The Tree as an Urban Coordinate

A mature tree creates a sense of civilisation the way a manicured green belt cannot

The ongoing protests in some of India’s largest cities (these include Delhi and Mumbai) to save natural and not built entities — trees in urban spaces — are remarkable, even though we understand that cities are centres of construction; spaces curated and created mainly by the human hand.

Hundreds of Delhi residents took to the streets in protest against a plan to have 14,000 trees cut for the “redevelopment” of government colonies in South Delhi. In Mumbai, citizens have been fighting for years to save over 2,000 trees in Aarey, slated to be felled for another kind of development — to make way for a metro line car shed.

The idea of an urban tree, one that is outside of a lush forest, does not resonate ecologically as much as a forest or a ‘pristine’ national park. Yet for urban activists protesting for their trees to be saved, the fight is for the tree they can see near their front porch; not one that has been marked for transplantation in unreachable parts of the city.

For them, it is the tree that situates a particular part of the city by becoming an immutable part of the integrity of the landscape.

Laburnum 1
A grand old Delhi tree: the Amaltas

Trees outside a forest

It is well known that forests are invaluable as ecological entities. The UN’s REDD, or Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries, programme lays emphasis on planting and maintaining forests as a means to counter climate change. In India, forests are governed under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, State laws, and the Indian Forest Act, 1927, which lay down elaborate rules for the conservation and diversion of forests. Despite this, forests are the first targets when it comes to projects such as mining, dams, highways, industrial projects and so on, to be offset by compensatory afforestation. Former Minister of Environment, Forests and Climate Change Prakash Javadekar once remarked that diversion of forest should be seen as ‘reforestation’. As far as the issue of trees outside forest areas is concerned — city trees — the situation is much worse.

Trees in cities usually come under State Tree Acts; they can have variable descriptions. In Delhi, for example, these are usually avenue or colony trees. In the case of Aarey, it is a green belt or green patch. The monikers of ‘green belts’ or ‘green cover’ suggest a transferable quality in management — that the city would not be worse off if another tree or green belt comes up elsewhere, as long as it is green. Therefore, it is important that urban citizens are fighting to keep city trees where they are. They argue that the age and very place of the tree is an important fulcrum for their activism.

In a sense then, a mature tree creates a sense of civilisation.

Bada Peelu 1
Bada Peelu in Qutab Complex

Shared habitat

As India moves towards more urbanisation, can cities be looked at more as shared habitats between humans and biodiversity, rather than a jungle of buildings? The question, even if not consciously faced through planning strategies, will need to be tackled in one form or the other as cities become progressively more unliveable. With its year-round hazardous air quality and an increase in cars and inhabitants, Delhi is a tough city to live in. Trees in Delhi do not just purify the air; they are also visual relief.

The fact that cities need open spaces and greenery is clear from the number of people crowding parks, be it Central Park in New York or Lodhi Gardens in New Delhi. The earlier wave of tree plantation in Delhi which included Sarojini Nagar, Nauroji Nagar, and Netaji Nagar, marked for redevelopment, have trees beneficial for biodiversity — native and naturalised trees such as neem, banyan, peepal, semal, arjuna, and siris. These large, old trees have become markers for Delhi. Yet, several new constructions in the cities belie these values even though they look green or have green belts. Buildings with basements are made in ways that allow only shallow beds which would not withstand deep-rooted, native trees. In sum, many new apartment complexes have green belts that do very little for biodiversity or the ecological idea of greenery.

Thus the fight for Delhi’s trees is also a fight for the right kind of species to be allowed to grow to the right size; this flies in the face of quickly manicured or manufactured ‘green belts’. It outlines a struggle for cities which have a civilisation of shared meaning and relationships between people and nature. And clearly this relationship comes through size, age and the tree as an optic for a lived, native habitat for birds and wildlife. Urban biodiversity then can be its own form of civilisation — one that our air as well as our urban identity needs desperately.

Golden Flameback
Woodpecker on an old tree.

This first appeared as an oped in The Hindu.

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Man-eating tigers, marauding leopards: the role of people in Human-wildlife conflict

We often talk about man-eating tigers, marauding leopards, rogue elephants– but not of the role people have in creating conflict with wildlife.

In human-animal conflicts, there is little reflection on the role of people in inciting a wild animal

Anyone scanning the headlines for the past month would conclude that India is in the throes of irrevocable human-wildlife conflict. In this time period, a tiger was crushed by a JCB machine near Corbett while a mob screamed on, a leopard was burnt in Sariska by a crowd which also stoned forest department personnel, and a 33-member herd of elephants is being teased daily by a mob in Athgarh, Odisha.

Close encounters

In the encounters between a wild animal and a group of people, there are casualties on both sides. The question is, is conflict truly irrevocable? In several cases of conflict this year, it has been noted that groups of people have prevented the forest department from carrying out its duties. Rather than only focussing on a wild, snarling animal, a greater understanding of crowd dynamics is also called for.

A group of people is often defined as a mob if the group becomes unruly or aggressive. One must also consider if the mob has a collective conscience or whether it simply follows the cues by leaders within it. How it gets composed, and what it wants are also important.

After a leopard entered a school in Bengaluru last year, a group of about 5,000 people surrounded the school. The fact that it is dangerous to be in the vicinity of a panicked leopard is belied only by the absurdity of the fact that most wanted to see the animal and take pictures. In the case of elephants in Athgarh, conservationists have documented a mob of people attacking the elephants almost daily. Activists say this is a form of entertainment for the people concerned, as the elephants are not always harming people. While there is potential for serious conflict or injury, the mob also feels safe in its numbers.

Other mobs that have gathered around wildlife have clamoured for instant ‘justice’, gratification or resolution — in the form of killing the animal, beheading it, or parading it after its death. In Sariska last month, a leopard, blamed for killing a man, was burnt alive; the mob also hurt forest department officials. In a case last November, a leopard was bludgeoned to death in Mandawar, Haryana. The symbolic control of an animal by killing it and then parading the carcass has not escaped judicial attention. A December order of the Uttarakhand High Court said that if animals were (legally) put down, their dead bodies could not be displayed or shown in the media.

But in perhaps the most visceral and tragic human-wildlife conflict of recent times, a tiger was crushed by a JCB near Corbett after a mob demanded ‘justice’ for deaths. Two people from a labour camp working in forests near Corbett died after being reportedly attacked by the tiger. The forest department was caught in a human conflict situation — a crowd of people did not allow officials to do their difficult job of catching the tiger. The terrain was undulating. In its haste, the forest department brought in a JCB to capture the animal. The JCB attempted to ‘pick up’ the tiger, akin to sandpaper being used to snatch up a protesting butterfly. The results were gruesome — the tiger was hit repeatedly by the JCB, and crushed to death, all part of its ‘rescue’. In a video made documenting this, one can clearly hear a group of people around the animal, with a voice shouting “dabao, dabao” (press it down).

Human-human conflict

The Corbett story is telling. When going into an area inhabited by an obligate carnivore like a tiger, very few precautions are taken. Most labour camps are not provided with protocol, proper toilets, or monitoring to avoid work in the early morning or late night, and to move about only in groups.

Many cases of conflict or aggression towards animals are exacerbated by carelessness and existing human-human conflict or tensions. The question is also linked to control and which groups or classes are interested in being dominant. In 2012, when a tiger was spotted near Lucknow, members and volunteers of the Samajwadi Party declared they would catch it. This was framed as ‘public interest’. Needless to add, one needs training, not bravado, to catch a wild tiger.

The discourse around a wild animal, especially as it comes closer to people or human habitation, is that it is a criminal, a rogue, a stray, or a killer. There is, however, very little reflection on the role of people in inciting a wild animal.

We need proper cordoning off of areas when wildlife comes close to people, with animal capture being done with full police involvement and not just with a helpless forest department. We need investigations and action against groups that deliberately incite a panicked wild animal. To not do so would be to allow future situations to become even more dangerous; and to privilege revenge over solutions.

A general mob mentality is on the rise in India. Mobs are involved in attacks related to race, food preferences, and various forms of moral policing. In the face of such ‘mobocracy’, does wildlife stand a chance?

This first appeared in The Hindu.

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