Razia Haque was incensed. She was not a trendy environmentalist. Her sentences weren’t interspersed with English and she didn’t know any of the developmental jargon. She was a grandmother who lived in Elephant Road who walked through the park everyday to drop off her granddaughter at the university. But she knew this was wrong. “Nature is for everyone. What do they think they are doing? How many years has it taken for these trees to grow? They’ve destroyed the beauty of this place. They’ve dulled our senses. It can only cause bitterness. About common people, about the government about everyone. They do as they please. How can you allow this? You should all give slogans. Who has authorised the cutting of these trees? Once the trees have gone there’s nothing you can do. Just because they’re in power they’ll cut down the trees, how can that be?”
“Before you can do this, you need to get everyone’s permission. People walk through this shade in this scorching sun. The oxygen from the tree is good for you. The government should know this much better than you or I. They are educated intellectuals. That’s why they’ve been able to form the government. We’re like vines. Just as they cut these trees, if they chop us down, it won’t matter.” She was walking away when she saw me talking to the soldier, and turned back. “They’ll pay 50 taka 100 taka for these trees and they’ll sell them for lakhs. It’s easy money. They are cashing in on Sheikh Shaheb’s name. Not only his name. They are washing his old clothes and we are made to drink the dirty water. They send out the army. Labourers are scared when they see the army. I’m scared when I see the army. If they take me to jail, how will I stand it in my old age? This cannot bring good to the nation. This is the worst that can happen to the nation. “
Towfique the soldier who was supervising the cutting of the trees had finally gotten hold of his commanding officer Major Iqbal. Our conversation was brief.
Major Iqbal: “They are not cutting trees, but merely trimming the branches. “
SA: “I’m standing here watching them cut tree after tree from the base.”
MI: “Well they shouldn’t and I’ll make sure they don’t cut any more trees.”
SA: “What about all the trees they’ve already chopped down?”
MI: “Well I said I was sorry.”
I suppose I should be thankful he said sorry. With the RAB and the military operating with impunity, like Razia Haque, I had reason to be scared. Liton the contractor had admitted that if we hadn’t stopped them they’d have continued cutting down all the trees. He did wriggle, explaining he was getting rid of agacha (weeds). Then he said they’d be planting fruit trees in place of banyan trees.
SA: “What about the big jackfruit tree you cut?”
Liton: “Well it was dying.”
SA: “What with all those fresh leaves?”
Liton: “Well it might look fresh, but it was really dying.”
SA: “And are you a plant expert who can tell that a fresh looking tree is really dying?”
Liton: “Well it was in the way…”
I knew I wouldn’t get very far in this discussion. They had planned to cut the trees. The soldiers were there to ensure there was no resistance. I had gotten in the way. I wish I had Razia Haque as my prime minister. She had no polish, spoke no English, but she walked the streets, loved the city and was prepared to urge others around her to take action. She was not going to chop a tree, let alone sell her nation.
As Liton had said of the jackfruit tree — people who love the nation, like Razia Haque or pesky journalists like me — we just get in the way.
17th June 2012