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Vol. XXXIII No. 15, November 16-30, 2023

Green Sense and Sensibility

-- by Shobha Menon

The magnificent Kanakachampa or Muchukunda tree (Pterospermum acerifolium) at the corner of the busy IT corridor in Chennai gave way to the traffic juggernaut over a decade ago. But scientist and tree lover Dr. Mahadeshwara Swamy still thinks about its luxurious bounty of fragrant flowers and swaying branches. Not even 1 per cent of the hordes of citizens milling around was even aware of the loss. The tree was not replaced by its destroyers, either. Meanwhile, senior citizen Sarala’s relentless quest to source plants from her childhood has been mostly unsuccessful.

Intensive research carried out in Bengaluru on understanding the different spaces within the city – streets, parks, lakes, home gardens, slums and sacred spaces – revealed that its biodiversity patterns are shaped by the preferences of people for specific type of vegetation, which in turn attracts certain kinds of animal and insect species. Such data is unavailable for any other Indian city.

Landscape horticulturist P. Hariesh says, “When I began my career over 30 years ago, the choice of plants was limited. It could be either Hibiscus or Ixora in home gardens and the sourcing of plants was only twice a year. Existing varieties adapted well, and there were totally only about 40 to 50 varieties of trees and shrubs. Now more exotic varieties are being brought in. Since people need more change, we choose species that are least attacked by pest and disease, that do not need much care, and are ‘easy to maintain’. The indigenous Hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa sinensis) is often disturbed by the mealy bug and appears to be on its way out. So also the pinwheel flower (Tabernaemontana divaricata), which is likely to attract the leaf folding pest. Once, the most popular avenue trees were the Rain Tree, Gul Mohur and Tamarind. Now roads have shrunk. So small or ‘thin’ trees, such as the Red Cordia and other hybrid varieties are being chosen. Trouble-free, low maintenance, ‘least-watering’ is the new mantra!”

Ecosystem goods and services, often shortened to ecosystem services (ES), are the benefits that humans receive from nature. Sadly, we are not always conscious of the links between the surrounding environment and our well-being. Many of the decisions we make, from the development of community infrastructure, to the management of land surrounding our communities, impact the provision of ES. These are services that produce the many life-sustaining benefits we receive from nature – clean air and water, fertile soil for crop production, pollination, and flood control. Though these services are important to environmental and human health and well-being, they are mostly taken for granted.

Veteran botanist and academician Dr P. Dayanandan, rues, “As the population in cities continually increased, lakes gave way to high rises and the plants associated with them have gone away, as have the animals. The rate of development is more intense now. As long as urban areas increase, plants will not be taken care of. Gardens are fast becoming an elitist pastime. Everything is related to the economy. A sensitive government needs to play a bigger role. Why will politicians take care of green spaces if a flyover makes more money? Only sustained citizen action can help to ensure political pressure.”

Currently, the proportion of exotic species is greater. As young mom Priya says, “There are not many trees on our street besides Rain trees, Copper Pods and Gul Mohurs.” In Bengaluru, close to 80 per cent of the trees found in parks are not local (Nagendra and Gopal 2011). Native bird species are codependent on native vegetation for feeding as shown in Delhi (Khera, Mehta and Sabata 2009). Invasive species like the thorny lantana (lantana camara), originally introduced as an ornamental plant for gardens, have spread from cities to engulf dry forest in the surrounding countryside. 

As new ‘pest free’ entrants replace the old for intensively manicured and landscaped gardens, ‘pretty’ hybrids are foisted onto unsuspecting customers who cannot differentiate between a herb or a shrub. Grassy lawns ‘fit better’ into aesthetics compared to biodiverse gardens! The rapidity of change just spills over into the bewildering imposition of choice. 

 Ecologist and ethnobotanist Dr. P. Arumougame shares, “Our indigenous flora facilitate healthier and wealthier ecosystems! When we replace (knowingly or unknowingly) the natural and indigenous flora of our region with exotic species, we facilitate a dangerous imbalance in our environment that struggles to accommodate alien plant species. If the tiny micro organisms in the soil (that help to recycle nutrients into simple molecules) stop ‘working’ for a few weeks, all life as we know it will disappear. Unfortunately, research in these areas is lacking. Soil research on impact of exotics is crucial. Awareness needs to be spread in local languages so the message is translated into effective action.” 

 Cities have a wide enough range of social complexities and challenges. Does allowing them to impose on urban nature come naturally to us, or are we allowing our inabilities and conveniences to engineer a more unsafe future? Can we choose to impact the present in sustainable ways, even if we cannot make any sense at this point? 

The patterns and impacts of change that snowball into every city’s environmental moments decide the composition of green cover and the urban commons. The importance of nature has changed in people’s perceptions. But is it that the average citizen just feels helpless to make a difference or that they do not care? And so, the primary question remains: Can each of us do something to heal our cities? In spite of all the experts and research papers and theories, the sensitive greening of a city might just depend on a tsunami of diligent citizen action. From each beautiful, sensitive, green mind!

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