Deep in the heart of Old Clifton, the sun’s morning rays illuminate the knotted branches of an aged Banyan tree outside the Consulate General of Iran. On September 19, cyclists, passers-by and residents observed a few of its unlucky few branches strewn across the road, chopped up and ready to be collected for money.
It is easy to find men who will cut down these trees mostly for the money the wood fetches and also because neglect makes them easy targets. It is far harder to find experienced arborists or master gardeners who can take the time and effort to prune and care for these heritage trees of Karachi.
These sacred trees may be grand in scale but that doesn’t mean that the tiniest of termites cannot plague them, and indeed, this is the case with many. Others suffer as concrete paved pathways are choking their roots. In the current conditions, the Banyan trees of Karachi urgently need support from nearby communities, stakeholders and government. In a city so deprived of non-gated public space, few can deny the extent to which the Banyan trees characterize and lend to the urban appeal of Old Clifton.
The Banyan trees of Clifton are part of an ecosystem of cultural and environmental significance. Consider the etymology of the species, which happens to be native only to the Indian subcontinent. In Gujrati, the term banya is used for the traders or merchants who would gather to sell their ware under the generous shade of these trees. They also provided a shaded public space for people who wanted to have a chat or rest. And so, by the 17th Century, this eventually led to the naming of this tree as “Banean” by the Portuguese.
In Dual City: Karachi Under the Raj, Yasmeen Lari writes that Clifton developed in the mid- to late 19th Century when Henry Bartle Frere served as the Commissioner of Sindh. It was only much recently, after the 1970s that Clifton actually took the shape it has today as a prime commercial centre which is now also home to consulates, educational institutes and medical facilities.
After the 2002 suicide bombing outside the Consulate General of the United States, other diplomatic establishments in Old Clifton reacted by densifying fortifications and starting a process of double barricading. This security infrastructure included barricades that enveloped and contained the trees outside them, which you will now see hemmed in by concrete.
More recently, the construction of an underpass complex leading past Park Towers shopping mall transformed the built environment that is home to these heritage trees. It brought in accelerated streams of traffic and by association attendant pollution flowing through Clifton and towards Two Swords.
And last of all, after the Peshawar Army Public School attack in 2014, many schools in Clifton were ordered to add layers of security in the shape of more barriers. As a consequence of these abrupt fortifications, many people argue that the natural fabric of this historic neighbourhood has come under threat.
As climate change takes its toll on the Global South, cities such as Karachi have been on the receiving end of torrential monsoon rainfall. In September, 27 people were killed and many more were hurt as rains inundated and paralyzed the megapolis. In addition to damaging roofs and houses, the rains also toppled trees, weakened their roots and saturated the soil.
One of the residents, who was particularly concerned about the future of these trees, said the following:
A lot of these trees have weakened roots post these year’s monsoon rains and the tilt can be seen growing more angled. They need proper intelligent upkeep, or they can topple over, and cause harm. I’m in Old Clifton and a huge tree at our place leaned in by a few degrees and freaked me out, so we caught hold of this team and made them balance it out and do some pruning though they said to cut it off… that it will fall at some point. I argued and stood my ground but sadly, when left unheeded, as most things here are, nothing sensible happens and the easiest ’safest’ solution is to chop it off and make some money. Why can’t someone somewhere in the government with actual power be bothered about this? The loss of these greats is another tragedy of our city.
When asked about one brutally uprooted tree, another resident said:
This is the previous tree and it just pulled up all the cement around it because the roots system was probably compromised. The trees on Clifton road need professional care. There should be a move to declare these trees heritage. They’ve certainly been around us longer than most of us and they should be there for at least a 100 more years. The argument that trees don’t grow along roads is questionable as I have seen towering trees lining roads and avenues in other countries.
Sindh laws & mapping
Under the Sindh Local Government Act (2013), an optional function of the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation and the representative District Municipal Corporation is to plant trees and ensure their protection.
Section 51 of this law says that:
(1) A Corporation, Municipal Committee or Town Committee may plant trees on public streets and other public places within the Local Area and take all such steps as may be necessary for the plantation and protection of trees on such streets and places.
(2) The Council concerned may in the prescribed manner and with the previous sanction of Government, frame and enforce and arboriculture plan.
The Sindh Plantation, Maintenance of Trees & Public Parks Ordinance (2002) compels the Sindh Local Government to plan, develop, and maintain parks and trees. Section 3 says that, “Any Agency shall, subject to rules and regulations of Government and within the limits of funds at its disposal, plan and develop, plantation, maintenance of trees and public parks and cause to be maintained trees and public parks in accordance with this Ordinance.
Section 5 of this law permits the felling or cutting of trees only after permission is granted. It states, “(1) Subject to the provisions of this Ordinance, no person shall, without the written permission of the Authorized Officer fell or cut any trees growing on any land, except where felling or cutting is in compliance with any obligation imposed by or under any law or is otherwise in public interest.”
Despite the presence of more than seven consulates, five well-respected and high-profile schools and universities, and two large upscale hospitals in the vicinity, no one has stepped forward to adopt or bring up the preservation of these trees. Moreover, the inability of any government agency to regularly maintain and care for these heritage trees as their primary function prompts us to examine and learn from regional precedents that have succeeded in developing and preserving natural heritage amid dense urban fabrics.
Within a South Asian context, The Karnataka Trees Preservation Act (1976) is a well drafted law that covers multiple aspects related to the preservation of trees in India. Each urban and rural area has a designated Tree Authority to ensure maximum effectiveness and timely service provision.
Individual Tree Authorities are responsible for carrying out a census of all trees, planting and maintaining existing trees, and replacing and transplanting trees that are a danger to life and property.
Another important provision of this act is that no person, either an owner or occupant, can cut trees on their land without permission from the Tree Authority of that area. Finally, each Tree Authority can also specify the number of trees to be planted by each individual that comes under their jurisdiction.
Karachi must learn from the example of Karnataka and take it a step further by maintaining and recording a database as a Heritage Trees Scheme. Citizens, students, and residents should be able to submit an online heritage tree nomination form to recommend that a tree be protected as natural heritage. Once nominated, the trees should be carefully inspected by a local tree authority and, if merited, placed on a separate registry that contains essential details on the tree species, measurements, geo-coordinates, and nearby urban markers.
Furthermore, trees identified as natural heritage or of particular importance should be appropriately labelled and fenced to avoid vandalism. In the example of the Banyan trees, additional measures including lime injections to prevent termite and root pruning must also be employed.
Karachi lacks the involvement of local communities in heritage protection, and if such a policy was implemented, it would go far in creating a sense of city ownership among Karachi’s residents. Communities must engage in mohalla baazi on a neighbourhood level to agitate the local government bodies to properly foresee the future of Old Clifton amid a rapidly changing skyline. If Karachi’s natural heritage fabric is to survive long enough to benefit future generations, a collective voice must engage in more than just a public-private partnership to ensure the survival of their city’s natural heritage.
The article was co-authored by Marvi Mazhar, Uzayr Agha, and Umed Ali