It was a quiet wintery noon. Tipu Sultan, a 28-year-old man, accompanied by his newly married wife, had come to Kaliganj's celebrated banyan tree to spend some time in the lap of nature. It was a romantic sight; the newly married couple were talking and laughing sitting on a branch of the banyan tree.
They spent around an hour on the premises before leaving on a motorcycle. While they were going out through a concrete gate, the caretaker of the place, Abdul Khalek, stopped them and asked for some money as a tip.
"Son, I do not get any salary and I have to live on what you all contribute," caretaker Abul Khalek pleaded. Then, Tipu Sultan gave him a Tk50 note. The incident is very telling about the state of the country's oldest banyan tree, something the government supposedly takes pride in.
Standing on 2.8 acres of land, the banyan tree of the Bethuli (Mollikpur) village in Kaliganj in Jhenaidah is regarded the oldest and one of the largest banyan trees in the Indian subcontinent. Though it says on a government signboard that the age of the tree is between 250 and 300 years, most people do not have any idea how long the tree has been standing.
The main tree has already died ages ago, although there are another 45 trees in the area that have grown out of it. Now, due to negligence and human intervention, those banyan trees are struggling to survive.
There was a time in the past when there were no convention halls or community centres. Local people held all cultural programmes, festivals, as well as bazaars and haat under the banyan trees. There is even an altar inside the boundary of the area where members of the Hindu community worship. But those days are nearly gone. Deforestation has long been wreaking havoc on the ecosystem.
Local people have been nurturing the tree from time immemorial. Then the Jashore district council started to look after the banyan tree. However, the Forest Department took charge of the tree in 2009 to preserve it. The government acquired 6 acres of land in the area, of which the banyan trees are standing on 2.08 acres.
According to caretaker Abdul Khalek, on weekends and government holidays, as many as 500 people gather at the place. Sometimes, foreigners come to visit too. Local people organise fairs inside the area.
Leading botanists said that in terms of biodiversity, banyan trees are considered a unique species. The tree is very important for the study of nature. Botanists can even conduct a genetic map for further studies. Moreover, it is considered a carbon tank that absorbs carbon dioxide and keeps the temperature low.
Khalek has been taking care of the tree and its surrounding area since 2009. But the maintenance efforts of the government were never adequate and as a result, a lion's share of the tree has already vanished.
"If you look at the place, you will see one-third of the tree. Most of them have been uprooted and as a result, died," said the 51-year-old Khalek.
"When I was a small boy, I used to play around the tree and then the roots and branches were so thick that we could not enter the trees," said Khalek.
Khalek said that he does not get any salary from the government but he has been working because he has affection for the tree. The forest department gives him an honorarium of Tk1,000 per month for taking care of the place.
Whenever visitors come, Khalek begs for tips since his family runs mainly on the money he earns here.
Though the government has acquired the land to preserve the age-old banyan tree, proper care has not been taken to preserve the tree in the real sense of the word. Leading botanists said that it is compulsory to protect the hanging roots (banyan trees have roots that grow from its bark and come down to the ground) and allow it to safely reach the ground.
If a banyan tree gets its root in the ground, it gets support from falling. This way, banyan trees get the scope to spread. Moreover, the tree gets its food through its roots.
For years, the old trees did not get the chance to get adequate support or food and as a result, most fell and died.
Professor Mihir Lal Saha, Department of Botany at Dhaka University, has been seeing the banyan tree since his childhood. Born in the village of Jagla in Magura,Saha used to visit the tree while visiting his relatives in Kaliganj, ever since he was a 10-year-old boy.
The last time he visited the tree was on 1 April 2016. But he was shocked to see the condition of the trees. Now the main tree as well as many others have already died. And there are around 45 trees wasting away due to negligence.
"I went to visit the tree with high hopes, but I felt sad when I saw the way the tree was standing in sheer carelessness and negligence," said Saha.
Professor Saha told The Business Standard that the authorities should have enabled the roots to reach the ground so that the trees and canopy can get the support to stand.
The ideal practice to preserve such old and precious trees is to keep people at bay. Visitors are supposed to see the trees from a distance. But the Forest Department has done the opposite. The government agency has instead turned it into a park-like arrangement.
The government agency built 14 concrete benches inside the boundary of the banyan tree in 2018. The authorities built two concrete umbrellas, public toilets and a ticket counter for visitors. They also built a rest house for officers on the land.
Not only that, but the Forest Department has also planted exotic trees like Thuja, Araucaria, Hibiscus, Pinus, Codiaeum Variegatum and Christmas trees inside the boundary to give it a park-like look.
Noted naturalist Mokarram Hossain, who also visited the famous banyan tree, said that the tree does not have enough space to grow naturally due to the different obstacles in the area.
Although there is no official document calling it a park, what we see is a park, surrounded by roads on two sides, a bamboo garden on one side, and on the other side, a rest house.
"The government has tried to make it a tourist spot, which is totally unwarranted. The tree is like an archaeological site and the presence of human beings damages the ecosystem," said Mokarram. He further added that the huge crowds that gather during the fairs put the growth and life of the tree at stake.
Mokarram said that the banyan trees are a part of our tradition. The way we preserve the heritage sites, in the same way, we will have to protect the banyan trees.
"The Forest Department has turned the tree area into a recreational park in the name of a social forest. This is very much an incorrect decision," said Professor Saha. "The government should have restricted the entry of common people to the area."
The older trees fell because their roots could not reach the ground in time. And when the area was opened to the public, all scope of saving them were gone. The presence of the local people also damaged the roots. If the roots had been saved, the trees would have survived. Saha believes the government should have acquired the place much earlier.
Khalek planted a total of 40 banyan saplings in the area and brought down the root of the banyan tree and protected it with bamboo.
"The authorities have restricted human entry into the Lawachara National Park. Now the face of the area has changed. The forest department could have looked at this differently," said Professor Saha, "if human intervention is stopped, the hanging roots will come down and the trees will survive."
"To keep the trees alive, the government must shut down the park and preserve the banyan tree for some 20 years. I hope the tree will recover to some extent then," said Saha.
Meanwhile, the Divisional Forest Officer Sajjadurzzaman in Jashore said they have no money allocation or staff for the place. He claimed that there was no negligence on their part, but the department's lack of manpower was behind the current state of the tree.
"We are doing this to turn it into a tourist attraction and the concrete structure was built by other officers many years ago," said DFO Sajjadurzzaman.
DFO Sajjadurzzaman does not agree with Professor Saha on restricting people's entry inside the area.
"I don't think that the tree will survive if peoples' access is restricted," said DFO Sajjadurzzaman. "Unless people break and cut the branches, why would it be harmful for the trees?"