Let the tree speak - full version

It was audacious to have contacted a government office to fill the gaps on the story. It must be a mistake, we think.  Who in this country invites a rag-a tag environment group like us to share knowledge? Least of all the Government, for whom we are no less than smelly rats, fattened on western cheese, on a mission to sabotage the nation’s fast road to development.   

But it is not a mistake.  A portly clerk ushers us: my partner, Kanti & I, to a Conference Hall, comfortably sanitized from the heat and grime of the city outside.  The projector descends from the false ceiling slowly as we make brisk introductions.  We are ready. And eager.

This Government Institute is our last refuge because the survey and notification of lakes, commissioned by the Government over nine years ago, is yet to complete its preliminary work.  But a senior in college had referred me to the Deputy Director of this Institute and that is how we are here.  To see with evidence, beyond doubt and without conjecture, how the lakes and the catchments feeding them—lifelines in this arid, rock-strewn outpost of the Deccan plateau—had been shrinking and starving.  The evidence on offer is satellite imagery superimposed on the cadastral survey maps of the city (1972)

The lean, serious man, making the presentation, is a scientist who struggled with common English words.  It doesn’t help that his whispers are drowned by the noise of the A/C.  We are beginning to switch off, lose hope, when he says “Wait, let me give you an example” . 

Pointing to a space marked blue on the map, he says “Jangaon District….That is the Bathukamma Kunta, locals call it Dharmana Kunta that now adjoins the Muthyalamma Temple.  This was the lake in 1972 but now let us move to 1980s… 1990… 2000… 2005, you see… do you? Here… temple authorities built these constructions on the lake bed.  Can you see the change in the contours.  From the natural gradient in 1972 along the catchment, buffer zone and here… see nice gradient… that let the rainwater into the lake and flow out of it… to now?” Shifting the pointer to the mouth of the lake, he says “so at first the land was filled, leveled.. there is no gradient for the water to enter the lake and then a construction came on the inlet itself, there… you see, the building?”

“Oh, then how come there is water in the lake?”we ask.

“That… comes from the tube wells you see on the periphery… there, can you see, groundwater is being pumped into the lake because alas….the lake is actually dead.”He folds his hands and peers at us through his glasses, as if ashamed, complicit in this murder

The lake is dead. 

But a lake is not a person.  What was not alive, cannot be dead now.
It is something else that is dead. 

Our imagination.

We can never imagine what we do not value.   What lives in our imagination is what we keep alive.  
We leave the Institute in a hurry because we have plans to cover a nearby lake on the same day.  Back in the car, I grab the newspaper to check if the Deccan Chronicle had carried the piece as promised. A week back, a group of Nature Lovers had started a petition: Save the Banyans of Chevella, to stop the felling of 10,000 trees marked for felling in a road expansion project of the National Highways.  About 1000 old banyan trees were included in the list. We had signed the petition with enthusiasm and had used our contact in DC for coverage in the media.

There is a small piece (on page 5)that the Dharmasthala located in the foothills of the Western Ghats in Dakshina Kannada district, has run out water.  The River Netravathi has dried.  As I fold the newspaper, the front page catches my eye.  The photo of the Chief Minister offering  prayers, forehead creased, eyes closed, puckered jowls aquiver in piety. He is supplicating to the very river on which his Government plans to lift 180 TMC of water with powerful (and imported) pumps, against gravity and the river’s natural flow, in the epic project: Kaleshwaram. The caption reads “Kaleshwaram will be a spiritual hub: a tourist destination”. The pride of the young State: its moment of reckoning.

It needs imagination to face up to the irony.

But there is no sign of our petition in the newspaper.  We need to wait, be patient.

It is mid-May. The scorching heat in the ground beneath my thick soled shoes shocks when I step down from the car. The country is preparing for elections which have laid bare the kind of religious fervor that surprises me.  The PM has retreated to Kedarnath, in a cave up that fragile ecosystem which not far in the distant path had yielded to a cloud burst and killed 5000. 

What was our response to the tragedy? The Char Dham Mahamarg Vikas Pariyojana, a two-lane expressway at a meager cost of  ₹11,700 crores. 

This is no joke.  Religion is not a joke.  They say, man’s need for religion springs from his fear of nature.  Ask a person from the hills and he says, fear the mountains.  The fisherman in Kerala prays to the Kadalamma before each trip to the seas.  Images of  Bon Bibi appear across the forests of Sunderbans.

We no longer fear nature.  The floods in Kerala, the cyclone in Orissa, uproot us only temporarily. Everybody loves a cyclone since it gives us an opportunity to build.

Love thy builder, love thy nation.

It is easy to be skeptical of Government actions and brush them aside as simply a function of corruption.  Corruption is more natural in our country than nature itself. 
But in fact, it is worse. 

It is the death of imagination. And nobody is mourning
I had sent a classmate from College, the link to the petition: Save the Banyans of Chevella.  Sneha works in Government, her reach must be vast, I assume.  There was no response for two days.  And then I receive a whatsapp message in which she lists the questions:

1.      At what stage is the project of road widening?
2.      Did these petitioners raise the issue at the right time?
3.      How much more petrol/ diesel will be used due to continuing congestion of delays in the project due to the protests?
4.      What is the estimation on carbon emissions due to road congestion?
5.      Is the petition by people with vested interest? For eg: the road will pass too close to my house?

All valid questions, I think.  I feel helpless because there is no data that will help the petitioners calculate the carbon emissions and weigh the costs with the benefits.  The feasibility study shared on the internet confounds than clarifies. I am sure they await information through RTI applications.

But Sneha’s response has made it clear: the onus to prove the deleterious impact of the project lies with the petitioners.  But there is no onus on the Government to convince the citizens that all other alternatives to the Project were explored but found impractical. The road has to swallow the trees and in its wake, two patches of forests too. 

There is no other way, yaar, Sneha had said as she grudgingly signed the petition, for friendships’ sake.

But we all know that it was not always like that.  There was a time when we had imagination to build roads, expand the roads not by cutting trees but by using the very trees. 
Eight months back, Kanti & I had gone for a hike to the living root bridges of Meghalaya. Fighting fit at 35, Kanti likes to test the limits of her physical fitness in high altitude treks. But this time in deference to my lower levels of endurance, she had chosen this trek.

We started with what has now come to be hailed as the cleanest village in India: Mawlynnong “God’s own garden”.  Beyond their sacred groves, the Khasi’s reverence for nature suffuses daily life. Waste is collected in bamboo receptacles located all over the village, which is then recycled into fertilizer and used for agriculture, their primary occupation. Plastics are repurposed, and villagers sweep lanes and public spaces daily.

The marvel of Khasi ingenuity lies in the living root bridges that connect villages separated by gorges.  Tree trunks are planted on each side of the bank to create a sturdy foundation, and over the course of 15 to 30 years, the Khasi slowly thread Ficus roots across a temporary bamboo scaffolding to connect the gap. A combination of humidity and foot traffic help compact the soil over time, and the tangle of roots grows thick and strong. Mature bridges stretch 15 to 250 feet over deep rivers and gorges, and can bear impressive loads—upwards of 35 people at a time. Unlike modern building materials like concrete and steel, these structures typically become more resilient with age and can survive centuries.

I saw a bridge being pulled below the older one.  There is too much traffic, a lady said, too many people.  This was road expansion of a different kind.

Sneha “liked”the photos on facebook.  As did many of my friends. This must be what heaven looks like, they said- a place to go to, a reprieve from this city life.  But let us be practical, we cannot un-see, un-know what we have seen, known.  Roads can now be built rapidly to meet our rapidly growing needs, thank god.  We cannot go back to that life.

We don’t need to go back to that life.  But we can be imaginative with what we have adopted.  One man nudged the Public Works Department in Nagpur to re-imagine the road widening of SH-10 and saved 2000 trees by making the alignments site-specific instead of centre alignment.

There are ways, if only we can imagine.
On our return from a lake near-by, we stop for refreshments: shatoot-cream, a local delicacy.  It is so hot and we take cover under a laburnum.  I spot a convoy of ants marching in a straight line up and down its trunk, very careful of lane driving.  The whisper of a breeze in its leaves, makes me look up.  It has been a long time since I have stood under a laburnum to watch the golden shower right above me.  A red vented bulbul sits perched, unnaturally silent. And at its highest branch, I spot a smudge of red: a madhumalati vine lay hugging the branches. 
To the Waorani people living Amazon rainforest in Ecuador[1], trees are described not by species but by the other beings that surround them. So, any one ceibo tree isn’t a “ceibo tree” but is “the ivy-wrapped ceibo,” and another is “the mossy ceibo with black mushrooms.” Throughout the Waorani literary and musical history, there are references to the songs of trees, to the songs of trees, and the way they speak: whispering pines, falling branches, crackling leaves, the steady hum buzzing through the forest.  Which is why they  aren’t alarmed by the notion that a tree might scream when cut, or surprised that harming a tree should cause trouble for humans.

As I smack my lips to get the last drop of the delicious shatoot, I wonder what will the tree say to the contractor when it is up to be felled for expansion of the highway?

Will it say that you are not just killing me, it is a whole village here.  And if the village is wiped out, where does it leave you? Will it instead plead for mercy, asking him to recall the years dedicated in service of mankind? You reach me in this heat for shade and I will surprise you with a drop of golden sun at your feet.  How about that? You will have blood in your hands, it will come to haunt you, the tree may curse in anger.  Maybe it will just bow its head.  I cannot fight you. You are the one with the axe to cut, the match to burn.

When it comes to such a talk, I imagine the tree to be economical in speech.  Bodhisatvas may have been granted wisdom under the tree, but the tree will shun philosophy or sophistry.  It will just state its case without playing to emotions or histrionics.  Before it sees the writing on the axe, the match, and relent.

Will the tree have to die because it is on the highway with no community that considers it their own, benefits from it directly or to grieve for it when it is dead? Those who depend on this poor tree on the highway are itinerant travelers like me who may never return to that spot.  Even if these travelers were to come together, which Court will accept their claims of injury by the death of a tree? Injury to what cognizable interest?, the Court would ask.

But what if the tree could petition a Court and say, I am a person, I deserve to live.  I too have the right to live a life of dignity.  Not a translocated one, with my limbs severed to fit the carriage.  I need to be whole and complete.  Let me be my mangled self, let my battered trunk see many more seasons.  And you see, it is not just me- I deserve to live in my Hindu Undivided Family- the ants crawling on my trunk, the madhumalati, the bulbul.

The uninspired may have several questions: how can the trees speak except through a guardian? Whose claim of guardianship, other that of the government, can we accept?

The government has been my guardian, the tree would say but…. You can look around, the government has been sparing in its use of powers granted under the Environment Protection Laws.  In fact, it has become the aggressor.  Who after all is building the highways?  And therein lies the problem.  The government balances many functions, development, the holy grail, have you forgotten? It is development that gives the government its heft, who will remind the Government that it is also my  trustee?

I need to stand for myself.  I am my independent trustee.

The tree, like the Hindu Undivided Family, the National Highway Authority of India, an infant or more recently the rivers, must also rise to its personhood and defend its claim to uninterrupted life of dignity.

It will need imagination to hear the tree speak.  Silence, please. Our tree has never spoken. It is shy. The tongue is heavy, it will take time to roll.  It has been wooden for too long, but no longer. Its arm pushes away the yellow curls from its forehead to signal readiness.  And it speaks

“Long before I adorned the puja rooms for Vishu, I was…….,