In Conversation with Ravi Khanna, philosopher and tree lover.
‘People who have wild ideas about how to run this Earth, ought to start with a small garden.’ This is a quote I came across in the brochure for a rose garden, in the Qutab farmland area, 35 years ago. Today, all this pristine and accessible land is home to motels, banquet halls and unauthorised village sprawls. The traffic snarls extend for miles and the air is as foul as it is in the rest of the city.
Traffic is definitely a problem in Delhi. Any thoughts on that?
It is unfortunate that so little thought has gone into the planning of Delhi. The reason for the chaos in Delhi is a lack of vision. Another problem is corruption, with the assignation of projects being dependent less on the needs of the city and more on which civic work will be the most lucrative for those who want their pockets lined. For example, the BRT bus corridor is a complete failure while the Ring Road planned by Nehru is so beautiful and useful for the city even now.
Not only is the BRT corridor unlikely to ease the suffering of the Delhi commuter, the number of trees that have been cut for the corridor is very distressing. Although it is true that trees have a finite life, that some are cut while others die a natural death, that the green cover can be replanted, a careful evaluation of the impact of their destruction for a particular project requires to be done. We need to find more people who are sensitive to the environment, who will work on large projects while ensuring the green cover is not unnecessarily destroyed.
Do any such projects come to mind?
The Metro is just such a project, although I question the need for the overground Metro station platform in Lajpat Nagar – it’s very clear that it should have been underground and not elevated since there are beautifully planned green areas there. The cost would have been Rs 800 crore to put it all underground, which at first thought seems like a large sum but could easily have been collected by levying a one-rupee surcharge on fuel for example. What we need is a system of self-checks and balance.
Where does the tree figure in this?
The tree is fundamentally important to save the environment and I would like to take a look at the way Vedic teachings venerate the tree. The tree is treated as a composite of all the three Shaktis – that is Shri Lakshmi, Usha and Saraswati. The three sibilants sh, shh and sa of the Sanskrit alphabet are represented in these three names. These alphabets are the oshna or energy sounds. Shri is the sound that belongs to accountability. It is diminished by giving. The wooden trunk of a tree is representative of this consumable form of energy. Usha is the Shakti that replenishes itself – such as the sunlight, flowing water in the river and leaves of the tree which naturally belong to this regenerative realm. Saraswati is that energy that increases by giving – the lighting of lamps, the spread of knowledge and the abundant fruits and seeds of plants and trees constitute this Shakti. It is this relentless, increasing magnitude of Saraswati that leads one to the fourth sibilant of ooshna, which is ha, the aspirate, which represents Brahman, the Unknown. The banyan tree (Ficus bengalensis) is considered the abode of Brahman, as the tree keeps expanding its base by dropping aerial roots which give it its majestic expanse, sometimes to the extent that the central trunk is indistinguishable. The plant kingdom automatically and very naturally embraces the rhythms of the universe and exists equally at all three levels of Shakti. It takes from the surroundings exactly what it requires through its intricate network of roots and branches and gives back to nature more than it absorbs. It lives symbiotically with thousands of bacteria, fungi, ants, birds – seeding the rain with its water evaporation and constantly converting noxious carbon dioxide in the air to nurturing oxygen.
This is exactly the rhythm village life was patterned on. The ancients understood that the animal kingdom lives largely by consumption, swinging substantially towards Shri Lakshmi as its inherent nature. The other two Shaktis are present in small quantities in animals, to the extent of replenishing the daily wear and tear of their bodies. For a start, the ancients accumulated Saraswati, the knowledge of the rhythms of the universe, and passed them on from generation to generation by rote and chant. As time progressed stable settlements were formed after the nomadic experience. The village culture was then intricately knit into the two Ushas, the two lights – that of the sun and the moon.
The women of the village lived by both, using the two hemispheres of the brain to give emotional balance to the internal life of the family. They lived by the lunar calendar, using it to coordinate fasts and feasts. The Puran Mashi (full moon), Ganesh Chaturthi (important Ganesh festival held in Mumbai), Karwa Chauth (fast for married women for the well-being of their husbands) and Ekadashi (fasts on the 11th day of the 14-day lunar cycle) are all fixed according to the phases of the moon.
The men used the right hemisphere of the brain and so were practical, lived by the sun and the seasons and were given responsibilities outside the house. They provided food by tilling the fields and by hunting. They also protected the women and children from predators.
To bring you back to the tree – how is this beautiful metaphor of village life linked to the tree?
The metaphor of a village was that of the interlinked, non-linear biochemistry of the tree and its cells – most agricultural waste was fodder for cows and buffaloes, which provided people with milk to drink and cow dung as fertiliser. Important resources such as the river, trees and fire were deified to conserve them. And disease was battled with herbs and prevented through yoga.
Then the population grew and spaces shrank. Ordered life gave way to chaos and the Yuga changed. Mantra gave way to tantra, and with it came invasions, pillage and mass migrations. The need for fortifications arose and the first cities took shape. They were primitive, polluted and prone to disease. This then lead to the era of yantra and man started constructing momentous monuments. His creature comforts and aspirations to grandeur became very important. His life turned to the external and was once again ruled largely by Shri Lakshmi. The cities as a result became linear and were driven by rapid and rampant industrialization with life becoming increasingly defined through material acquisitions. The new metaphor for the city was now the ‘machine’. All machines are based on linear principles: cause and effect – I push the pencil and it moves. But nature is non-linear; the cause does not immediately have an effect, it takes its own time to manifest.
If nature is non-linear then does the principle of cause and effect not apply to nature?
Processes are cyclical in the world of nature, so that the effects are fed back to the original causes through various loops of energy. As a result, seemingly small inputs suddenly show up as huge consequences. Edward Lorentz discovered this while studying world weather patterns in 1963. Lorentz showed how very small changes in weather patterns could precipitate huge changes thousands of miles away. He coined the phrase, ‘the butterfly effect’ whereby ‘a small butterfly flapping its wings in Peking could change the weather in New York’. This was prophetic indeed because the ‘El Nino factor’ is now legendary. A small current in the Pacific has been empirically found to affect global weather patterns.
How can this help solve the mess that is our city?
Firstly, we must create more feedback loops to clear the environment chaos. This process has begun as courts have become proactive and support public interest litigation (PIL) made by concerned citizens. The compressed natural gas (CNG) enforcement for public vehicles, the resident welfare associations (RWA) fighting against the commercial corruption of their streets and NGOs fighting for the survival of trees are examples of these.
Additionally, we need think tanks looking at out-of-the-box solutions. Many such ideas could be the ‘butterfly effect’ for major improvements. An Indian Oil (the Indian Oil building in Madangir, where every window has a shade that is a solar panel) or an ITC can create the example of world renowned ‘green’ buildings. All these are seeds of change being sowed in our metropolis. Just as NGOs have worked relentlessly to change the mindset of the young with regard to water conservation or banning the burning of Diwali crackers, we must increase their interest in, and knowledge of trees. Kew Gardens in London attracts huge numbers of schoolchildren and I remember them staring in awe at the amazing collection of tropical and temperate plants in large glasshouses. We could apply this to our city and perhaps adopt the Deer Park or the green belt along the Yamuna and turn them into beautiful botanical gardens which could be self-sustaining tourist locations. We have only one Sundar Nagar nursery, which is an amazing nursery – let us make two such nurseries and have a more vigorous environment. The British did their research well and planted shade-giving trees along the roads – trees such as tamarind and jamun. But we could plant trees with fragrant flowers – why do we plant cassia when we could plant kachnar, karaunda, jungli ber? They are all hardy and do not require regular watering.
Is there anything we Delhiites could learn from other cities?
We should create more ‘hyper cycles’ of knowledge by learning from other cites. Lee Myung Bak of South Korea demolished an elevated highway and resurrected a buried water stream. He went against all conventions and jogged straight into the hearts of the environmentalists and voters of Seoul. Another example is the clearance initiative of the Maharashtra government. This act could be used sensibly to transform ‘unauthorized’ colonies where high-rise green building towers are built to accommodate the population and make room for desperately needed civic amenities. We have to go vertical to economize on space in the city.
Is there hope for the environment?
The great thing about nature is that it is regenerative – it is something that cannot be destroyed by corruption. Even cement and mortar change, but not nature. We simply need the right thought processes, and the resources will follow. Designs can be such that nothing is wasted or pollutes the atmosphere. The moment there are five such buildings, buildings that are financially viable as well as environmentally sound, everyone will want to emulate them. Corruption will be replaced by the need for competitive profit, which is quite legitimate. All this should take about 20 years for the processes to correct themselves. People will understand how to coalesce and create structures that improve everyone’s quality of life.
The real winds of change emanate from each individual citizen. It is we who have to think. To think whether it is necessary to make that trip or use that plastic bag, thus bringing about the quiet revolution that will in turn feed into the greater picture, thereby influencing the underlying serendipity.
A splendid example of a banyan tree is Timmamma Marimanu in Anantpur district, Andhra Pradesh, spread over 7 acres and propped up by 1,500 aerial roots.