Thursday, October 7, 2010

Trees and the man

From ancient history down to these modern times of ubiquitous exculpation, the beautiful, abundant, floral benefactors of relief and life in this tropical land have had a great rep. The banyan, with its great gnarled mass of branches and roots spread out over large distances and known to support vast ecosystems all on its own… the majestic and mythical Ashoka, with its erect bearing and bushy foliage, held sacred in three indigenous Indian religions… the great givers – mango, apple, jackfruit, coconut, amla, neem… the ayurvedic – khair, bael, kokam, soapnut… and the strong – mahogany, sandalwood and teak… All these are Indian born and bred through ages of light and darkness, storm and famine, despair and triumph… and have provided countless children natural props for play and rest, and great spiritual leaders ready-made platforms from which to espouse their philosophies of salvation to millions of desperate seekers after truth. The sight of these great big wonders spread over towns and cities, villages and fields, forests and jungles is so ingrained in the Indian psyche that the mere fact of their presence is taken for granted and dismissed perfunctorily as fundamental, with that unalloyed sense of universal timelessness that seems to come spontaneously to those of us born in the subcontinent.

They are now disappearing. I can see them going one after another after another – when the monsoons come and their dried up roots suffocated in the concrete of a zillion high and low-rise foundations bring them crashing down, when roads are extended and new ones built, when mass transit systems appear over whole pliable and fertile tracts that custodians of ‘development’ arbitrarily appropriate, over regions of the country no one ever heard of until the announcement of a Special Economic Zone or a new airport or a ‘Medical City’ or a mine. Forest cover in India is now estimated to occupy less than 22% of the total land mass in this country and that includes medium density forests, open forests and scrub lands – all terms, as opposed to 'Very Dense', that bring on that sinking feeling.

There is some time yet for the swan song to be sung to our natural national heritage, but in a country of 1.2 billion people and in an age when the wild tiger population is down to 1,400 and great battles are being fought every day over compensation for the take-over of land belonging to individuals for multi-national mining and other acts of (that haunting term again) ‘development’, I pray that I do not hear the first bars of that mournful tune in my lifetime.

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