Urbanisation and so-called growth needs to be balanced with the calls from nature that are already loud and clear, to save the Earth for posterity
When we arrived at Makaibari, it was stunning. Makaibari is admittedly, and certified, the best tea garden in the world. Makaibari, the first tea garden and factory set up outside China by a Bengali princely family in 1859, just two years after the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. Makaibari, whose Silver Tips tea variety sells for Rs 64,800 per kg, and is exclusively made on demand.
But meet Rajah Banerjee, the last owner of the four-generation, family-held property.
“It is about the flavour in life, not the flavour in the balance sheet,” he said with his mesmeric and permanent smile, which is only replaced now and then by an uproarious laughter. In his khaki horse riding dress, which he wears every day to the garden in the morning, he at first sounded something of a fraud.
We had been sent to Darjeeling by the WWF Eastern Regional Centre for studying the use of pesticides in tea gardens. And we had been suggested that one Swaraj Kumar Banerjee, aka Rajah Banerjee, does not use pesticides at all.
Though he sounded like a bit of a big talker in our first meeting, he asked us to a walk in the garden. Down from the double-storied office opposite the factory, we took a turn into a forest path and were immediately greeted by large cobwebs.
“Cobwebs? That means there cannot be any pesticide anywhere nearby,” I said.
“Yeah, yeah… cobwebs… my wife put them up for you people as a show last night,” he said and jerked into a cynical laughter.
As we walked by, with small villages sprinkled through the densely forested area, we found children, all healthy, quite poor though, playing around squash trees and a smallish variety of cows and range free chicken at their own affairs.
It struck me then that we were in a Panchavati.
For one, the villages were within the forests, not outside. And that is the basic concept of the Panchavati. More spiritual minded people will remember that Panchavati was also the place where Lord Ram, with wife Sita and brother Laxman, lived in during their exile. But why did the historian of Ramayana, Rishi Valmiki, specifically mention Panchavati?
In fact, though Panchavati has become famous as the abode of Lord Ram in exile, it is not exclusive to that.
The concept of Panchavati is this:
The village is within the forest, and the principal trees are the five ficus group plants: a grove with five trees —Banyan, Bael, Amalaki, Ashoka, and Peepul. In fact, Ramakrishna Paramhans also did his meditation in a panchavati in Bengal. But why is a Panchavati important?
Because the ficus group is a keystone species. “A keystone species is a species that has a disproportionately large effect on its environment, relative to its abundance. Such species are described as playing a critical role in maintaining the structure of an ecological community, affecting many other organisms in an ecosystem and helping to determine the types and numbers of various other species in the community.
“Figs are the keystone species in many tropical forest ecosystems. Their fruit is a key resource for some frugivores including fruit bats, and primates including: capuchin monkeys, langurs, gibbons and mangabeys. They are even more important for birds such as Asian barbets, pigeons, hornbills, fig-parrots and bulbuls, which may almost entirely subsist on figs when these are in plenty. Many Lepidoptera caterpillars feed on fig leaves, for example, several Euploea species (crow butterflies), the plain tiger (Danaus Chrysippus), the giant swallowtail (Papilio cresphontes), the brown awl (Badamia exclamationis), and Chrysodeixis Eriosoma, Choreutidae and Copromorphidae moths.
“The citrus long-horned beetle (Anoplophora chinensis), for example, has larvae that feed on wood, including that of fig trees; it can become a pest in fig plantations. Similarly, the sweet potato whitefly (Bemisia tabaci) is frequently found as a pest on figs grown as potted plants and is spread through the export of these plants to other localities.”
Makaibari tea estate offers this wildlife variety, studied and recorded by national and international universities. But why has this happened?
Because the Banerjee family, feted globally, has shed greed. Unlike all other Darjeeling tea gardens, they have retained two-thirds of their entire estate under primary forests, and only one-third is under tea. Rajah Banerjee sits in office from 8.00 am till around 10, organising his business. Then he sets out on foot to walk eight to ten kilometres around the various sections of his garden, talking to and joking with his workers. He inspects not just the health of the tea bushes, but also keenly watching the wildlife. Every Monday morning, he holds a meeting of his forest rangers. Each of them tells him what kind of bird, insect or animal he has seen over the past week. All that goes into a massive, black register. It is what Agenda 21 calls the biodiversity inventory. No one in Darjeeling does this, except him. “It is about the flavour of life, not the flavour in the balance sheet.”
Over eight years, we studied the garden and the man.
When we told him that he was living in a Panchavati and had actually implemented Agenda 21, he said he had not known all that. “We have just noted the problems and resolved them. If that is Agenda 21, why don’t you prepare a note for that for me.
“Let’s go to Bharatpur or Corbett. It will be a relief for us and Joyee can be exposed to wildlife. I think it will cost a bit, but it will be well worth it, and we can come back on Sunday for office on Monday,” said Missus.
That is the problem. The cost she is counting is money. The cost we are paying is that we are no longer anywhere near a forest, let alone a Panchavati. The cost is that ten-year-old Joyee does not know where her milk comes from. She says it is from Mother Diary! And all she knows about wildlife is Lion King, or a smattering of what is shown in Animal Planet.
The flavour is now in the balance sheet, and life is lost.
In Odisha last month, a four-hundred-year-old temple of Panchuvarahi – a form of Devi Chandika had to be shifted 12 kilometres inland from its original place by the Bay of Bengal. Why? Sea level rise was threatening to engulf it.
Sheikh Rokon, the head of the Dhaka-based Riverine People, a collective of river experts, is worried that the rivers of Bangladesh are dying, and he reports on them every day in his Facebook account.
The Member of Parliament from Guwahati is unable to deal with the annual flooding and erosion of the Brahmaputra.
The Union of Concerned Scientists writes in their website: “The Sundarbans of India and Bangladesh is the world’s largest mangrove forest. Accelerating sea-level rise due to global warming is likely to submerge the Sundarbans. This would eliminate the protection they provide against the region’s increasingly intense tropical storms.
By absorbing some of the force of wind and waves and serving as a flood barrier, mangroves can lessen the damage caused by cyclones and other storms.
In early 2010, a disputed Sundarbans island disappeared under the rising waters of the Bay of Bengal. Scientists project that under a high emissions scenario, the relative sea-level rise is likely to inundate most of the Sundarbans by mid-century, and could wipe them out by the end of the century.
Without the mangroves of the Sundarbans to serve as a buffer, more frequent and intense storms are likely to pose a growing danger to the residents of Ganges basin including cities like Kolkata.”
Case Study: Sunderbans
Not just Kolkata, but even Dhaka and other cities closer to the Bay of Bengal.
Recently, The Guardian reported: “A vast mangrove forest shared by India and Bangladesh that is home to possibly 500 Bengal tigers is being rapidly destroyed by erosion, rising sea levels and storm surges, according to a major study by researchers at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and others.
The Sundarbans forest took the brunt of super cyclone Sidr in 2007, but new satellite studies show that 71% of the forested coastline is retreating by as much as 200 metres a year. If erosion continues at this pace, already threatened tiger populations living in the forests will be put further at risk.”
But so what if the tiger fades away? Again, the tiger is a keystone species and top of the heap of the food chain. Its vanishing will mean an excessive growth of other species which the tiger feeds on. That means they would invade the local villages, just as elephants are doing in North Bengal and Assam, damaging crops, killing people.
“They will have to fell 30,000 trees to construct the remaining 60 km of the Eastern Peripheral Highway,” says Dinesh Patel, a colleague. Already, 3,000+ trees have been felled for just the eight-kilometre stretch that has been built. Delhi will become less polluted, but the surrounding areas more polluted and in turn, send their pollution back to Delhi.
“Kinnaur apples are now not growing in Kinnaur, strictly speaking,” Dr Archita Bhatta, a science communication specialist says, based on her dissertation for Leeds University, UK. “They used to grow at 6,000 feet, but the weather has become so hot that they now grow at a much higher altitude.” This is what climate scientists call vegetation shift, and it has major consequences for the ecology, economy and the lifestyle of a vast majority of the farm-based communities.
“Unless we save the Himalaya, the entire north of India will be destroyed,” says the famous environmentalist and village-economy specialist Dr Anil Joshi. “But everyone wants to grab more and more land, encroach into the hills and forests,” says he. Up in the hills in Dhanaulty, bang on the roadside, a hotel announces that it has a swimming pool. Where does the water come from? Where does the used and old water go?
Amita Chawla, who owns and runs a resort in Uttarakhand has some of his rooms fitted with AC. But why does one need AC in the hills? “You don’t know these tourists. I was walking in the lawns one winter morning and I found one guest running his AC. They will ask for two extra blankets, but they need their AC on!”
That really is the problem.
So is there no alternative? If one sacrifices avarice and starts thinking straight, there is. Take Dr Joshi’s sterling contribution of remodelling the gharat, or the waterwheel.
There are innumerous hill streams in Uttarakhand and other hill states. Dr Joshi has moderated the traditional waterwheel to use the running water from the streams to run the waterwheels. By the day, these gharats are used for running masala grinders dehusking of rice and wheat. By the night, the conveyor belt of the same gharat is tagged onto a turbine which generates power for the villagers.
“In the hills, we do not need power during the day since everyone is out working. In the evening, we do not need fans, since it is already cool, and we light our lamps and watch television.”
But Chawla’s guests need AC even during their winter sojourns to his resort! This is the real killer: human ego! We now need to revert back to the flavour in life and not in the balance sheet to get somewhere closer to Mother Nature.
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