(with thanks and apologies to Gieve Patel, whose On Killing a Tree (1966) was model, inspiration and organic root-stub from which this poem and post grew!)
I remember reading Gieve Patel’s powerful On Killing a Tree in class 9 or 10. I don’t recall much about our poetry classes (then part of what we used to call English Lit II) except that I didn’t much care for them. The slick-haired, pretentious teacher didn’t help any. Nor did the mostly Lake-District Romantic poems chosen for our ICSE curriculum. (Although I will admit that Wordsworth’s Daffodils did strike a chord with us, even though not one among us had laid eyes on real daffodils or narcissi in the fields). But this poem, Gieve Patel’s poem, was memorable. One of two by Indian poets — other one being Nissim Ezekiel’s Goodbye to Miss Pushpa TS — it reached out and grabbed you then. And re-reading it all these years later, it reaches out and grabs you now.
Patel, writing ironically in the 1960s, might have seen the effects of development projects burgeoning in post-Independence, pro-infrastructure but still largely socialist India. Now, in a hardened and hardening 21st C, India’s ‘growth’ policies post liberalization in the 1990s are a very different ball game. With trees and tree policies, things have never been more difficult, nor has the very concept of environmental protection been at greater risk. The planet is burning and warming at an astonishing rate of close to 3 degrees C a year (say the new COP26 People’s Policy figures) – and our greed and dependence on fossil fuels are both rampant and reckless. The agreements hammered out at COP26 have been an abject failure in breaking that cycle and moving to renewables. And as we all know now, (post the protests and peoples’ movements taking to the streets) the world’s governments have failed us, and have especially failed the global south. The suits are killing us. They are killing the trees. And in killing the trees, they sound our death knell many times over. If they go, we go. Its as simple – or complex – as that.
This, then, is the new green development. And in response, this is the new green resistance. For the last two years, we have been trying to save a stretch of 1000+ stately, gorgeous banyan trees (along with 9000 other species) on the Chevella-Bijapur road just outside Hyderabad. They were –correction, they are (for they are still alive) — slated for the axe due to an ill-conceived NHAI road-widening project determined to destroy them in four-laning the old state highway (S4) into the gleaming new NH163. The mature trees lining the road are seen – in this development mindset – as mere obstacles, to be razed to the ground and cast aside. No matter that these extraordinary banyans are keystone species; entire ecosystems in themselves, home to myriad species of birds, bees, slugs, bugs, bats, small mammals, fungi, and more. In our petitions and representations to key stakeholders and those in power, we include a list of the more than 200 faunal species that might be affected if a single tree falls. Talk about the ‘ecological value’ of these irreplaceable banyans! In India today, especially under this dispensation, such wanton environmental destruction seems legion. Roads are more important than trees, even in states that pride themselves on their green policies, their green statuses, and so on. Take, for example, Hyderabad’s new green award from the FAO Council as the only Indian city to be given such an honour. Even as it sharpens its axes and its chainsaws to take down its oldest trees. Even as it puts in place tree protection committees that in reality help the process of plunder in the language of this era’s new greenwash. Even as it defines new ways in which compensatory afforestation – within a state law of water, land and trees (WALTA) that is more regulatory than prohibitive/punitive – can work to facilitate the destruction of mature trees when they get in the way! This is a well-oiled machine, an organized tree-felling system, institutionalized with all the Weberian bureaucratic rational-legal authority of an iron cage. We are all part of these pinjras, some of us outside locking up, some of us trapped inside.
Largely out of frustration, I began to write this poem below on how much easier it seems today to fell a tree rather than keep it. Patel’s classic poem fell out of some neural fold in my cortex, unbidden, like a worn bookmark, as memory and as model. And I felt both relief and satisfaction in calling out the tree-felling system and its functionaries.
On Felling a Tree, 2021
(With apologies and thanks to Gieve Patel, whose poem was model, inspiration as well as organic root-stub from which this one grew!)
In this Anthropocenic 21st century
It takes much much less time to fell a tree
Customs galore and rituals aplenty
Differ state to state, and mentor to mentee
In, for example, ma Telangana
You don’t even need to hate the trees as bahaana
In fact, if you’re a government employee
You can rely on greenwash bureaucracy
Use loopholes in WALTA’s tree planting rules
To hoodwink residents and appeal to fools
Make tree revenue the new game in town
Call your green policy Telangana ku Haritha Haram
Plant 5 puny saplings for each huge tree that comes down
Then refrain from replanting (‘cos hey, who’s counting).
Give all your contracts to transplanting firms
As that’s where the business is: first felling
Then transplanting stubs in a haze of shh, who’s telling.
After that, its easy – refuse to share any tree survival data
A transplanted tree rarely survives or has betis or betas
When someone questions you, just flex those muscles
And say you – not them – are the real tree-savers.
Meanwhile, apply to make your town the new Green City
Because (at least on paper) that’s what counts
Create a TPC, a tree protection committee
Which, in theory, is neutral but, in practice, packs touts.
And then, prepare! When activists are able to successfully pause
An ill-planned NHAI road-widening project,
Take on NH163 as your pet Deccani cause
Just wait for pandemic lockdowns when everyone’s ill
Start by stealth-burning some trees to test the ground
If nobody checks you, you’re home scot-free.
Acquire land alongside, let real estate skyrocket
Ethics don’t matter; its not coming out of your pocket.
Target the banyans to show that you really don’t care
A fig about species or heritage. Or, for that matter, trees.
You just follow the rules, or (like Watergate’s Deep Throat) you follow the money
So that when the center finally gives you the dough
You plan to greenlight the road; the ending’s not funny
But you’re no sad slouches, you are hard-hearted pros
So one question you ask is – Whose trees are they anyway?
Who cares that they green cover or carbon sequesterate?
Climate change is here already, hello, its the trees that are late!
With banyans, you can take down more than just trees
You can destroy whole ecosystems for birds, slugs and bees
At one fell stroke, kill hordes to drive your point home.
That’ll show them all roads do not lead to Rome.
After all, (in your book), how does such a precious tree universe matter
When NH163’s just trying to get us to Bijapur faster?