As a child whenever I was asked to draw something, I would sketch two hills with the sun rising between them and a waterfall forming a pond, a small house at the edge of the pond and a boatman rowing blissfully in the pond. The pond would be full of ducks and fish. There would be a swing nearby and children, probably from the house, would be playing on it. Some would be resting nearby with books in their hands. This was my picture of a beautiful life in a beautiful home.
Hailing from a city, the reality was, of course, far from this dream. When we shifted to our new apartment in Chennai a year ago, I never dreamt that I would be close to realising this dream at least partially, for, just outside our compound, was an abandoned sand quarry which had filled up with water during the rainy season, forming a pond. Some Good Samaritan had decided to use adjacent land fruitfully and a mango grove was there.
The pond attracted a large number of visitors. Buffaloes would come for a leisurely swim. Water was just deep enough for them to fully submerge themselves, just the nose visible above water.
Many a dog would also come with its pups regularly for a swim and chase each other. The mango trees nested many birds. I could see parrots flying in and out of their nests, mynahs and, of course, the intelligent crows and many other birds I could not recognise. Sometimes, I could see children from the local school playing truant and swimming in the waters. But I never had the heart to admonish them as this affordable luxury in the middle of the concrete jungle was worth missing school once in a while.
I could watch the entire scene from the balcony of my second floor flat. No tranquilliser, no pain balm can equal the effect of watching a squirrel nibbling at something. A humming bird perching on a flower fluttering its wings away or a cheeky crow taking a merry ride on a buffalo. Many women would wash their clothes in these waters while their children played merrily. Men came with nets and caught fish!
We spent many of our evenings in the quiet solitude of our balcony. The view was so mesmerising that one would forget that we were part of an apartment complex. As the night set in, an orchestra of frogs croaking and crickets screeching would follow. Such was the effect of the scenery that even the most frayed nerves were smoothened immediately with just a glimpse of the entire scenario.
But all good things have to end! One fine morning, barely a year after we had moved in, an army of lorries and excavators arrived at the spot; within a day, the land was cleared of all vegetation. Many a bird screeched helplessly as its nests built in the shrubs were destroyed in a single sweep. Huge trees were cut down heartlessly. No one even thought of relocating the nests.
Soon lorries started pouring sand into the water. Even as sand was being emptied many buffaloes stubbornly stood in the waters and did not leave until the last patch of the pond was filled. I saw many dogs wandering forlornly over the sand, wondering what happened to their beautiful playground. They even followed the excavators reproachfully around for some time. While they went about scooping huge mounds of sand filling even the minute gaps, many people came with huge plastic bags to collect the fish and frogs that were struggling under the sand. Within a few days everything had disappeared. There was just a sea of sand instead of water. That was the end of my paradise.
I can’t help thinking — maybe our apartment was also built the same way. Every time a new apartment is being built we are causing irreparable loss to the ecosystem. Animals and birds, being one with nature, may even survive this as they have their valuable instinct to guard them. But we human beings will suffer. Machines cannot quench thirst. Will rainwater harvesting compensate the loss of a waterbody that served as a water bowl? The apartments we are seeing now were once beautiful green spaces. Now that there is no space within the city limits, we are expanding outwards and there is no limit, every inch of available space is being converted into high-rise buildings.
People and animals are being displaced in the name of development. But to sustain development we require the basics — water and food. Food and water need space — that is land. Most of the new apartments boast of parks and gardens but they have only ornamental plants which are exotic.
We are forgetting that even in city limits many communities existed. They had their own schools, temples, markets, fields and fairs. They led their lives and happily too! Now their affordable markets are replaced with big-banner departmental stores, and schools have become expensive. They are working for a living in houses which once housed their homes and lives. And now they see people living in large homes with their huge cars and rich clothes and expensive lifestyles — a stark contrast to their lifestyle which we term “poor,” in fact, is our own creation.
At least now, we should stop this destruction in the name of development. We cannot convert cities into villages but can’t we at least strive to leave the small towns and villages bordering cities intact? Not only the amazonian rain forest, even our small towns and villages need sheltering from this manslaughter called development.
(The writer is a consultant paediatrician. email: firstname.lastname@example.org)