The spectacular photograph presenting an aerial view of Dhaka's Suhrawardy Udyan not only soothes the mind; it also helps change the hackneyed image of Dhaka's unliveable status. The photograph taken by a FE staff photographer was printed on the page-1 of the newspaper on June 14, 2021. Those not used to these kinds of photographs might locate such views in a highly developed city. The readers do not have to rack their brain to find them out. Though not in clusters, rows of densely grown large and mid-sized trees on the two sides of the walkway to Washington DC's Washington Monument distinguish one such venue. Washington Monument is a 555 feet marble obelisk, built as a tribute to George Washington, the founding President of the USA. He led the American War of Independence in 1775-1783. The US National Mall has also the Lincoln Memorial. The 16th American President is credited with playing the supreme role in abolishing slavery from the US territories. He is recognised as the undisputed hero of the American Civil War.
What else could be a greater tribute to the great American President except the shade trees grown on the two sides of a tranquil road leading to his memorial? On the other hand, the memorial pillar standing in its sombre glory in the middle of a lagoon at Dhaka's Suhrawardy Udyan reminds many people of the Washington Monument. The Suhrawardy Udyan obelisk has been created as a tribute to the Freedom Fighters who embraced martyrdom during the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War. The structure is named Swadhinata Stambha. There was a provision of planting lines of trees around the lagoon accommodating the pillar in the original plan. Accordingly, dozens of newly planted saplings didn't take long to become fully grown trees, giving the sprawling area the character of an abode of unspoiled peace. A similar tranquility reigns in Washington DC's National Mall area.
The Swadhinata Stambha has lately begun facing series of hazards at the site area. It was sparked by a hitherto unheard-of new project of felling the mature trees. With the start of the tree-felling, the original Swadhinata Stambha project ran the risk of being deviated from the original architectural plan. Upon a higher court directive and protests by Freedom Fighters and environmental activists, the tree-felling remains suspended for now. But the fear of the return of the clique comprising unscrupulous elements remains simmering.
The problem started with a section of influential people felling the trees having logging value. In spite of their denial of any narrow motive, lots of people smelled a rat. As they said following the start of a public outcry over the tree-felling, the places cleared of trees had been earmarked for setting up cafes, tea-corners, washrooms, recreation spaces etc. Few are prepared to believe these promises, purported to be made to materialise in order to enhance the beauty and grandeur of the Stambha. It's sad to note that of all things, it is the innocent trees which have been drawn to the vortex of an unwarranted controversy. Trees becoming a subject of heated controversy are no unique event. But they are out of the purview of the public domain. These trees belong to the wild, vast forests like the Amazon and those in the Sub-Saharan African forests. Domestically gown trees do often spark controversies that mainly centre round large-scale logging.
The practice of logging within the bounds of public properties is now a day-to-day event. This abhorrent act once was unknown to the people in both urban and rural areas. The traditionally tree-blanketed areas like the Chattogram Hill Tracts and the Sylhet region's reserve forests have continued to tempt greedy elements to plunder the valuable trees. In fact, few areas in the country are free of the powerful syndicates of illegal loggers. Thanks to their full-scale activities, signs are fading that Bangladesh will in the near future be able to attain the UN mandated 25 per cent forest coverage. As the doomsayers predict, given the practice of indiscriminate tree felling in the country, Bangladesh's tree coverage may in the near future plummet to less than five per cent. The departments shouldering the responsibility of saving the country's vulnerable forests and taking up projects of social forestry are least bothered. This laidback posture prompts the green activists to become more vociferous than in the past. Eventually, they bear the brunt of becoming the targets of the apparently invincible vested interests.
In the 1950s, Dhaka was considered one of the 'healthy spots' in the then Pakistan. It would be placed alongside Chattogram and Sylhet as the two most hygienic cities. A lot of this reputation had a lot to do with the green tree-laden hills and hillocks covering the two cities. Moreover, the port city was gifted with a coastline and the estuary of the Karnaphuli River and the Bay of Bengal. Except the Buriganga and the three other smaller rivers, Dhaka didn't have much natural beauty to boast of. But it had its abundant nature-resources --- its trees, some of them standing in their awe-inspiring grandeur for over a couple of centuries. The major roadsides and island strips in Dhaka would be seen lined with tall 'shaal' trees even in the 1960s. The nearby compounds of office buildings, educational institutions and unused lands would invariably remain filled with trees and orchards. By the 1980s, Dhaka, the country's capital, began falling on bad times. The successive governments of the time appeared to have embarked on a well-planned campaign to clear the capital of the excessive number of trees. Many suspected the administrations might have viewed trees as an impediment to the city's becoming a smart, modern city. Uncannily, their prescience proved true. The earlier density of trees in the capital began thinning out in a decade. Almost with the movement of a magic wand, the tree covered tunnel-like passage passing from the Nilkhet roundabout to Pilkhana disappeared in a couple of months. So did the rows of the gorgeous 'shaal' trees from the present southern side of the BIRDEM Hospital to the Ramna Park's eastern gate. A similar fate awaited the giant tamarind trees on the southern part of the Ramna Park. In fact, the whole Ramna area from Purana Paltan to the present Dhaka Medical College Hospital (DMCH) had once been a vast enclave of trees. Except a few in front of the DMCH, all trees have long vanished.
In the earlier phase, without the centuries-old trees, Dhaka offered a spacious look. But the nature-lovers discovered that the anti-tree activities had robbed the city of a great chunk of its age-old beauty. Among the fallen trees, there were a few that belonged to the Mughal era. Though planted later, many belonged to rare genera. Two such great possessions of Dhaka stood around the area near the present Foreign Ministry. One grew on the roundabout at the meeting place of three major roads on the east of the High Court. Meanwhile, it took just over a decade for Cattogram and Sylhet going Dhaka's way. The tree-covered hills eventually became the targets of land grabbers in the two cities. In 2021, there are few places in the country which resemble the earlier looks of the two cities. In Bangladesh these days, the present scenarios now seem a sarcastic transformation of the good old days. Vast areas filled with tree stumps resemble a war field littering with the remains of the butchered warriors and people. These sights fill the whole country. There are occasional attempts at replenishment. In most cases, they fail.
Had the venue been the USA, felling trees at public places like on the sides of walkways, leading to a site like the Washington Monument, would have sparked a heated legislative debate in the US. And in our context, the War of Liberation is no less important than the US Founding President's feat.