Protect the green gold

Oct 25, 2015, 06:00 IST | Anand Pendharkar

It’s festive-time all year round in Mumbai. Starting with Nag Panchami in June, the city witnessed Ramzan, followed by Ganesh Chaturthi

It’s festive-time all year round in Mumbai. Starting with Nag Panchami in June, the city witnessed Ramzan, followed by Ganesh Chaturthi.

Last week saw Navratri and Dussehra. Come November, we will have Diwali, followed by Christmas, Makar Sankranti, Mahashivratri and Holi. These festivities make a huge impact on the air, water, soil quality/availability and noise levels. This puts pressure on various departments of the city administration such as the BMC, police, RTO and MPCB. But, what about the effects on urban biodiversity? This seems to be nobody’s concern.

The Kachnar flower
The Kachnar flower

While animal right activists compete with right-wing politicians over animal killings for the palate, citing counter religious and ethical reasons, no one stands up for our benign trees. No one seems to even blink when there has been an en mass suffocation, concretisation and hacking of trees in housing colonies, schools, along roads and even in playgrounds. The silence is even more deafening when lush, shade and oxygen-giving trees are hacked for wood to be burnt during Holi. Do we even realise that to make garlands or torans, we pluck out leaves from trees in the urban and semi-rural regions nearby?

The most common victims of this innocuous exploitation are mango, Asupalav or False Ashoka, Neem, Jamun, banana and the camel foot-leaved trees of Apta, Rakt Kanchan and Kachnar. Last Wednesday, I witnessed one of my beloved trees being hacked and ravaged in the middle of the night. I had planted a Kanchan tree in my building, five years ago. All of 22 feet, it currently had a full canopy and had just started to blossom into pink orchid-like flowers. I was aware that there would be leaf poachers. So, I was alert even in my sleep. But, by the time the sound of the axe jolted me awake, a massive branch had already been ripped out. Typically, four young boys had been recruited for the task, so that adults can absolve themselves of wrong doing. I caught them and tried to reason with them that they had confused my kanchan tree with the apta, Camel’s foot or gold leaf tree that they wanted. They broke into laughter and mocked me saying that they were aware it was the incorrect tree but the buyers are an ignorant lot.

The reality is that although the number of post-graduate, doctoral or international degree holders in this city has multiplied, those who can distinguish between a large-leaved kanchan (Bauhinia purpurea), a large-flowered kachnar (Bauhinia variegata) and small-leaved apta (Bauhinia racemosa) is still a handful. It is indeed interesting that these trees with twin leaflets which resemble the hooves of a camel or cow get their generic (Latin) name from the twin Swiss-French botanists, Bauhin brothers. They all have nitrogen-fixing properties as they belong to the family of leguminous plants and hence should be planted near crop-fields.

The Apta leaves are commonly used as an alternative to make bidis and the light furry stem, small cream-coloured flowers and white under-surface of the leaves helps distinguish it from the orchid-like flowering kanchan and kachnar. The myth that the Pandavs hid their weapons inside the shami or apta tree en route their exile and recovered them on the day of Dussera, and went along to capture great riches and gold, leads to the tree being considered the living gold tree.

The wood of the apta tree is useful for making handles of tools and weapons, besides for several medicinal preparations. The showy flowers and buds of kanchan and kachnar are used in decoration, as also for making decoctions or in curries and chutneys in North India.

Irrespective of size of its leaves, showy or drab flowers, the tree is large canopied or short and crooked, the Bauhinias are the true living gold that we must preserve. In a truly educated and modern spirit of Dussehra celebrations, educational institutions, housing colonies, orphanages, NGOs, corporate and government bodies must undertake plantation drives of the camel's foot trees. And in doing so, we shall achieve victory over the demons of pollution, destruction and urban decay.

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