Vanishing Green -Randhir Khare
Summer 2006 in Pune has been brutal. And as I walk down North Main Road, Koregaon Park, I can feel the heat rising up through my soles and spreading inside me till it virtually begins to ooze out of my pores. Most of the shade trees that once lined this road are now gone. They have been wiped out. I remember one morning standing out here watching a grand old tree with enormous spreading branches go down. There was nothing dramatic about its demolition. Half a dozen people with axes and saws severed its limbs and within an hour reduced the green shade to a foot high stump. Then others took over, drilling and digging into the earth around the base and tearing the remains out by the roots. The cobbler, fruit seller and florist who once sat in its shade and carried out their business stood nearby, watching helplessly. For nearly a month or so after that the one kilometre length of this road that runs through Koregaon Park felt its girth expand as the stately trees once lining its sides were knocked down like the condemned before a firing squad. The big bosses of the city had decided to widen the road and convert it into a bypass so that the pressure and pollution caused by vehicular traffic on the nearby main road would be considerably reduced. Pune is rapidly going the way of all other Indian cities…human need dominating natural balance and order; immediate human want taking precedence over long term good; the needs of a few stemming the rights of the many; the affluent and politically powerful deciding on behalf of the many.
The urge to control and dominate the environment seems to be a matter of course not only for Indians but also for most of humanity. We human beings have always imagined that we are the centre of the planet. It’s the old Adam and Eve Syndrome still at work… ‘all nature has been created for our benefit – to harvest, to pillage, modify, recreate, redefine’. It’s almost as if humans are exclusive beings, existing outside the energy fields of natural cause and effect, outside the food chain and the web of interdependence.
Our relationship with the earth best reflects our attitudes towards nature. To most of us, the earth is ‘land’, ‘property’, ‘territory’. We buy and sell it, carve our estates out of it, mark off boundaries of cities, districts, states, countries. We wage wars over territories, subdue, enslave, destroy other humans and usurp their lands…and we even sail to other planets in our effort not merely to discover and uncover but to own and control.
But, think about it – can we really own land? Can we own the earth?
According to the Katkaris, an ancient hunter-gatherer community still surviving along the Konkan region of western India, land is sacred. It is common heritage, a common resource – to be shared. Earth and all living beings on it are inextricably linked with one another. A large community of Katkaris still live in scattered homesteads in the region of Malavali, hardly an hour’s drive away from the city of Pune. Their living quarters consist of roofs thatched with wild grass or paddy stems atop bamboo walls smeared with mud, perched on common land just outside the limits of the village. Those who live in the village treat them with disdain. I remember how shocked the non-Katkari headman of the village was when he discovered that I had Katkari friends. ‘They are lower than animals,’ he said, ‘what do you have in common with them?’ I ought to have answered his question. But I have never ceased reflecting on it.
I do not belong to a community of hunter-gatherers but I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to have travelled and even lived amongst people belonging to early communities all over the Indian sub-continent. My friends from these communities have helped me to discover my own place in the web of life on this planet. The Saheriyas from the region of Sheopurkalan taught me about the medicinal properties of trees, plants, roots, bulbs and herbs. The Bhils of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra, revealed the relationship between human beings and animals. The Todas, a pastoral community living on the high grassy slopes of the blue Nilgiri mountains of southern India, demonstrated the sacredness of their earth…every hundred yards of Toda earth has a special name which reflects its metaphorical, spiritual, economic and ecological character. The Gonds, the Santhals, the Muriyas and a myriad others, offered their wisdom and experience which helped me understand that all meaningful growth, change…give it whatever word you wish…must be based on the knowledge that we humans are not exclusive beings but are part of nature’s intricate fabric.
Being on top of the ladder of evolution does not give us ownership of the planet, nor the right to manipulate nature. Instead, it invests us with a degree of responsibility that far exceeds that which humans of the past were entrusted with. If we are to play out our roles as responsible partners, we must always remain aware of our place in the web of natural life. By doing so we will sustain our vital links with other life forms of our natural environment. Maintaining these links means keeping the natural force of continuity alive. Continuity is the life-link between the cave dweller and the astronaut, between tradition and modernity, the past and the future. It sustains and enriches life, providing us with a stable and dynamic foundation for meaningful evolution.
It is not my intention here to discredit or undermine contemporary human scientific endeavour or the eco-friendly intentions of many in positions of power on our planet. I am willing to commend any effort made to help life on this planet to be more bearable, equitable, nourishing and potent. But I am certainly not willing to commend efforts to use science and technology to reduce the planet to one of inequality, disregarding other forms of natural life, ancient lore and wisdom, other beliefs and customs… the sacrifice of the few, against their will and choice, for the benefit of the many and the advancement of the so called frontiers of knowledge.
Time and again it has been evident that Nature is our finest university. Some among us acknowledge this truth but a growing majority don’t and prefer to function in vacuums… compartmentalising our existence and our relationships with self, work, community and other beings. The values which are evident in the way we actually live our lives often contradict what we say we believe in. Nature provides us with excellent examples of outer and inner harmony, balance and interdependence, co-relating diversity and personal identity and the dynamic potential of continuity.
Some of us exploring the brave new worlds of science and technology are acutely aware of, respect and learn from Nature. But unfortunately, this awareness, respect and spirit of learning does not find expression in everyday living and somehow gets brushed under the carpet in the boardrooms of those of us who feel that nature merely provides raw stock for us to fashion to our own ends.
Trees in cities like the one I live in are planted without a thought for the future. What will happen when they grown tall and spread their branches? What will happen when the vehicular traffic increases and the roads have to be widened? What will happen when human population bursts the city at its seams and trees and parks must give way to housing colonies?
If trees are only planted to beautify avenues and fill parks, why do we bother to put them through the celebration of growth and the agony of death? Erect artificial greenery. That saves a lot of bother. And besides, we can actually have blossoms all the year round.
Most of the beautiful old trees all along this road I walk on now are all gone. Elsewhere in India, parks are vanishing, forests are being invaded, rivers polluted, species of flora and fauna are being shoved towards extinction. And in the great wide world around the oceans are being pillaged, the land altered beyond recognition.
The tragedy is not that we are ‘depleting and destroying precious natural resources’ but that we are abusing a vital and potentially nourishing relationship. The choice that faces us is whether we want to persist in our effort to negatively enhance our supremacy and control over other life forms on planet earth or do we want to redefine our roles as dynamic and responsible partners in the process of evolution. Whatever path we choose will determine whether or not our species will survive and truly evolve.
Randhir Khare – The writer, a resident of Koregaon Park, is the award-winning author of more than a dozen books of poetry, fiction and essays. He works with children and young people on creative programmes in response to the environment and related issues. He may be contacted at