Sunday, 17 October 2021

Gulf rupee: When the Reserve Bank of India played central banker in West Asia

 Even after Indian independence, the rupee was the legal tender in a few Persian Gulf states. It was replaced with the Gulf rupee in 1959 to curb gold smuggling.

When an Indian traveller wanted to visit certain Persian Gulf sheikhdoms in the 1950s, there was no need to stock up on foreign currency before the journey since the Indian rupee was the legal tender in these countries. For almost all financial transactions, the United Arab Emirates (then known as the Trucial States), Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman and Qatar used the rupee. The system was put in place by the British when they ruled India. But the arrangement suited the Reserve Bank of India as well, as the Gulf countries would purchase the rupees with pound sterling, against which the Indian currency was pegged.

By virtue of the system, India had economic clout in the Persian Gulf states that were still British protectorates and years away from a major oil boom. However, smugglers and other criminals saw it as an opportunity to make money from the average Indian’s desire to hoard gold.

Indranil Mukherjee/AFP

The modus operandi was quite simple. Smugglers would send young men to the Gulf on ostensible business trips with wads of rupee notes. There, gold would be purchased with the smuggled rupees and brought back to India. This would inevitably create an excess of Indian currency in the Gulf, leading to the extra rupees being sold back to the RBI, which lost valuable foreign exchange.

As is the case now, gold smugglers were very innovative in their methods to bypass Indian Customs officials. A well-known and often-repeated anecdote among the first generation of Malayali migrant workers in the Gulf tells the story of a man who was asked by an acquaintance to take a clock back to Bombay from a Gulf country. The unsuspecting young man carried the clock, inside which gold biscuits were neatly hidden, and was arrested and prosecuted in India.

“While the smuggling had been a problem for many years, in 1957 and 1958 the problem rose to alarming proportions and took a large toll on India’s reserves of foreign exchange,” Peter Symes, an Australian researcher and expert on paper money, wrote in a 1999 article.

A New York Times report from April 1959 stated that India had to pay the equivalent of $92.4 million in sterling for rupees presented through traders and banks in the Persian Gulf in 1957 alone. The report estimated that $69.3 million went to the region from India in exchange for smuggled gold in the first nine months of 1957.

Launch of the Gulf rupee

By 1959, India faced a major foreign exchange crisis thanks to the thriving gold smuggling business, losing hundreds of millions in sterling.

“To obviate or at least mitigate malpractices, which such an arrangement could give rise to, a separate series of notes exclusively for circulation in the Gulf (Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and the Trucial States) were issued by the Indian Government and the Reserve Bank of India in the 1950s,” according to the RBI.

On May 1, 1959, Indian President Rajendra Prasad gave his assent for the Reserve Bank of India (Amendment) Act 1959, after it was passed by both houses of the Parliament. The law allowed the Indian government and RBI to issue special notes that were intended to be circulated only in the Gulf region. This currency, which had the same value as the Indian rupee, was known as the Gulf rupee or External rupee.

One Gulf Rupee. Wikimedia Commons [CC0 1.0]

“The Ministry of Finance drew up the reform after months of secret consultations and after obtaining the approval of the British Government, the Bank of England and the rulers of the sheikhdoms,” the New York Times reported after the Lok Sabha passed the bill.

Shrouded in secrecy, as was the case with the 2016 demonetisation in India, few members of the ruling party knew that this reform was being planned. The task was entrusted to Morarji Desai, then the minister of finance. The bill was introduced in the Lok Sabha on April 27, 1959.

“The introduction of the amendment to the Reserve Bank of India Act, to the Indian parliament, caused some consternation to the members of parliament, as it was proposed without any warning,” Symes wrote. “The Government of India had tried to introduce the amendment with a degree of haste so that they could reduce the window of opportunity for people who might take advantage of the proposed issue of special notes and increase the smuggling activity in the immediate future. However, following a delay of a day or so in which the opposition was allowed to review the measures, the amendment to the Act was passed with little difficulty.”

The Gulf rupee notes retained the contemporary design but were different in colour and carried the prefix “Z”. The notes were issued one, ten and hundred denominations and were redeemable only at the Bombay office of issue.

Holders of regular Indian currency notes in the Gulf were given six weeks to exchange them for the new currency or sterling. The transition to the new notes was fairly smooth and regular rupee notes were no longer accepted in the Gulf. Innovative gold smugglers, however, found other ways to satiate the Indian appetite for the precious metal. At the time of the passing of the bill, Indians were believed to be privately hoarding up to $2 billion in gold.

Haj notes

Indian pilgrims also took rupee notes when they went on the Haj pilgrimage, where they could freely exchange them for Saudi riyals. The Indian government had initially allowed Saudi banks and traders to exchange these rupees for sterling in Bombay, but fears persisted over smugglers using this route to buy foreign exchange.

In response to this threat, the Indian government began to issue special Haj rupee notes for pilgrims going to Mecca and Medina. The notes in ten and hundred denomination had the word HAJ inscribed on the obverse. Another way to distinguish them from normal rupee notes was the serial number that was prefixed with the letters “HA”.

The Haj rupee was exchanged at par to the Saudi riyal in the early 1960s. (A Saudi riyal is now worth almost 20 rupees.) Haji Siddique Mohammed, a 79-year old retired railway employee from Mangalore, remembers using the Haj rupee during a pilgrimage in 1963. “We got the Haj rupee from the Haj Committee of India, before boarding the ship for Jeddah,” Mohammed told this writer. “I managed to preserve a couple of notes, but they were unfortunately lost when I moved out of my official quarters after retirement.”

Devaluation of the rupee

The special notes for the Haj and the Gulf stayed in circulation until the mid-1960s but were slowly being phased out in some countries. This was at a time when Indian economic growth was slow, and the Gulf nations were in the early stages of a boom. Kuwait introduced its own currency as early as 1961 and a few years later, Bahrain followed suit.

The end of the Gulf rupee was, however, precipitated by an important development in India. In June 1966, Indian Finance Minister Sachindra Chaudhuri, with the blessings of Indira Gandhi, announced a devaluation of the rupee. Overnight the exchange rate of the dollar rose to Rs 7.5 from Rs 4.76. Although this decision surprised many, rumours were doing the rounds for several months.

A World Bank team that had visited India in 1965 proposed the idea of devaluation of the rupee to get the economy moving. Media reports of the time suggested that devaluation was one of the West’s preconditions for increasing aid for India’s fourth five-year plan. The decision prompted members of the opposition and the business community to accuse the government of bowing to pressure from the United States and multilateral lending institutions.

The devaluation created a stir in West Asia, with some rulers asking the British government to intervene, since the original arrangement to rely on the Indian rupee was put in place by the British. Such requests were turned down.

Qatar and Dubai withdrew the Gulf rupee from circulation within months of the devaluation of the Indian rupee, with both states temporarily using Saudi riyals. They would subsequently use Qatar and Dubai riyals, which had the same value of the pre-devaluation Indian rupee. Most of the Trucial States followed suit, but Abu Dhabi decided to use the Bahraini dinar, which had an exchange rate of 10 Gulf rupees.

A bank in Al Ain, southeast of Dubai. Dubai withdrew the Gulf rupee from circulation within months of the devaluation of the Indian rupee in 1966. Credit: WAM/AFP

“Consequently, following the introduction of the Qatar and Dubai riyal, the Qatar and Dubai Currency Board made a claim to the Reserve Bank of India for the total amount of sterling originally sent to cover the rupees held by Qatar and Dubai, and not the lesser value of what the Gulf rupees were actually worth,” Symes wrote.

The RBI would deal with each of the Gulf states separately when it came to the settlement of the sterling reserves that it held.

The RBI-issued currency survived in Oman until 1970 and was mostly accepted as legal tender only in the country’s ports. In May 1970, the Saidi rial (named in honour of the House of Al Said) was introduced as a currency in Oman and replaced the Gulf rupee. The new currency was exchanged at par with the sterling. Gulf rupees were exchanged for 21 rupees to the riyal and were redeemed in Bombay by the Omani government. The country’s present currency the Omani rial became the legal tender in 1972.

The Haj and Gulf rupee notes were withdrawn by the RBI in the early 1970s and are now a much-sought after collector’s item. Auctions conducted by Spink & Son have managed to get bids from 120 pounds and VAT for a 10 Gulf rupee note to 44,000 pounds for a 100 Haj rupee note. Collectors and enthusiasts warn of several fake notes being sold for high prices on different e-commerce websites.

Five decades after the Gulf and Haj rupees have ceased to exist, India continues to enjoy strong business and cultural links with Persian Gulf states but the idea of the country getting back the economic clout that newly-independent India enjoyed in West Asia does not look realistic.

Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer and independent journalist, based in Mumbai. He is a Kalpalata Fellow for History & Heritage Writings for 2021.

(Source: Scroll)

Saturday, 16 October 2021

Hyderabad’s distinct Chaush community has roots in Yemen

 The Chaush, a diasporic group that has roots in the Hadramawt region of Yemen, came to Hyderabad to work as soldiers in the Nizam’s military, in private militias or as tax collectors.

At a time when Muslims in India are constantly asked to display their nationalism and explain their choices of food, love and profession, it is important to remember that identity is not a monolith. It is historically constructed and multidimensional. Neither can it be restricted by visa and passport regimes on printed paper, nor can it be defined by legal definitions of nationalism and citizenship. It is lived everyday as memories and connections between multiple local, regional and universal contexts.

The Chaush, a distinct diasporic group in Hyderabad that has roots in the Hadramawt region of Yemen, exemplify the possibilities of inhabiting translocal identities, as this essay shows. Chaush is an Ottoman Turkish word that denotes a junior military rank indicating the predominance of soldiers and mercenaries in the early Hadrami migration to Hyderabad centuries ago, from Hadramawt valley or wadi in South Yemen. The scholars and traders of the wadi are subjects of legends and it occupies an important place in early Islamic history. Hadrami Arabs were instrumental in the spread of Islam in the Indian Ocean through complex networks of kinship and economic relationships along its port cities. Through centuries, Hadramis have travelled as religious scholars, traders and mercenaries. Their presence is still written across the Indian Ocean from Comoros Islands to Kerala to Singapore and Indonesia.

Most Hadrami Arabs came to Hyderabad to work as soldiers in the Nizam’s military, irregular forces, in private militias or as jamadars/tax collectors. They also occupied high ranking military positions as officers in the Hyderabad Army. For example, General El Edroos, a Hadrami, was the Commander-in-Chief of the Hyderabad forces when they surrendered to the Indian forces in 1948.

But, as scholars have noted, Arab mercenaries were already a part of the multiple armies, especially Maratha armies, across the Deccan before the British and the Mughal empires started competing for dominance. For example, the Gaikwad Maharaja of Baroda employed many Arab soldiers, including Ja‘far al-Kathiri, whose successors later came to work for the Nizam of Hyderabad and financed the Al Kathiri Sultanate in Hadramawt with the profits they earned in Hyderabad. Another prominent Hadrami family is the Al Quaiti family, a part of Hyderabad’s nobility, which established the important Al Quaiti Sultanate in Hadramawt.

In Hyderabad city, Barkas and Chandrayangutta are both predominantly Chaush neighbourhoods. Names of shops, hospitals and schools in these areas announce this community’s claim on this space. Restaurants serving Mandi and Kahwa (cuisine unique to the community) line all main streets. Chaush men can be identified by their sartorial choices. They wear geometrically patterned lungis or wraps under kurtas. These wraps are available in shops in Barkas, Lad Bazaar and Shehran. These are popularly referred to as sarung, a word that has etymological roots in Indo-Malay and is now a part of the Arabic language. These are popular items that are bought as gifts by relatives or family when they visit Hyderabad from abroad. It is common knowledge among the Chaush that these sarungs are produced in Malaysia and Indonesia, then supplied to the Gulf, from where they are marketed elsewhere.

The garment also allows one to locate the Hadrami diaspora in the larger matrix of global capitalist production and supply chains. During the late colonial period, Hadramis in South East Asia, especially Indonesia, acted as intermediaries in the cloth business. The local batik industry there still remains a site from where the sarung cloth is produced. Similarly, the open ‘Arab style’ sandals have become very popular amongst the Chaush community in the last three decades. These are produced in South East Asia and then supplied from Dubai to Yemen and elsewhere in the Indian Ocean region.

For a Chaush, the distinction between Arab and Hadrami identity is blurred – Arab being a meta-identity that subsumes the Hadrami identity. However, Hyderabadi Hadramis primarily associate themselves with the creolised Chaush identity and as Syed/Mashiekh/Qabail – social stratification systems of Hadramawt. Therefore, Chaush identity is truly translocal – diasporic yet stratified on traditional lines. It is regional – Arab and Hadrami at the same time. Most importantly, Chaush identity is also universal – most are members of Shafi’i Maddhab (Sunni sect) yet in Hyderabad it is not uncommon for various Sunni sects to pray together.

Modern Yemeni and Indian nation-states complicate the Chaush identity because the homogenising narratives of these postcolonial nation-states affirm ideas of fixed borders and reified identities. However, for the Chaush, the links with Hadramawt as a geographic entity or a socio-political imaginary allows for demarcation of boundaries of their identity. Yet, state-centric definitions of ‘host society’ and ‘home country’ are too limited to capture or understand these meanings.

Hadrami naming patterns can be witnessed across Chandrayangutta and Barkas

The word watan comes closest to the idea of a homeland for the Chaush.  Watan does not mean a nation-state, but it is an interplay of translocal geographies of origin/s, that is, regions, cities or villages. For the Chaush, members born in Hadramawt or watan are called Wilayati (literally foreign born; a person born in Hadramawt ‘the homeland’ is still a foreigner to the creole) and those born outside the homeland (diasporic) are called Muwalladin (foreign born creole/of mixed parentage, hence non-pure), denying the possibility of authentic or the stress to retain a ‘pure’ core or a ‘syncretic’ present – in practices, customs, traditions or language. Hadramis born in India are called Mawlluwd-e-Hind. Chaush means both Wilayati as well as Muwallad. A Chaush never belongs.

The movement of the muwalladin as a historic diaspora also gets reflected in the current trends of migrating to the Gulf within the Chaush community in Hyderabad. Post police action, most Chaush found themselves stripped of their normative privileges and status, and ended up participating in the informal sectors of the postcolonial Indian State. 

Today, the community finds it difficult to compete with those who have more social capital in terms of access and education. Almost all Chaush households have one or more members working in the Gulf. Economic migration to the Gulf began in the 1960s, however, it intensified in the 1970s with relaxed passport and visa regimes.

Migrating to the Gulf is preferable to working in Hyderabad for most Chaush, not only because it offers better economic opportunities, but also because there is a relative ease with the idea of moving within the Indian Ocean area. Therefore, given the high demand for labour in the Gulf markets and the established networks that this community has, it is easier to transcend the disadvantages it faces at ‘home’ by migrating. Interestingly, many Chaush women – young and old – who have not been to newer malls and markets in Hyderabad, know street names and malls in Dubai and Jeddah.

The Chaush identity defies notions of authenticity. This diaspora affirms that a ‘lived everyday’ is located in between historically contingent local/s and universal. For them translocal mobility is normal. It opens up questions regarding different ideas of assimilation and integration that have prevailed in the non-west, specifically in the Indian Ocean region. And offers new frames for understanding concepts like homeland, host society, and notions of belonging.

The point above cannot be emphasised enough in a time when within India, many intellectuals – public and otherwise – are trying to ‘defend’ Indian Muslims by pitting a limited local syncretic South Asian Islam against the universal barbaric global Islam. This practice is not only intellectually dangerous for it presents a part of Indian Muslims identity as its whole, but also because it is laced with the remains of orientalised ideas of Islam. The idea that universal Islam is the other of the modern world has been witnessed in multiple guises since enlightenment – sometimes as racism, sometimes as development and sometimes as a defence of human rights. The work of South Asianists, which implicitly borrows from this dichotomy of a bad revivalist global Muslim versus a Good Indian syncretic Muslim, only reinforced Islamophobic tropes and suspicions against an already vulnerable population. Hence, the Indian Ocean region, Deccan and Hyderabad offer a methodological possibility for us to develop a more inclusive approach to identity formation.

Author: Khatija Khader completed her PhD at Jawaharlal Nehru University and currently teaches at the Centre for International Relations, Islamic University for Science and Technology (IUST) in Kashmir. Views expressed are the author’s own.

(Source: TNM)

Friday, 15 October 2021

What if Indian states were countries

 If we compare Indian states to India’s neighbourhood, we find that only Goa, Sikkim, and NCT of Delhi have a GDP per capita higher than China’s GDP per capita of $16,772.

India is the seventh largest country in the world in terms of area and has the second largest population in the world at 1.36 billion. In 2015, The Economist called it “a continent masquerading as a country.” Taking this thought forward, CEDA is starting a series where we will look at how Indian states compare with other countries in the world.

Representational image | People at a market place in Ranchi | Bloomberg Photo

In the picture above, we have tried to find countries comparable to Indian states based on GDP per capita (International Dollars, purchasing power parity). According to the World Bank, “an international dollar would buy in the cited country a comparable amount of goods and services a U.S. dollar would buy in the United States.” Purchasing power parity refers to the rate of conversion that equalizes the purchasing power of different currencies by eliminating the differences in price levels between countries.

When we hover over a state in the heat map above, we can see the state’s GDP per capita in the year 2019 and the country closest to it in terms of GDP per capita in purchasing power parity (PPP) terms.

For example, when we hover over Goa, we see that the GDP per capita (International Dollars, PPP) is $21,922. An equivalent country for Goa is the Caribbean country, Antigua and Barbuda with GDP per capita of $22,460. Goa is also the state with the highest GDP per capita in India.

Sikkim ranks second in the country with a per capita GDP of $20,098 which is like Belarus which has a GDP per capita of $20,099. The NCT of Delhi follows Sikkim at third place with a GDP per capita of $17,808 and finds itself at par with North Macedonia ($17,583).

Among south Indian states, Telangana at $10,857 finds itself at par with Iraq in GDP per capita terms while Karnataka ($10,644) and Kerala (10,572) have similar GDP per capita as Jordan ($10,497). Andhra Pradesh ($7,835) is at par with Morocco ($7,856).

Uttar Pradesh has a GDP per capita of $3,310 which is like the west African nation, Benin ($3,426). Bihar has the lowest GDP per capita in India at $2,076 and it is at the same level as another west African nation, Guinea-Bissau ($2,021).

States domestic product for the year 2019 has been taken from the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation. GDP per capita for Indian states has been calculated using official population projections for 2019 based on Census 2011 and figures in Indian Rupee have been converted to International Dollars on PPP basis using OECD’s conversion factor. Other countries GDP per capita for 2019 has been taken from the World Bank.

If we compare Indian states to India’s neighbourhood, we find that only Goa, Sikkim, and NCT of Delhi have a GDP per capita higher than China’s GDP per capita of $16,772.

Author: Vibhav Khandelwal is a student of economics and finance at Ashoka University. Views are personal.

(Source: The Print)

Thursday, 14 October 2021

Mahatma Gandhi disagreed with Rabindranath Tagore on many things. Here’s where they agreed

 An excerpt from ‘Tagore and Gandhi: Walking Alone, Walking Together’, by Rudrangshu Mukherjee.

In spite of the divergence in their philosophical and spiritual perspectives, there were some fundamental issues on which they were in complete agreement. These are no less important. One was their commitment to service which was at the core of what Rabindranath, in his first letter to Gandhi, referred to as their common sadhana. Gandhi embodied service to the people. This was his calling, his life. He could thus say towards the end of his life, “My life is my message.” He made dedicated service for the common people a “talisman” for decisions, policies, etc.:

“I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and yourself melting away.”

Gandhi’s commitment to service is so well known, it does not need any reiteration, but Rabindranath’s work in this sphere is less noticed as he is seen more as a creative artist.

Rabindranath Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi.

From the time he began touring parts of the Bengal countryside to look after his family’s landed estates, he became concerned and then involved with the welfare of the people who lived in the villages. He wrote about these problems in his essays [...L]ater on in his life he devoted himself to the welfare and the development of villages around Santiniketan. His aim was to structure the economy of these villages to make the people self-reliant in an environment whose principle would not be self-interest but co-operation. He wrote:

“The symptoms of our miseries cannot be removed from the outside, their causes must be extirpated from within. If we wish to do this, we must undertake two tasks; first to educate everyone in the land, so as to unite them mentally with all the world...Secondly, to unite them among themselves in the sphere of their livelihood, so as to bring about their union with the world through their work.”

Rabindranath’s concern and dedication to service to the poor was reflected in his creative work – especially his short stories and in some of his novels. Witness Gora’s restless endeavour to work among and for the poor; and also the depiction of the character of Jethamoshai (uncle) in the novel Chaturanga.

For both Gandhi and Rabindranath, the dedication to service for the poor was integrally connected to their vision of swaraj. Neither of them understood swaraj as mere political freedom from British rule. This political freedom was to be complemented by the emancipation of human beings.

What constituted this dimension of swaraj? It was constituted by the ability and the empowerment of individuals to regulate and run their own lives independent of external institutions like the state. Individuals should have the strength to fearlessly conduct their own daily lives. Gandhi emphasised abhaya (fearlessness) and Rabindranath atmashakti (soul force) – the two notions were inseparable and could only grow out of service and responsibility. Rabindranath wrote, “For India, true freedom is social freedom: the freedom to do good...”

Rabindranath expressed his vision of swaraj in a famous song which roughly translated goes as, “We are all kings in the kingdom of our king”. If everyone was sovereign, there was no necessity for a king. Gandhi approximated to the same idea through his vision of “enlightened anarchy”. He wrote in January 1939:

“Political power, in my opinion, cannot be our ultimate aim. It is one of the means used by men for their all-round advancement. The power to control national life through national representatives is called political power. 

Representatives will become unnecessary if the national life becomes so perfect as to be self-controlled. It will then be a state of enlightened anarchy in which each person will become his own ruler. He will conduct himself in such a way that his behaviour will not hamper the well-being of his neighbours. In an ideal State there will be no political institution and therefore no political power.”

Their vision of swaraj was embedded in ahimsa – another idea that converged in the sadhana of Gandhi and Rabindranath. For both of them, ahimsa represented a moral force which in India was pitched against British rule. It was, however, a moral force for the whole of humanity. Both had stood on the principle of ahimsa and had withdrawn from movements in which they had played a critical part when they saw those movements deviating from non-violence and deploying coercion and violence.

It was in one such conjuncture during the Swadeshi movement that Rabindranath had stepped aside from the movement and in great mental anguish composed that memorable song, “Ekla cholo re”. If no one answers to your call, walk alone. Gandhi made this song his life’s motto and lived it when he walked away from the Non-cooperation Movement after the violence at Chauri Chaura and then again in the last months of his life when he refused to be part of negotiations to partition India and walked away alone to Noakhali to pursue his life’s calling of service to the poor, of ahimsa, and abhaya.

Since ahimsa was one of the pillars of their lives, Rabindranath and Gandhi saw India (and the world) in terms of harmony, free from hatred of any kind, religious and racial. Their idea of India was inclusive and assimilative, and they were anguished when they saw that idea and ideal of India being ripped apart by sectarian violence.

Rabindranath was spared the tragedy of witnessing Partition and the communal violence that preceded and followed it. He had to suffer though the spectacle of global violence in the months before his death. Gandhi had to live through the violence of Partition, and according to those who knew him, was never quite the same person after that experience. He told Nirmal Bose towards the end of his life, “I don’t want to be a failure. But I may be a failure.” As an apostle of non-violence he fell a victim to violence.

Through the expressions of difference and respect for each other, Gandhi and Rabindranath set an example of debating and deliberating on public, social, and political questions. They formed a legacy of public reasoning. They debated without acrimony. This is an essential constituent of the Gandhi-Rabindranath heritage – a beacon as India walks the razor’s edge to fashion a society that is inclusive, free of bigotry and hatred, and informed by civilised discussion and discourse. Through their words and their deeds Rabindranath and Gandhi taught us to:

“...Sing with mortal voice...unchanged ...
Though fallen on evil days,
On evil days though fallen and evil tongues;
In darkness, and with dangers compast round,
And solitude; yet not alone...” 

Excerpted with permission from Tagore and Gandhi: Walking Alone, Walking Together, Rudrangshu Mukherjee, Aleph Book Company.

(Source: Scroll)

Wednesday, 13 October 2021

A mini forest of one's own: How a Kerala man grew 400 trees in 3 cents of land

 MR Hari had tried many other methods before finally using the Miyawaki method to raise a forest of 400 plants in 18 months, in a plot in Puliyarakonam, Thiruvananthapuram.

MR Hari hops into the little restaurant just outside his plot in Puliyarakonam, a wee bit off the city of Thiruvananthapuram. He is obviously at home here, asking the ‘chechi’ running the restaurant for a breakfast of dosa and kadala (gram) curry, and telling her to allow him to be a complete vegetarian, without pampering him with an early morning offering of her chicken curry.

The plot next to it is two acres in all, part of it now converted into a forest, using the Miyawaki method. Miyawaki is a technique pioneered by Japanese botanist Akira Miyawaki, that involves growing self-sustaining mini forests in urban areas. The method helps the plants grow 10 times faster and 30 times denser than in normal conditions.

“Nothing was working. I had bought this land 12 years ago, after selling off my property in Kottayam, where I am from. But every year when the summer came, all the plants I planted would just die,” Hari says, as he climbs up the plot, which is divided into several layers. He expertly identifies every little plant on the way, suggesting the medicinal remedies that the leaves or fruits of some could give.

“The padathali is good for getting rid of grey hair, the thamravalli with the copper-coloured leaves is used by tribal people to treat cancer without causing wounds, the kareelanchi was once used to treat itching in children, the kayyonni for hair growth and a way to rebuild your failed lungs, the naaku with the green leaves is used by tribal people for tonsillitis and the changalamparanda is often powdered into chutney for the bones,” he says, often using pronouns for the plants, addressing them like children.

Hari runs a company called Invis Multimedia in Thiruvananthapuram with three partners, but his real interest has always been farming, he says. “I am a farmer, I want to be a farmer,” he says sitting on top of a rock, fondly looking at the forest he has raised in three cents of land.

“I grew up among trees, in a small town in Kottayam. I loved to plant them. When I grew up, I sold off my property in Kottayam and bought this dry land which had a pond. But it dried up when I got it cleaned – turns out all the water was because of the mud that was stuck in the holes. When we cleaned it, the water drained out through the holes.” 

He tried to raise a forest every year, planting 500 trees. Fifty of those would bloom but die with no groundwater. He did his best not to drill a borewell, since that would harm the environment. But when everything else failed, he tried that as well. That too, didn’t work.

Disheartened, Hari waited for another way out. “That’s when I heard of the Japanese Miyawaki method. I got help from a scientist friend of mine, Dr Mathew Dan. I took one-and-a-half years to research and experiment. Eighteen months ago, I planted these 400 trees on three cents, and they have shot up in search of sunlight so very soon,” he says, pointing at his mini forest of trees, shrubs, creepers and so on.

Hari elaborates about the plants he has raised – 70 species of natural vegetation and 200 more added. Among the natural ones he names are Ada pathiyan (Holostemma Ada-Kodien), Uzhinja (Cardiospermum helicacabum), Kayyonni (Eclipta prostrata), Nilappana (Curculigo orchioides), etc. And among those planted are Ashokam (Saraca asoca), Arayaal (Ficus relegiosa), Karingali (Acacia catechu), Thanni (Terminalia bellirica) and so on.

“There would be one type of insects feeding on a specific plant. Normally what happens is, people raise just one kind of plant over a plot of land and this particular insect that feeds on it will attack it. Whereas in a forest, different species of plants will be attacked by different types of insects. And some of these insects will prey on the others, and that way the plants are protected. It is always ideal to grow multiple species of plants.”

Hari describes his method. On top of the soil, you make a bed with tender coconut shell, and put a coating mixture over it using lime shell. The coating mixture includes rice hull, coir pith and cowdung. Hari rattles off the use of each component: to hold water, to make the plants strong, to prepare the soil. “The plants are so close to each other that they need to grow fast to get the sunlight, competing with each other,” he speaks fondly of them. Hari gets upset when he spots some slaked lime sprinkled around a few plants. He calls up a worker on the phone and asks why. “It appears some agriculture officer had suggested it. But their methods are different,” Hari says after the call.

He then shows a Facebook post – a photo of mushrooms sprouting around his plants. “I was going to post this photo of mushrooms on October 27, when Facebook brought me a reminder from a year ago. It seems the same day last year, mushrooms had sprouted in the forest. That means the organic nature of the soil is just perfect. It means I am doing something right,” he says cheerfully, and adds, “In my opinion, this is the only way, we as humans, can do something to put an end to climate change and global warming.”

Hari gets up from the rock and walks into his forest with a long stick. “I will stay here for a while,” he says, his voice drowning in the sounds of the forest already.

(Source: TNM)