Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Learning From the Ignorent

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Forty years ago when one flew over Lahore, one saw a vast sea of green. Today one sees great dusty swathes. Two things happened in the interim. One, the agricultural land around the city has turned into housing estates. Secondly, the centuries-old native trees that adorned that land as signs of ancient wisdom have been chopped down, burned and replaced with exotic dwarf ornamental flora.

Date palm obsession in Lahore

General duty bureaucrats masquerading as horticulturists with blighted visions of water-scarce Arabian desert and California with their date palms and ornamental bushes have in the past two decades engaged in ‘beautifying’ this sorry land that same way. The result is the brown expanse one sees from the air. Sadly, this pattern has now been followed in all other cities with their ‘development’ schemes.

For 40 years the word ‘tree’ meant eucalyptus. Indeed, hoardings and banners during tree plantation campaigns depicted the eucalyptus. Today, since the last 10 years, it is conocarpus. The so-called horticulturists of the fancifully named Parks and Horticulture Departments (PHA) of Punjab however know only palms of different kinds, the date being the most favoured. In the past decade or so, every new government building raised on ground where once banyan or pipal trees stood is now covered by a few scrawny date trees besides some ornamental bushes.

The motto of the PHA in Punjab clearly is: let no living being avail itself of shade. Several years ago, I accosted PHA workers outside Lahore airport as they planted exotic shrubbery in the vast green space. Trees were taboo, they said, to prevent bird hits on aircraft.

I pointed out that this green space was twice as distant from the runway than the towering arjun and pipal trees that crowded the periphery of the old airport. Those trees were alive with large birds, yet in all my life I had read of only one bird hit in Lahore. Apparently the babus heading PHA have invented every kind of excuse to not plant native or large trees as their contribution to enhance global warming.

The conocarpus
Ask any home owner why they have whatever vegetation lines their boundary walls and the answer usually is, ‘We don’t know, we asked the gardener and he brought these trees.’ The so-called educated person now learns from an illiterate gardener!

The gardener’s preference shone on me many years ago when one told me in Model Town, Lahore, that trees create ‘too much litter’. Indeed, this is the common refrain one hears from so-called educated home owners too. Because gardeners are tasked with clearing leaf litter, they found the easy way by encouraging trees with less litter which was mostly bushes or a few exotic species.

And then there was the blighted vision of our political leaders who sought only to please their Arab masters by turning a perfectly lush land into the Arabian Desert. And so, in the early 1990s, there began an invasion of date palm in this land.

Also in Dawn

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My Books

Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

Books at Sang-e-Meel

Books of Days