in Rayalseema (literally, the land of stones).
Banyans were not alone: there was the tamarind, with its fruit much loved by monkeys, children and housewives. Both trees cast a deep shade, which while much beloved of travellers, peddlers and mendicants, does not allow even grass or shrubs to grow. What stands out in this choice of trees is the priority given to those that gave good shade, and also those that provided a harvest of fruit.
The intrepid and tireless historian of Delhi’s trees, Pradeep Krishen, provides deep insight into where the British planner of the new imperial city got it wrong. The tree species labelled as “Avenue First Class” included the Ashok and imli, anjan and philkan, Arjun and Maulshree. What mattered was “the evergreeness” of a tree. Of course, the trees played truant. Given Delhi’s semi arid climes, they did and do shed leaves. But these species were not the best suited to the place: the British had, unlike earlier rulers, not planted with the ecology of the region.
Yet, Lutyens and forester Peter Clutterbuck, like Sher Shah or the Nayaka queen, did create a legacy that is green. But how will the future judge us in 21st century India? Not very kindly, it seems. The four-laning of highways and the widening of roads within metros and cities are playing havoc with roadside trees. When this takes place in cities such as Bengaluru or Delhi (both with a fast growing number of private cars), the issue receives attention and provokes debate.
But the trees along roads that link different centres do deserve a closer look. Dr T.R. Shankar Raman, an ecologist and wildlife biologist who himself spends much time re-growing rainforests on abandoned tea estate on the Valparai plateau of Tamil Nadu, has recently drawn attention to the slaughter of roadside trees. Banyans that date back centuries are being felled along several key roads in Karnataka and he warns that unless preventive measures are taken hundreds of trees will be chopped down and transformed into charcoal. There is a way out: not only to plant more trees but to reconsider whether these roads ought to be widened. In addition to the money earned by contractors who sell the wood, there are state governments eager to avoid the hassles of land acquisition. Were the latter to be done, the trees could survive in a central verge, a model tried out for tree planting in Haryana by former chief minister Bansi Lal.
Only time will tell whether the school kids of the future will look back on our age not for the green legacy it created but for the heritage it left impoverished. The old banyans and peepal, mangoes and tamarind trees are no less worth keeping than human made monuments. Will we learn from the past and sensibly so?

Post new comment

<form action="/comment/reply/55526" accept-charset="UTF-8" method="post" id="comment-form"> <div><div class="form-item" id="edit-name-wrapper"> <label for="edit-name">Your name: <span class="form-required" title="This field is required.">*</span></label> <input type="text" maxlength="60" name="name" id="edit-name" size="30" value="Reader" class="form-text required" /> </div> <div class="form-item" id="edit-mail-wrapper"> <label for="edit-mail">E-Mail Address: <span class="form-required" title="This field is required.">*</span></label> <input type="text" maxlength="64" name="mail" id="edit-mail" size="30" value="" class="form-text required" /> <div class="description">The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.</div> </div> <div class="form-item" id="edit-comment-wrapper"> <label for="edit-comment">Comment: <span class="form-required" title="This field is required.">*</span></label> <textarea cols="60" rows="15" name="comment" id="edit-comment" class="form-textarea resizable required"></textarea> </div> <fieldset class=" collapsible collapsed"><legend>Input format</legend><div class="form-item" id="edit-format-1-wrapper"> <label class="option" for="edit-format-1"><input type="radio" id="edit-format-1" name="format" value="1" class="form-radio" /> Filtered HTML</label> <div class="description"><ul class="tips"><li>Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.</li><li>Allowed HTML tags: &lt;a&gt; &lt;em&gt; &lt;strong&gt; &lt;cite&gt; &lt;code&gt; &lt;ul&gt; &lt;ol&gt; &lt;li&gt; &lt;dl&gt; &lt;dt&gt; &lt;dd&gt;</li><li>Lines and paragraphs break automatically.</li></ul></div> </div> <div class="form-item" id="edit-format-2-wrapper"> <label class="option" for="edit-format-2"><input type="radio" id="edit-format-2" name="format" value="2" checked="checked" class="form-radio" /> Full HTML</label> <div class="description"><ul class="tips"><li>Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.</li><li>Lines and paragraphs break automatically.</li></ul></div> </div> </fieldset> <input type="hidden" name="form_build_id" id="form-a7d9c7cd4a995e7c320d82cc963cbd3b" value="form-a7d9c7cd4a995e7c320d82cc963cbd3b" /> <input type="hidden" name="form_id" id="edit-comment-form" value="comment_form" /> <fieldset class="captcha"><legend>CAPTCHA</legend><div class="description">This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.</div><input type="hidden" name="captcha_sid" id="edit-captcha-sid" value="63871599" /> <input type="hidden" name="captcha_response" id="edit-captcha-response" value="NLPCaptcha" /> <div class="form-item"> <div id="nlpcaptcha_ajax_api_container"><script type="text/javascript"> var NLPOptions = {key:'c4823cf77a2526b0fba265e2af75c1b5'};</script><script type="text/javascript" src="http://call.nlpcaptcha.in/js/captcha.js" ></script></div> </div> </fieldset> <span class="btn-left"><span class="btn-right"><input type="submit" name="op" id="edit-submit" value="Save" class="form-submit" /></span></span> </div></form>

No Articles Found

No Articles Found

No Articles Found

I want to begin with a little story that was told to me by a leading executive at Aptech. He was exercising in a gym with a lot of younger people.

Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen didn’t make the cut. Neither did Shaji Karun’s Piravi, which bagged 31 international awards.