By Srinidhi Raghavan and Arpita Joshi
“One of our walks we came here suddenly and saw these flowers – oh my god, you know, that was such a lovely discovery! And now everyday I walk past it and I see the flowers – so this kind of thing where the flowers grow on the trunk is called cauliflory, like jackfruit how the fruit comes on the trunk.” I listen absolutely mesmerised as Sadhana points to the green bell-like slightly fleshy flower that seems to magically grow straight out of the trunk of the tall Calabash tree we are standing beside. We are at Indira Park, a public park situated in the heart of the city of Hyderabad. It is the period of respite between multiple lockdowns and having a chance to stretch our limbs and stand under the dimpled sunlight of the park is joyous luxury.
I am here to speak to Sadhana Ramachander about the Hyderabad Tree Enthusiasts group that she and her friend Kobita Das Kolli curate together. I have already met Kobita on a similar jaunt through the park a few days prior. Like with Sadhana, slipping into talking about trees was as easy as breathing. “The old trees which you can see even around you here in Indira Park – many of them have lost their tops and you know they’re kind of gnarled and misshapen and have fewer branches, but they still house a lot wildlife, it’s amazing”, she had said pointing to the older tired looking trees in the park.
Inception of the Hyderabad Tree Enthusiasts
Sadhana and Kobita first met in 2002 at the Vidyaranya High School, where their children were studying. On the invitation of Principal Shanta Rameshwar Rao, Sadhana had started taking nature appreciation classes for a set of students and was searching for other parents who might be interested in partnering in this process. Kobita, who had studied botany and is a self-identified nature lover, enthusiastically agreed and thus began the journey of working and learning together.
The Hyderabad Tree Enthusiasts group emerged from a couple of serendipitous opportunities, facilitated by other parents, to organise tree walks on college campuses and schools; and later, at the Hyderabad Literary Fest in 2016. “That was when Shyam Penubolu, one of the people who came for the walk, he started this group. He made us admins, and then slowly it started growing. Now we have almost 200 people in the group”, Sadhana shares. They initially explored all the local parks. “I think we started with the Kasu Brahmanandha Reddy Park and we didn’t even step into the park. We actually did the outer walkway and it was absolutely fascinating”, Kobita laughs and says. Since then, the group has expanded its exploration and longer drives, seasonal or scenic and even been to reserve forests.
So how do the walks proceed once they pick a spot? “We just walk in, we start with whichever tree catches our eye and then after that we just proceed with whatever catches anyone’s eye for that matter. It could be anything, you know, whether it’s tree bark or the flowers or a little shrub or an insect or bird”, Kobita explains. “We try normally to proceed at a fair pace so that we can finish a certain perambulation around the park, but there have been instances that we’ve done I think about maybe 30 to 40 feet in an hour and a half. (…) I mean you’re looking at a blade of grass, there’s an insect and then there is a dry leaf. There is, you know, a termite hill, there’s ‘n’ number of things happening. It can be very exciting!”
I know this to be true having discovered the group through one such walk where the hours passed in constant wonder as we wandered about looking at giant cannonball trees with their blushing flowers and large round fruits or the woody compacted seeds of the Mahogany. Sometimes we stood in silence under a canopy listening to the squirrels and bats go about their day and at others we discussed wildflowers and dragonflies spotted around the park. On the day we met, I share my excitement at having spotted an Indian Grey Hornbill at the park and Sadhana explained how the park was vital to their existence within the city, “The hornbills have a very specific relationship with various trees around and need a certain ecosystem in which to thrive. It is this ecosystem that Indira Park provides.”
The need for befriending trees
When I ask her why it might be a good idea to add tree-watching to one’s schedule Sadhana ponders and responds, “So people drive on the road, there are these rows and rows of beautiful flowering trees. They will not see them because they’re so immersed in their own everyday problems. My simple suggestion is ‘just look up’. Later on you get curious, you learn, you want to know the name. So I call it befriending a tree, the tree becomes your friend. And once the tree becomes your friend, you start observing that tree and then the friendship is complete. When you observe every stage of the tree: first you will notice when it flowers, after that you will see the pods, then you start seeing the leaves – what it does in different seasons. So once you observe all these things, then really that tree is your friend.” Later in the conversation she adds thoughtfully, “only when you care for something we want to protect it”.
Kobita adds, “It just makes for a very refreshing experience and it’s kind of rejuvenating. It enhances your senses and as DH Lawrence says there’s a sixth sense (DH Lawrence famously called a sense of wonder, our sixth sense). I think that makes a huge difference, it helps in creativity, paying attention. After that you have this feeling of well-being, of satisfaction at the end of the walk!”
The National Mental Health Survey in India (2015-2016) pointed to a greater prevalence of depression, anxiety across age groups, high suicide rates, substance use disorders and dementia in urban areas. In contrast Dr. Quing Li writes in his book Forest bathing: How trees can help you find health and happiness, ‘Wherever there are trees, we are healthier and happier’. The restorative and healing effects of the Japanese practice of shinrin yoku, or forest bathing has been validated by studies which show that the benefits of walking outdoors includes reduced depression, anxiety, anger and fatigue amongst others. Alongside the advantages we glean as individuals, green spaces are increasingly being recognised as one of the key ‘nature based solution’ to build resilience and intergenerational security within city design and planning.
Re-thinking development and securing our collective future
A 2016 study by Indian Institute of Science outlined how Hyderabad’s tree cover fell from 2.71% to 1.66% in the previous 20 years naming ‘population growth, economic, industrial developments in the city core and transportation development’ as the main causes for urban sprawl. This is a trajectory that is common to many growing Indian cities. As the climate crisis escalates, Indian cities are increasingly vulnerable to weather related disasters in the years ahead. Recognising this the Government of Telangana began the Telangana Ku Harithaharam programme under which there has been a strong emphasis on planting trees and developing parks through the Green Hyderabad initiative. This initiative has brought Hyderabad the distinction of being recognised as the only Indian city in 2020 to be listed and recognised under the Tree Cities of the World programme run by the UN FAO.
Yet there is more to the story. In 2019 and again in 2021, Sadhana and Kobita have found themselves fighting to save the Chevella Banyans – a row of 10,000 trees including a 1000 mature banyan trees that fringe the National Highway 163 connecting Hyderabad to Manneguda. The lane expansion project for the NH would mean the loss of an old established system of trees and the surrounding scrub land that are at the heart of a rich biodiverse system. The instagram handle of the Save Banyan’s of Chevella appeals for citizens to participate and points to Article 51-A (g), which says: ‘It shall be the duty of every citizen of India to protect and improve the natural environment including forests, lakes, rivers and wildlife and to have compassion for living creatures.’
“Our mission is to teach people to appreciate nature, children and adults, that is our mission. So we really didn’t want to get into activism. But when we saw the banyans were going to be chopped down to make a road, we thought we have to do something about it. And we were lucky because we had a group of people who were all out to protest in a big way for this”, says Sadhana when we discuss the prospective tree felling. The peacefully held protests led to success in 2019 when the project got stalled. “We really worked very, very hard the entire summer and our work got noticed. We actually saw proof that it was because of these protests that they stopped that”, adds Sadhana. Yet in 2021, it has reared its head again and the protests are back on.
While both, Sadhana and Kobita, are appreciative of the government’s greening initiatives, they add that it’s equally important to: consider what is being planted and how; protect what already exists; and, re-think development in a manner that does not put it in conflict with the natural world. Kobita, who also has an Mphil in Plant physiology, points out, “A city has to grow and urban spaces will change. But we ought to very urgently remember that those pockets of green or brown that we have – are fundamental to our well-being. So we have to design our urban areas with those green pockets like little button forests and work around these spaces, not raze them. For the well-being of the city and its residents, you have to have those spaces within the city, within your habitation.”
Being a part of the walks and conversing with the two seems like a vital lesson in tackling the seemingly overwhelming climate crisis. Taking an approach of joy and curiosity, of loving and appreciating what exists even now all around us – can be vital in our struggle to find our way back to a way of life that does not remain in conflict with all other life on the planet. As Joanna Macy, an environmental activist and author, says: “If the world is to be healed through human efforts, I am convinced it will be by ordinary people, people whose love for this life is even greater than their fear.”
Srinidhi Raghavan & Arpita Joshi are the co-founders of The Curio-city Collective (TCC), a non-profit space that explores how we can help build a new imagination of Indian cities geared towards the well-being of individuals, collectives and eco-systems. TCC can be reached at email@example.com