Photos by Sarang Naik | Text by Suryasarathi Bhattacharya

***

It takes much time to kill a tree,

Not a simple jab of the knife

Will do it. It has grown

Slowly consuming the earth,

Rising out of it, feeding

Upon its crust, absorbing

Years of sunlight, air, water,

And out of its leperous hide

Sprouting leaves.

 

So hack and chop

But this alone wont do it.

Not so much pain will do it.

The bleeding bark will heal

And from close to the ground

Will rise curled green twigs,

Miniature boughs

Which if unchecked will expand again

To former size.

 

No,

The root is to be pulled out —

Out of the anchoring earth;

It is to be roped, tied,

And pulled out — snapped out

Or pulled out entirely,

Out from the earth-cave,

And the strength of the tree exposed,

The source, white and wet,

The most sensitive, hidden

For years inside the earth.

 

Then the matter

Of scorching and choking

In sun and air,

Browning, hardening,

Twisting, withering,

 

And then it is done.

— From Gieve Patel's 'On Killing A Tree' (Collected Poems, Paperwall Media & Publishing)

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On 29 August 2019, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation's Tree Authority, acting on a proposal by the Mumbai Metro Rail Corporation Ltd, green-lit the felling of 2,702 trees in Aarey Colony. About 469 are to be transplanted in other areas, while MMRCL has proposed to plant three times as many saplings elsewhere for each of the 2,232 trees that are cut down.

An academic study published by Dr Rajendra Shinde, Head of Department of Botany at Mumbai's St Xavier's College, inferred that Aarey Colony was at one time, "an extension of Sanjay Gandhi National Park".

His study drew on a 1963 thesis by a research student named SC Tavakari, which stated: "Aarey has 530 species of flowering plants including trees (97 species); shrubs (97 species); herbs (270 species); climbers (46 species); twinners (19 species) and one epiphyte."

In addition, the flora of Aarey provides a habitat and natural haven to several species of the fauna including leopards, reptiles and migratory birds.

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Activist Zoru Bathena has filed a petition challenging BMC's approval in the Bombay High Court. The court took notice of Bathena's plea and said MMRCL shall not fell trees in the Aarey Colony area till 30 September. Besides Bathena's, three other petitions have been filed on the issue. The petition filed by NGO Vanshakti seeks a direction to the government to declare Aarey a forest area.

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The High Court said it would look into the question of whether or not Aarey Colony is a forest. "If we arrive at the conclusion that Aarey has to be declared as forest then all the other issues do not arise as all the environmental restrictions come in place. We will also go into the issue of whether the decision taken by the tree authority is legal," Chief Justice Pradeep Nandrajog told the Press Trust of India.

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The judges also stated that a forest does not mean just trees and plants. "What we common people call a forest, a real environmentalist may call a jungle. A forest is like the Amazon, where the vegetation is so rich and thick that sunlight does not reach the ground," Nandrajog added.

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Renee Vyas, who has been at the forefront of raising awareness about Mumbai's natural heritage, has organised nearly 100 tree appreciation walks throughout the city over the past nine years. Vyas says the vegetation in and around Aarey is a result of years of natural processes. She prefers to be known as a tree chronicler, weaving stories of culture, history and science around the trees.

"There are some 40 native species, which must have naturally grown here [Aarey Colony] over a long period of time. Additionally, there are some non-native species, like the Rain Tree, Vilayati Chinch and Australian Acacia, which must have been most likely planted here. Despite the presence of the non-native species, the species diversity and composition of the trees here indicates that this site is part of a forest area, and of the type typical of the natural vegetation that one sees in and around Mumbai region," says Vyas.

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"This stretch of Aarey forest bears native, mostly deciduous, trees, which are perfectly suitable for the area, the soil quality, water availability and other conditions. The species diversity here represents a continuity that goes back hundreds of years. The trees have created their own balance over a long period of time; they are wisely chosen and distributed, catering to insects, birds, animals and humans alike. And they are all closely interdependent, forming a complex web of relationships," Vyas observes.

Also read — Fact-check on MMRC's claims over Aarey reveals gaping holes; activists, citizens protesting Metro-3 shed slam govt for 'propaganda'

Of the "layers of succession" that go into the creation of a forest, Vyas explains, "Trees like Vad, Pipal and Umbar are the keystone species, which play a critical role in maintaining the structure of a specific habitat, even though they may be small in numbers. Keystone species create the environment for other species, playing a central role in the nature cycles and helping keep order in their ecosystems."

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"They ensure that the ecosystem around is in balance, and are proof that conservation efforts are needed not just to protect a single species but entire ecosystems and habitats. This is one of the reasons they have been regarded as sacred, and have been protected and preserved by all old cultures, even though they may not be of direct use to humans," Vyas adds.

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In the hierarchy, just below the keystone species are the pioneer species. Trees like the Palash, Red Silk Cotton Tree, Kate Sawar, Ghost Tree etc fall under this category. "The seeds of these plants can remain dormant for years if a habitat is destroyed or if the environment is very harsh. And, as soon favourable conditions resume, they germinate and grow. With their leaf litter and shade, they contribute to the improvement of the soil, creating a hospitable environment for the next succession of species to germinate," Vyas says.

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Following the keystone and the pioneer trees come the species like Mango, Jamun, Kakad, Vavla, Shivan, Shevga, Bibla, Bhokar, Bartondi, Petari, Beheda, etc. "The fruits of these trees are loved by birds and mammals. The insects they play host to are additional food for some species of insectivorous birds," mentions Vyas. Thus the species composition in Aarey also ensures that the area forms "a year-long storehouse of food for insects, birds and a variety of animal life."

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Above: Toddy Palm (Borassus flabellifer)

The toddy palm is on its way to becoming a rare species in this area due to rampant felling. As opposed to coconut saplings which are easy to procure, the toddy palm is difficult to grow and it is near impossible to get its saplings. "The saplings can barely be seen for several years till the roots go down to a considerable depth. It is only afterwards that they begin to gain height. They then take 12 to 15 years to mature, after which they will produce fruit for a hundred years or more," says Vyas. The tad jaggery made out of the pulp of a toddy fruit also has immense medicinal value.

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Above: Buddha Coconut (Pterygota alata)

These trees bear the name for two reasons: 'Coconut' because its fruits look similar to coconuts, and 'Buddha' because when it sheds its leaves, the markings on its trunk appear similar to Buddha's eyes. Although these trees are not native to India, they are often planted as avenue trees along the roadside.

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Above: Asana (Bridelia retusa)

These native trees are identified by large spines on the bark. These spines fall off when the tree matures. The root and bark are used in traditional medicines, while the fruits that it bears during the winters are loved by migratory birds.

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Above:  Wavyleaf Basket grass (Oplismenus burmannii) and Spiral ginger (Cheilocostus speciosus)

These form the flora on the forest floor and are found all along the western ghats. They are ephemerals and are used as medicine, spices etc. The spiral ginger plant, for instance, has many historical uses in Ayurveda and is used to treat a range of disorders like fever, rash, asthma, bronchitis, to name a few.

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Vyas believes any interference in Aarey's ecology will harm the natural balance and threaten the last remaining green patch of land in Mumbai. "It must be left alone for posterity to benefit from and enjoy," concludes Vyas.

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— Gieve Patel's 'On Killing A Tree' has been reprinted here with due permission from the poet and Paperwall Media & Publishing

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