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Wednesday, March 03, 2021

Where have all the flowers gone?

Why does our middle class desecrate public spaces in India? How can we put a stop to this?

Written by Bina Agarwal |
Updated: January 3, 2016 12:19:20 pm


Every morning, I take a walk in the gardens of the Humayun Tomb in south Delhi. So do a few hundred others. The garden has dozens of flowering trees and bushes — hibiscus, harsingar, motia — as well as fruit trees: mango, lemon and orange.

If you go early enough, say at 6.30 am, you will see the grass carpeted with delicate harsingar flowers, the air filled with their fragrance. You will also see bushes abloom with red hibiscus for most of the year, or enjoy the elusive scent of motia in the summer. But if you arrive at 8 pm, you will wonder: where have the flowers gone? In that in-between time you will come upon the painful sight of many walkers picking flowers, fruits, neem pods… Some bring carrier bags, some use their pockets, some simply cup their hands. If you request them not to, the conversation is predictable:
Me: Please don’t pluck the flowers.
MW (morning walker): Why not, what is it to you?
Me: Because this is a public park and everyone enjoys its beauty.
MW: But these flowers will be dead by tomorrow.
Me: So may we be. And, as you say, these will not last the day.
MW: Hibiscus prevents diabetes. (She pops one into her mouth to demonstrate)
I want to say: A brisk walk will do more for diabetes than these flowers.
Instead I say:
You can grow hibiscus easily in a pot, even on a balcony.
MW: But I am taking only three flowers.
Me: If all walkers took three, we would have none left.
MW: Well what is it to you? Are these your flowers?

Any conscientious morning walker will report variations of this conversation. The pluckers are not the poor who sell flowers to eke a living. They are Delhi’s elite. We desecrate our public spaces by open defecation, by public urination (class is no barrier), by spitting paan on walls, and everywhere, we pick the gardens clean of nature’s bounty.

Seasonal fruits are a special attraction. Three summers ago, some school children came with their teacher, who, instead of taking them around the gardens to identify the trees (many have name boards), let them roam unsupervised. One small boy headed for a young mango tree heavily laden with ripening fruit, and began collecting them in his trouser pockets. I asked the child why he was picking the mangoes? “For my mother,” he said. I asked, “What will the garden’s birds eat then?” A little ashamed, he asked: “Shall I return them?”

This made me smile and I said, “Well, we can’t put them back on the tree, can we? Shall we take them to the guard?” He nodded and emptied out his pockets. Over 50 mangoes emerged within a minute. (I have seen long pockets but his ran the full length of his trousers!) The teacher watched her pupils tearing into the garden indulgently from a distance.

Indeed, many of those who come proudly proclaim their right to pick. A woman athlete accompanied by her husband was a new entrant this summer. She mainly picked motia, along with the stems. A conscientious morning walker shared this story with me. “I requested the athlete to stop plucking. She rudely responded, “Tujhe kya matlap? Tere phool hain kya? (What is it to you, are they your flowers?)” Another walker tried to reason with the athlete, but to no avail. Then her husband said: “Don’t you know that she is a nationally famous athlete?” The morning walker responded: “Then you should be a role model rather than steal flowers!” The irony of this was lost on both the athlete and her spouse.

Why does our middle class desecrate public spaces in India? And why don’t they pluck in the parks of London or New York? (Yes, many of them spend their summers abroad.) Nobel Laureate Elinor Ostrom in her book, Governing the Commons, lays emphasis on rule enforcement. But the security guards in our gardens seldom enforce the rules, saying, “It is not our job”, or “Woh bade log hain, hum rokte hain to woh dhamki dete hain (They are important people. They threaten us if we try to stop them.)” The few walkers who object to this pillage have given up trying.

But I finally came up with an argument which trumped at least one person who plucked regularly:
Me: Please don’t pluck the flowers since this is a public park.
MW: What is it to you? They are not your flowers.
Me: What will you do with them?
MW: I am taking them for puja!
Me: But this is a tomb, with graves all around you. Would your gods be pleased with flowers from a graveyard? Surely it would prove inauspicious?

She never plucked again, convinced by this very Indian logic. Try it!

Bina Agarwal is professor of development economics and the environmental, University of Manchester, and a resident of Delhi

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