India’s Zero Sum Game

When Pradip Krishen began creating Jaipur’s Kishan Bagh Desert Park, it was a wasteland of dunes and bald hillocks, strewn with trash. Looking at the landscape, he said, “Now, this is something I’d love to work on. ”Photographs by Bharat Sikka for The New Yorker

If I had to bet, based on our period living in India from 2010 to 2017, I would bet on the prime minister winning. That implies the country making less progress on conservation, if any, and more on development. As Dorothy Wickenden‘s article implies, it may be a zero sum game:

The Promise and the Politics of Rewilding India

Ecologists are trying to undo environmental damage in rain forests, deserts, and cities. Can their efforts succeed even as Narendra Modi pushes for rapid development?

Krishen’s first major restoration job was reclaiming the landscape around Mehrangarh Fort, in the Thar Desert.

On May 12, 1459, the Rajput warrior ruler Rao Jodha laid the first foundation stone of an impregnable fort, atop a jagged cliff of volcanic rock in the Thar Desert of Marwar. He called the citadel Mehrangarh, or “fort of the sun”—and, legend has it, he insured a propitious future by ordering a man buried alive on its grounds. Over time, as the royal clan secured its power, the compound grew to colossal proportions, with soaring battlements, ornately furnished palaces, and grand courtyards enclosed by intricate sandstone latticework. Four hundred feet below, the capital city of Jodhpur became a flourishing trade center.

By the mid-twentieth century, when India gained independence from Britain, royal fortunes had fallen, and bats had moved into the premises. In the nineteen-seventies, the young maharaja began to restore the fort, to open it to the public. Curators filled galleries with artifacts from his collection. Today, visitors gaze at scimitars and armor, antique palanquins, silk brocades, and more than three thousand exquisitely detailed miniature paintings by Marwari artisans.

In 2005, Mahendra Singh, a member of the dynasty and the C.E.O. of the Mehrangarh Museum Trust, asked a man named Pradip Krishen if he could create a suitably arresting landscape around the fort—“greening” a hundred and seventy-five acres of stony ground. Virtually the only plant growing there was Prosopis juliflora, a ferociously invasive shrub from Central America, which Marwaris refer to as baavlia—“the mad one.” It survives on practically no nutrients or water, its branches bristle with thorns, and its leaves and roots emit poisonous alkaloids.

Krishen was not an obvious choice for the job. He was fifty-six years old, with no training in botany, ecology, geology, or landscape gardening. He had tried out several careers, with mixed success: as a journalist, a university lecturer in history, a TV documentarian, and an indie filmmaker on what he calls “the lunatic fringe.” He was six years into writing a book about the trees of Delhi, but he had designed only one small public garden, at the site of an even more ancient fort to the north of Mehrangarh. Looking back, Krishen seemed astonished that he said yes. “What arrogance!” he said as we drove across Rajasthan in September.

To work through how he might approach the undertaking, Krishen wrote Singh a “concept note.” It wouldn’t be a tidy garden or a forest, and it would be green only four months of the year, around the monsoon season. He suggested that they call it an “ecological restoration” project, a term, he explained professorially, that described “the procedures by which people study a habitat, and then attempt to restore it to an original state (either inferred or intuited).” Singh seemed a little baffled, but in a leap of faith he got the board to agree.

Read the whole article here.

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