The butchery of the banyans
How difficult is it, in the depths of the human spirit, to find an ounce of compassion, an iota of sensitivity, to Nature? This is a question we are forced to ask, after a few journeys along the roads from Mysore.
The roads from Mysore, leading west into Kodagu, and south towards the Biligirirangan Hills, are old roads. We know they are old, not from the road itself, or the people, certainly not from the speeding vehicles. We know it from the great trees growing by the side of the road for mile upon mile. These are grand Ficus trees, the fig trees we know as banyans, metres in girth and sprawling in canopy, planted and nurtured to life by some blessed soul centuries past. Today, they add the only uplifting aesthetics and rejuvenating shade to the otherwise bare and dour tar road. And yet, all along the roads, these huge, ancient, centuries-old banyan trees are now being hacked.
Winding through a picturesque countryside, taking little dips and turns and the contours of the Deccan plateau, towards the Western Ghats and other hill ranges, these roads seemed to sit gently on the landscape. There has always been ample space for vehicles, even large ones, between the trees on either side. And even as the vehicles plied back and forth, the trees were full of life. Indian Grey Hornbills and barbets and mynas come to feast on the luscious red fruits of the banyans, as do monkeys and squirrels. Myriad creatures feed, roost, mate, sing, rest, hunt, play, and sleep in the trees.
Yet, it is not just the animals that benefit. These are trees planted by people, primarily for people. From the scorching sun of the Indian summer, these trees offer dense, cool shade, the only respite from the heat in the open landscape. Many are the travelers—yes, there are many who even now travel on foot, bicycle, cart, and without air-conditioning—who rest in the shade and move on refreshed. And who cannot envy, or at least appreciate, in the heat of noon, the good fortune of this man, here, who has discovered the joy of a nap under the shade of a ficus tree.
Even as the man sleeps, a little distance away, village boys are busy, lopping a few branches of the banyan as fodder for their livestock.
Scaling the branches like little monkeys, they diligently lop a few choice branches, stack and tie their bundle for taking to their farm for their livestock.
When the trees are many, the lopping seems a minor matter, and the trees have perhaps borne the children and provided for livestock for centuries. But now, the trees are few, and as you read, they are becoming fewer. A massacre of the great trees has been underway along these roads for some time, and continues even now.
Here is a grand banyan being dismembered along the Mysore – Madikeri road.
This great tree is now gone. In the background, one can see a few sorry Australian Acacia auriculiformis and Eucalyptus trees—obnoxious alien species that can never muster even a fraction of the ecological importance or aesthetic grandeur of the banyan.
This is the scene from a few days ago on the Chamarajnagar – Asanur road, near Mysore.
Dwarfed by the massive stumps of the destroyed giants, the vehicles and people pass—apparently untouched and unrepentant.
And all along the roads the logs pile up but will not stay here for long—even when dead, the trees are too valuable and the lorry to take away the logs—the spoils of slaughter—is just round the corner.
We stop to talk to the people cutting the tree. They tell us that the order is passed by the Highways and Forest Departments to cut the trees. The order is passed—what a passive statement of active slaughter! They say the road will be made wider—another order has been passed, perhaps. They also think the trees are over 500 years old. They continue their work—swing their axes and pull at their saws, taking turns to rest, and to hack. Two men hold a rope tied to the top of the tree and pull taut, away from the sawyers at the base of the tree; it should not fall on them, or harm them, even in its fall. They saw away with zest.
It is just a day’s wage labour to obliterate the growth of centuries.
The extraordinary value of the fig trees is something the entire world of ecologists, particularly those from tropical countries, has come to appreciate. Fig fruits are a favourite food of many animals. Research has so far identified over 1200 species of animals to eat fruits of different Ficus species around the world.
Studies have also highlighted how, by fruiting copiously, producing tens of thousands of fruit on a single tree, often during seasons when other foods are scarce, figs are a critically important resource, labeled keystone resource or keystone species by ecologists. The remarkable relationship between the tiny fig wasps and the fig tree is the stuff of ecological legend and fascinating natural history. Anyone who has spent an hour under a fruiting banyan can attest to the life that such a tree brings to a landscape.
Why, then, do we need to cut these trees? Yes, we need roads, good roads; that is something most of us would not dispute. But what really is meant by a good road? Something that is more wide, more open, more homogeneous, and more barren in appearance, and, coincidentally of course, also requiring bigger contracts to be laid? Or something that is well surfaced, well marked with road signs, well integrated into the landscapes that it passes through? Studies have shown that roads with aesthetically pleasing vegetation, with grand trees on either side, even have positive, restorative effects on driver behaviour, reducing frustration on the road and perhaps making it a more enjoyable journey.
What manner of person, what kind of State, would perpetrate this horror, this butchery of the banyans, and that too apparently without hesitation, or a moment’s doubt? Needless to say, it is being done in the name of the Indian citizen and we ask: where are you, citizen, who wishes these great trees cut?
Is it too much to ask that trees such as this, which are markers of our country’s great natural and cultural history and heritage, be saved rather than sawed?