Mumbai in the 1990s

A few plants are still nurtured by Bombay’s citizens. Nearly every flat and slum house has its tulsi plant, grown for its religious significance, but also used for many verified medicinal purposes. It repels mosquitoes and has confirmed effectiveness against stress – something that all of us suffer from now. But traditional species are being replaced by exotic houseplants and garden ornamentals by the economically affluent.

Most of the trees have gone now as the demands for housing, roads and other types of “development” took over open spaces. Urban environmentalists should realise that deforestation and environmental degradation are also the result of their own wants, and that many of the original inhabitants of Bombay were – and are still being – displaced without adequate compensation. The same thing is happening in areas such as Vasai and Raigad. The former has very fertile land and an easily accessible water table. The region used to be famous for its wide variety of tasty bananas, but many of these varieties are disappearing.

Food production in this area is dropping rapidly. The next stage of the Bhatsai dam project will displace Adivasis and inundate one of the most beautiful of forested valleys in the Ghats near by – to supply Bombay’s insatiable water needs.

However, the trees in my old home are still flourishing, because the plot has not been “developed”. Many of the old bungalows and village homes in Greater Bombay still have plenty of plants in their surrounding gardens. All these are threatened by proposed changes in the development rules which will heavily tax plots to make owners increase the habitation density per square metre, even while builders offer tempting prices for the land. So these too are fast disappearing.

Municipal regulations have helped to make the situation worse than it need be. According to the BMC rules, cooperative housing societies have to pave over their passageways but builders usually concrete every single square metre, leaving only the trunks of a few trees protruding. This literally suffocates the trees by reducing soil aeration and is probably the reason why so many young trees are knocked over by even mildly cyclonic winds.

Slum dwellers are blamed for causing floods since they build their simple dwellings in low-lying areas which also provide drainage channels, but they have been pushed there by the economically affluent who crave the higher levels. The higher areas have been built upon and paved, drastically reducing the quantity of rain-water seeping into the soil.

Furthermore, there are few trees and little undergrowth to slow down the run-off. This is the basic cause of Bombay’s increasing monsoon floods. The impoverished slum dwellers are merely the victims. As more land is built on we have more floods, even with normal rainfall. The concreting of storm water drains has added to the flood problem because its reduces seepage still further, and also because the level of the bottom of a drain can never be correct, water stagnates and mosquitoes breed.

As this water is not seeping into the soil, the level of the water table drops, slowing down the growth of trees. Underground water is also being drawn for building construction and other non-residential purposes in the city, lowering the water table further. In the Vasai area, in which housing construction is proceeding at a frantic rate, it is reported that salt water from the sea is seeping into the water table, with the imminent possibility that all farming there will be made impossible.

The growth of plants is also slowed by the shadows cast by tall buildings. Along the seaside, strong monsoon winds are channeled between such buildings, increasing their velocity and so damaging many plants.

Bombay’s runaway vehicular “population” requires mature trees to be ruthlessly felled to widen roads. The proposed West Island Freeway, a part of which is now being constructed *along Carter Road, Bandra, will bury one of the few mangrove forests left in the city. The mangrove is being sacrificed so that a few car drivers can save about two minutes a day in travel time from Danda to Otter’s Club. Trees are also cut down for artificial playgrounds, industry, airports, bus terminals and for every “convenience” that Bombay’s citizens are so proud of.

Thanks to local activists the mangroves were actually saved and were flourishing in 2004, when the writer last saw them.

Among the wild species of herbs and shrubs which still grow along roadsides that are not completely paved over, are food plants like kantemath, lona and kurdu, oil seeds like castor and sankeshwar, fibre plants like ambadi, and numerous medicinal plants like bhui awali, dhatura and kavthali. People regularly collect harvest these. Kantemath, eaten with pulses, is an excellent food for undernourished children. Lona is high in vitamins A and C. Kurdu seeds give an oil. Ambadi provides much of the fibre for ropes made by the Adivasis; it is also being cultivated in the US as a fibre for paper manufacture. But those who use these plants for food and medicine are likely to be poisoned by lead from vehicle exhausts.

The pollution produced by vehicles and industry is killing more plant and animal life. Low-level ozone produced by vehicle exhausts injures and kills plants and trees are damaged by the acid rain produced by other pollutants from vehicles and industry. Fireflies used to be active at night in the trees, but did not overwhelm the stars. Now the fireflies have gone and stars can barely be seen, as they have to compete with bright street lights unnecessary neon signs and illuminations and smog that thickens with every passing year. Plants are also being lost as roadsides are “cleaned”; preserving them requires a change in our notions of cleanliness.

NOTES

Due to labelling malfunction, the pictures are listed here, for readers from afar:

1. Tulsi

2. Bhatsai dam

3. Mangroves

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