Monday, July 03, 2006
Trees in Calcutta
The city, trees & people - explorations in urban ecology
People and trees exist together. Wherever there were shops or other establishments, the trees grew very well. In their absence the number of trees was rather low. If the trees along the road-sides had to survive, the involvement of the local people was absolutely necessary. People had an interest and stake in the trees. They protected and nurtured them - and had evolved sophisticated mechanisms for this: raised platforms to increase the soil at the base; fences around younger trees; religious symbols ... Trees in urban areas play an important role in fulfilling the religious needs of the people. This is a continuation of the human-tree relationship one observes in rural and indigenous communities of India. If the people worshipped a particular tree, its survival was totally assured.
The greater the shade offered by the tree, the more the linkage with people. Thus, for instance, there would inevitably be more than one small entrepreneur working in the shade. The shaded spaces beneath the trees were not 'open' spaces; they were 'owned' by specific people - a barber, a cobbler, or a seller of sattu. A truly symbiotic relationship existed between the tree and the persons using its shade. If a new person desired to set up something in that space, this had to be negotiated with the 'owner'. Even the trunks of the trees were used extensively. A barber would, typically, fix his mirror on the trunk, and seat his client on a small stool in front of this. A range of small entrepreneurs and manufacturers, would use the trunk to advertise their products and services. Trees play a very important role in the life of the unorganised sector, of workers, humble people, people who cannot afford to own proper 'shops' or 'establishments'. Trees enable even these people to do an honest day's work and survive in the city. If these trees are cut, it drastically hits these humble people, who use the shade for livelihood.
In a city like Calcutta, where we have a large segment of society that has low incomes, this includes both suppliers and buyers of goods and services - who need each other. The humble seller and the humble buyer. And both of them are brought together under the protective shade of the tree. Poor people's connection to nature and to biodiversity is very strong. Nature and human society converge in the city space. Trees are part of the social life of the city. And there is a remarkable persistence, over the years, of this human-tree association. This convergence of nature and society is the basis for 'urban ecology'.
We should be talking about common property resources in the city - which is what the shaded spaces under the trees are! What all this suggests is that when trees are planted in our cities, we need to bear the tree-people relationship in mind, and enable maximal linkages and associations. Let the trees provide opportunities for activities. Specifically, this means that large canopy evergreen trees - instead of purely ornamental trees, conforming to someone's notion of 'aesthetics' - should be planted. The species that would appear to be best suited to serve all these functions is the native, evergreen, fast-growing banyan. Some ecologists have suggested that a mixed species plantation may serve ecological functions better than monospecies plantation. In that case, a mix of banyan, pipal and neem would be ideal. All these three species are also worshipped by people. They bear edible fruits for the birds, and provide excellent nesting facilities. An urban system that took this subject seriously, would study the growth rate of different species, and arrive at an optimal set of species that would best serve people's needs without interfering with anything else.
We can also move from trees to biomass resources at large. Grass, edible wild shrubs and plants, fuelwood, grazing... Nature provides a huge amount of subsidy to the poor, in the very heart of the city. Has anybody paid serious attention to the significance of the biomass resources of the city?
Unless those who have some sensitivity to the life and living conditions of the city's humble folk intervene in the planning process, the city's development can all too easily become inimical to their survival - all talk of 'participation' notwithstanding. Genuine participation should, by definition, involve all sections of the city's people. The poor are the strongest stakeholders in the green city.
Extracted from Prof KC Malhotra's article.