Conscious citizens were appalled after seeing the photos of chopped branches and logs in Suhrawardy Udyan after several mature trees of the park were cut down as part of an ongoing government undertaking—the Independence Monument Construction (Phase III) Project. According to government officials, sculptures, an underground car park, food kiosks, walkways, a children's park, a water body, and a mosque will be constructed on this historic site under the project. Several large trees, some of which were planted nearly 50 years ago, were chopped down recently in order to make room for these food kiosks and walkways.
Much has been said over the years by environmentalists across the globe about the adverse impacts of removing trees on the environment and biodiversity. The tree felling in Suhrawardy Udyan sparked a storm of protests from green activists, student organisations, architects, academics and artists. The Liberation War Affairs Ministry and other government organisations in charge of implementing the project were not able to confirm how many trees have been removed thus far. Doesn't this failure of the authorities indicate that a judiciously-made plan was not followed, but rather, these trees were cleared haphazardly? People would visit Suhrawardy Udyan to attain historical consciousness and to satisfy their intellectual appetite by seeing various memorials to our Liberation War. Will food stalls selling multi-course meals or light snacks seem suitable in such a historic place? As various restaurants are available nearby Suhrawardy Udyan, is it necessary to construct seven food stalls or kiosks inside the park by destroying trees?
In a contemporary society deeply influenced by the canons of consumer capitalism, the tendency to emphasise business interests and consumer goods seems to be of paramount importance. But isn't it more important to create an atmosphere in Suhrawardy Udyan that would make the visitors think deeply about the days of trial and triumph, of gloom and glory, experienced by Bangladeshis in 1971? At the same time, the atmosphere of this public park should provide people with the opportunity to experience mental nourishment in the midst of lush greenery. The famous American writer Henry David Thoreau highlighted the idea of deriving spiritual bliss from the wilderness, which the hustle and bustle of city life could not offer. It is necessary to make sure that profit-making enterprises will not invade Suhrawardy Udyan, which would be at odds with the serenity of this area.
This act of cutting down trees also brings to mind the analysis of modern cities carried out by French sociologist and philosopher Henri Lefebvre. For him, urban spaces are constructed according to the interests of large corporations and capitalists. The common people do not get the opportunity to give their opinions about how the cities should be built. Private spaces such as shopping malls, posh hotels and restaurants, and office centres continue to flourish in the urban area. The general people barely find places that satisfy their need for an escape from the pressures and anxieties of daily life. Thus, the increasing disappearance of playing fields and parks has an adverse effect on people, and this may result in serious psychological and social issues such as depression, crime and alienation.
The concrete jungle continues to swell in Dhaka city due to the incessant construction of shopping malls, restaurants and apartment buildings. Consequently, the natural habitats of various living things are being disrupted, having a destructive impact on biodiversity. According to a study conducted by Bangladesh Institute of Planners (BIP), green spaces constitute only 9.2 percent of the total area of Dhaka city, whereas about 82 percent of the city is covered in concrete. As the number of vehicles increase, the city experiences greater emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Given this situation, it is of crucial importance to protect plants and biodiversity.
American biologist Edward O Wilson, known as the "father of biodiversity," said that destroying rainforests for economic gain is like burning a Renaissance painting to cook a meal. Wilson's scathing remark surely alludes to people who neither possess an interest in perceiving the beauty and profundity of Renaissance paintings, nor do they understand how crucial the preservation of nature is to human existence. Human actions marked by the disposition to crave money more than anything else can pose serious threats to the environment.
Despite knowing that Dhaka is currently one of the world's worst cities for air pollution, the decision to cut down trees at Suhrawardy Udyan seems far from sensible. Trees, as we know, absorb the human-caused carbon dioxide and release oxygen, thereby making the air we breathe cleaner and healthier. If a significant portion of one of the few green spaces of the city is covered in concrete, that will surely have far-reaching environmental consequences.
However, a press release given by the Liberation War Ministry states that although several trees were cut down during the implementation of this project, about 1,000 more trees will be planted soon. Such an initiative is certainly worthy of praise, but according to scientists, the removal of even a small number of trees has a negative impact on the biodiversity of a park or a forest. Thus, we cannot surmise that the felling of several large trees did not put pressure on the habitat of squirrels, bats, kites and other birds, and various species of insects in Suhrawardy Udyan. Only a very small number of insects and birds serving as pollinators can live on the ground and within urban settings. Habitat disruptions may lead to the decline in populations of pollinators. As a result, the production of seeds and fruits will be adversely affected. So, even a bee or a butterfly can play an important role in ensuring human well-being. Edward O Wilson, therefore, rightly said that we should preserve every scrap of biodiversity as priceless while we come to understand what it means to humanity.
As part of our duty to uphold the spirit of the Liberation War, it is of course important to build sculptures and monuments in Suhrawardy Udyan that would remind people of the sacrifices made and the valour shown by our countrymen in 1971. But it is also necessary to make sure that an invaluable natural asset such as trees are not cut down during the implementation of this project for constructing specific concrete structures that are not essential to this historic site and can have a harmful impact on nature. If we are to ensure our own well-being and that of our future generations, we must remain aware of our responsibilities to protect greenery and wildlife.
Dr Naadir Junaid is Professor at the Department of Mass Communication and Journalism, University of Dhaka.