As the country celebrates the 150th birth centenary of Gandhi whose commitment to environment is well known, the Maharashtra government’s act of indiscriminately destroying hundreds of trees around Sevagram Ashram in Wardha where the Mahatma spent the last 12 years of his life, shows how opaqueness during Covid-19 is allowing administrations to act authoritatively and unilaterally.
On Wednesday, Mahatma Gandhi’s descendants appealed "with folded hands" to the government to refrain from axing the remaining trees planted on a stretch of the Wardha-Sevagram Ashram road to widen it for tourism. Among those who wrote to the government were Mahatma’s grandchildren, former West Bengal governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi, historian Rajmohan Gandhi, peace activist Ila Gandhi, socio-political activist Arun Gandhi, and his great-grandson Tushar Gandhi.
On Thursday, Congress leader Jairam Rames took to Twitter where he shared the report by News18 and appealed to Shiv Sena leader Aaditya Thackerey to intervene in the matter.
People of Wardha and Sevagram have taken to the streets to physically guard the remaining 235 trees along the road that Gandhi traversed between Maganwadi in Wardha to Sevagram. They want the road to be named "Shantipath".
Over 4,000 villagers and ashramites have given a signed letter to the Wardha collector, registering their protest against this callous action of the administration. On Raksha Bandhan day, women tied rakhis to the trees to protect them from extinction.
They said that reducing by one metre the proposed width of the said historic road will save all the trees that were planted and nurtured by ashramites and stalwarts on the directions of Gandhi and Kasturba during their stay at the Sevagram Ashram in this water-scarce region of Vidarbha.
Gandhi made Sevagram in Wardha district in Maharashtra his abode in the last years of his life. He lived there for 12 years from 1936 to 1948 as he spearheaded India’s struggle for independence from the British and was visited by all prominent leaders of the time and foreign dignitaries.
Political expediency had made the Shiv Sena take a position before the Maharashtra assembly elections in 2019 on the felling of trees in Aarey Colony for a metro shed in Mumbai. But after coming to power, the Sena-led coalition government seems to be doing exactly what it opposed: tinkering with the environment and the sentiments of people, whether it is in Aurangabad or in Sevagram.
Considering that the PWD minister in Maharashtra is a Congressman and so also the guardian minister of Wardha, it comes as a surprise that the administration is displaying such insensitivity to the fact that among the trees axed were those planted and nurtured by the Mahatma himself and his wife Kasturba.
No rules were followed. No meetings done with panchayats or NOCs (no-objection certificates) obtained from the four affected villages of Sevagram, Varud, Masada and Barbadi. When people of Wardha and Sevagram turned up in thousands to protest, the administration and the guardian minister kept giving empty assurances that the trees won’t be harmed. But, to the people's surprise, taking advantage of the Covid-19 situation, hundreds of fully grown trees were chopped off surreptitiously.
Struggling to save the last vestiges of national heritage, several organisations have written to the chief minister of Maharashtra, union minister of road and highways, PWD and environment ministers of Maharashtra, local guardian minister, without any action. Letters have gone from Sevagram Ashram, Gandhi Smarak Nidhi, Vriksha Bachao Nagrik Samiti, Magan Sangrahlaya Samiti, and now Gandhi’s own kin.
The three-kilometre stretch of Sevagram road, which is off the main highway, was used by Gandhi. He encouraged people to walk. The trees not just provided shade and shelter to the Mahatma and karyakartas but most were planted on his direction by the Charkha Sangh, Nai Talim Sangh and by stalwarts like Annasaheb Sahasrabuddhe, Aryanayakamji and Prabhakarji. The Wardha Nisarg Mandal also planted 150 trees as a tribute to freedom fighters; such is the sentiment behind tree plantation and conservation in this place of historical significance.
Urging authorities to be sensitive, Gopalkrishna Gandhi was reminded of Gandhi’s "clear and uncompromising code about not harming trees in the least".
Opposing the "modernisation" of Bapu’s monumenting, Arun Gandhi, who had lived with Gandhi and Ba at Sevagram in 1945 and planted trees, said, "When Bapu acquired the land from Jamnalalji (Bajaj) it was not only barren but was almost a desert. It was the toil of the people who lived in the ashram under Bapuji’s supervision that Sevagram became verdant and a testament to preservation of the environment and ecology."
"Residents of Sevagram planted and nurtured these trees by carrying water manually to water the saplings since the area was water-scarce one. These trees were reared by ashramvasis as if they were their children. They bear witness as history was made at Sevagram. Unfortunately we have lost many of these historic heritage trees already; our plea to you is please no more," said Tushar Gandhi.
Local media reports that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is slated to visit Sevagram Ashram on Gandhi’s birth anniversary on October 2, but there is no confirmation yet.
And if all this is being done in his name, then all the more reason that he should put a stop to this.