The creator placed human beings in a lovely garden filled with delightful trees of delicious fruits and told him they were all for his consumption, except for one. Well, we all know what happened thereafter. I refer this in context to our pretty hill town, Simla (now Shimla).
A beautiful green landscape with diverse native vegetation, enter the British around two centuries ago, started construction on the steep slopes, and soon enough the hillside landscape gets painted with scattered European designed, but sustainable cottages. With a climate that suited them, the English set about altering the locales even more to their liking. As a feel home syndrome, they introduced scores of plants native to northern Europe and the British Isles. Soon enough, both private and government gardens were assembled with species that would be found in a proper English garden. Their construction activities resulted in overburden on the steep slopes, and to stabilise the slopes, they introduced plants that they were familiar with their colonisation of other regions of the globe – and thus began the entry of exotics like Robinia pseudoacacia from America, wattles (Acacia mearnsii, A. dealbata) and gum trees (Eucalyptus) from Australia. The Englishmen did not go for natives as they had not studied them, and were not aware about their ecology and benefits. The non-native plants gradually began to escape in all directions, first establishing themselves and later booming across the town, choking and replacing the native flora over time. The understorey and ground cover of the forests in and around Simla (now Shimla) began to be altered, the native diversity being replaced permanently by few non-natives (Buddleja, Vinca, Impatiens, Urtica, etc). Later, with the establishment of research units in the town, a number of exotics make their escape into the wild (Galinsoga, Solanum, etc).
Today, what has aggravated the situation is the callous dumping of debris and waste along roadsides, streams and in the nearby pristine forests. It is this loose soil which acts as a double-edged sword, as on one hand it covers the native vegetation, while on the other it facilitates the quick establishment of non-natives (exotics). The disadvantage with exotics is that they spread very fast and destroys native plant diversity, they literally choke the natives with their fast spread. Resultant, today the forest floor of Shimla is largely covered with Vinca (especially the US Club area), Impatiens, Debregeasia, Buddleja, Mirabilis, Urtica, Rumex, Bidens, Datura, etc), ecologically unsuitable here. Gone are the native shrubs like Deutzia Prinsepia, Zanthoxylum, Cotoneaster, Viburnum, Berberis, etc., which were better adapted to hold the soil and perform other ecological parameters too.
Today, even the congress grass (Parthenium hysterophorus) has shown its presence in the warmer outskirts of the town, along with its other family (Asteraceae) members, Bidens, Xanthium, Tagetes, Chromolaena, from the tropical Americas. The loose debris and wastelands are covered with Bidens pilosa, Datura stramonium, Physalis, Xanthium strumarium, numerous species belonging to the genera Urtica, Polygonum, Impatiens, etc.
Native plant species diversity ensures a sustained plant cover and hence soil stability, thus providing insurance in the form of Ecosystem functioning (plants, animals, micro-organisms co-existing and functioning together). Likewise, the forests in Simla with the oaks and deodar trees played an important role in preventing the loss of topsoil through soil erosion. These trees prevented soil erosion by intercepting rainfall, reduce the amount of water in soil through transpiration and the roots bind soil. With ill planned urbanisation, the majestic deodars of Shimla give a poor picture of their grandeur and nobility of the past era. Today, the fast-paced construction has damaged their branches, exposed their roots or the vibrations from the earth movers made their compact association with the roots, loose. As an icing, the residents, in order to get more sunlight, prune off the branches, deforming the tree shape making it unstable. Despite all the atrocities being thrown at the trees, they still somehow manage to mitigate the carbon emissions from the ever-increasing vehicular traffic, and at the same time generating us with the life saving oxygen. Above that they have been providing generous regulatory services for maintaining the cool temperatures in this hill town.
This monsoon, with incessant heavy rains, especially, during August, torrential rains hit Shimla, triggering landslides and destroying a temple, homes, and buildings, with many people losing their lives. It seemed that the town was crumbling under the impact of unplanned construction and the rise in population. Infrastructure development too has not been climate smart, as a result there were landslides across Shimla, that brought down houses, blocked roads and actually brought life to a standstill. Experts attribute this devastation to disregarding repeated alerts about its seismic vulnerability, high vulnerability to landslides, population exceeding its capacity and the resultant ecological instability. We also lost around 1000 trees of varied sizes, later some being removed in the pretext of being dangerous (some genuine while many others done away under wrongful influence), and still many awaiting their destiny in the piled-up applications with the authorities.
Experts attribute the intensity of the rains to climate change, but many in Shimla surprisingly, have been pointing at the fault of the aged deodars. Some even suggesting to remove from near habitations and roads, not realising that Shimla owes its beauty just because of these majestic trees. Such folks need to be reminded, that it will be these trees that will shelter us from the heat effect during the predicted hot summers of the now accepted climate change in coming times.
Shimla, today is an unplanned and haphazard urban sprawl with a population of ca 3.0 lakh, compounded with additional 20 – 25 thousand tourists descending on the town daily during peak summer season. Shimla is among the 30 urban centres under the ‘Smart City Mission’ with around 53 projects to be implemented, amounting to around 3000 crores. To me personally, the smart city concepts do not seem realistic and practicable under the present challenges. Challenges are the fast-increasing traffic, road congestion and shortage of parking spaces, old buildings and infrastructure, door to door garbage collection, waste management, water distribution, inaccessibility at various places, etc. These smart city projects cannot escape from their role in making the landscape vulnerable, in some way or the other contributing to the present situation. The widening of roads, leaving muck debris along the working sites contributed to the mud slides and subsequent damage at various points.
We have destroyed the earlier extensive niches for moisture loving species, the perfect habitats for mosses and lichens along with the open grasslands of terrestrial orchids. Today, where are the prominent natives? Henry Collet (Flora Simlensis) around a century ago, writes that the BCS spur was adorned with the enchanting Lady Suzzanne’s orchid, but today the entire spur is concrete, with a large number of buildings, kissing one another, leaving no soil for anything to grow. What has happened to us as humans? all educated people live in Shimla, and with so much of global warming and climate change being discussed on all forms of media, we still fail to understand the gravity of the situation.
To the citizens of Shimla, I recommend the book, “The Giving Tree”, by Shel Silverstein – an excellent heart-touching story for kids with an important lesson that not only kids, but each one of us must learn. Every day the boy would come to the tree to eat her apples, swing from her branches, or slide down her trunk, and the tree was happy. But as the boy grew older, he began to want more from the tree, and the tree gave and gave and gave. In the same manner, the trees in Shimla have been providing valuable ecosystem services unconditionally without expecting anything in return. They have been holding the soil, mitigating Green House Gases (GHGs), providing oxygen, along with other ecosystem services, they have been giving and giving. Today, due to the selfish unsustainable activities of the people, the blame game has turned to the trees. A sad moment indeed for a nature addict like me and other like-minded people, who consider the services of these trees as life saving – services that so far have not been measured, but now urgently required, in the form of Payments for Ecosystem Services (PES).
The art of the man that coexisted happily with the art of nature – has now become a contradiction of the latter. Shimla is a prime example of wanton degradation caused by ‘wheels of progress’
(The views expressed are the personal views of the author, as a responsible, concerned citizen of Shimla – who has seen Shimla change over the past five decades)
Dr. Vaneet Jishtu, a field botanist specialising in high altitude himalayan flora, conducts a wide range of research at Himalayan Forest Research Institute (HFRI), where he works. At Shimla he has pioneered in setting up an arboretum, a botanical garden where a vast collection of Himalayan trees have been planted. He lives in Shimla