A colonial encroacher

Like a true agent of imperialism, the tree Mesquite wiped out all competition leading to the demise of a large variety of flora, and became lord and master of all it surveyed in Delhi

October 13, 2012 12:14 pm | Updated October 18, 2016 12:42 pm IST

Mesquite: Prosopis Juliflora is commonly found in Delhi. Photo: Sohail Hashmi

Mesquite: Prosopis Juliflora is commonly found in Delhi. Photo: Sohail Hashmi

Almost one-fourth of all the articles that have appeared in this column have dealt with the issue of encroachment in one shape or another. Sanitation- wallahs and police- wallahs encroaching on pavements meant for pedestrians, places of worship encroaching on public land, peoples’ representatives encroaching on heritage monuments, preachers and priests encroaching on heritage structures, so on and so forth. It would appear as if the single most popular occupation of the denizens of this megapolis was encroachment.

Our focus today is another encroacher. The manner in which it has encroached upon all available land in Delhi and in other parts of the country goes to show not only the great opportunism this fiend has displayed but it also underlines the great scope that our land provides to those who know how to exploit the given situation.

We are not talking about a human being but about a tree, a tree that does not belong to Delhi. In fact it is not an Asian tree. It is a tree that was imported into India in the last quarter of the 19th century. According to Pradip Krishen, without doubt the authority on trees of Delhi, the tree was first imported into India in 1877. (Trees of Delhi - A field guide, Dorling Kindersley (India) 2006).The place where it was first planted, as an exotic and decorative tree by the British, was perhaps Calcutta (now Kolkata) -- their colonial capital.

The tree we are talking about is known as Prosopis Juliflora, brought from Mexico and popularly called the Mexican Mesquite. Those of you who are fond of the uniquely American (read US of A) genre of ‘literature’ known as the ‘Western’ would quickly recall the name ‘Mesquite’.

The Mesquite seems to have arrived in Delhi when the Vice-regal Lodge (present-day Rashtrapati Bhawan) was being built. It is said that Messers Baker and Lutyens were not very happy with the stark rocky backdrop to this symbol of imperial grandeur and so the horticulturist William Robertson Mustoe was given the responsibility of ensuring that the rocky landscape was dressed up in green by the time the Vice-regal Lodge was completed.

According to Pradip Krishen, six varieties of trees, including Sheesham, Jungal Jalebi, Siris, a desert Eucalyptus from Australia and the Mesquite, incidentally none of them belonging to Delhi, were tried out on the ridge. The only one that survived was the Mesquite. And this was the beginning of the demise of a large variety of trees, bushes, and shrubs that were uniquely suited to the primarily semi-arid environment and the rocky landscape of Delhi.

The systematic plantation of the Mesquite on the Central Delhi Ridge incidentally came at the behest of Harding --Viceroy between 1910 and 1916. It was the same Harding who was grievously injured in a bomb attack while he was passing through Chandni Chowk, astride an elephant in a regal procession commemorating the shifting of Capital to Delhi in 1912. The bombers had hidden behind a tree and all the trees in Chandni Chowk were cut down when Delhi was punished for the bomb attack. The canal that passed through Chandni Chowk was also bricked over and closed.

So Harding’s legacy includes not only the chopping down of all the trees of Chandni Chowk but the long term decimation of the flora of Delhi as a consequence of steps for greening the ridge initiated at his behest.

There are three reasons for the rapid growth of the Mesquite in Delhi and in India. One, the tree was brought to India as seed, none of the natural controls, insects, bacteria, diseases of the tree were imported and so the tree grew without any ecological checks on its growth. Two, it is a desert tree and therefore the semi desert conditions suit it ideally and three, it releases toxins in the soil through its roots and thus inhibits the growth of other vegetation and soon, like a true agent of imperialism, it wipes out all competition, becoming lord and master of all it surveys.

The only way, to my mind, we can get rid of this pest and allow our natural vegetation to recapture its lost ground is to ensure that only the Mesquite is used in our crematoria and that charcoal is also made only from Mesquite wood. If we can ensure this there is some hope for local trees of our semi-arid climes like Babool, Keekar, Jangal Jalebi, Jhand, Ronjh and scores of others. In the absence of these controls these trees will disappear and with them will be lost the centuries old traditional medicines, artefacts and implements that we have extracted from the trees.

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