CHENNAI: The State tree of Tamil Nadu — Palmyrah (Borassus flabellifer), popularly known as panaimaram in Tamil, has been has been slowly vanishing from the landscape, forcing environmentalists and NGOs to step up their efforts to protect the ancient tree, that has been part and parcel of Tamil life for centuries. Activists are concerned that even as the trees are being felled across the State for many reasons, many of the existing ones are not in good health. They have called for urgent measures to save the tree for future generations.
Tamil Nadu has the highest number of palmyra trees — out of the estimated 8.59 crore of Palmyra in India, about 5.10 crore are in Tamil Nadu, according to the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University. However, activists say that the number has dropped, drastically, to three crore.The palmyra tree has been hailed as karpaga vruksham (divine trees which offers everything one asks for) in Tamil literature as no part of it goes waste. There is even a Tamil classical poem (Tala Vilasam) entirely dedicated to the glory of this tree, enumerating 801 ways in which the tree and its parts can be used. In fact, the Tamil language and literature has been transmitted over generations for thousands of years only through palm leaf manuscripts.
However, the number of palmyra trees has fallen, over the years due to a variety of socio-economic changes in the state. In fact, over the past decade, environmentalists have sounded the alarm to preserve the ancient tree several times. Though the state government has taken some efforts to protect the tree, activists say more needs to be done.
S Nallusamy, coordinator of Toddy movement, a crusader for protecting palmyra trees, gets to the heart of the problem — changes that have reduced Tamil society’s dependence on the tree and its products. “Modern scientific advances came as a curse to palm products. Firstly, use of palm leaves for roofing of houses stopped. People of Tamil Nadu used to drink padhaneer and toddy as these are known as the soft drinks of the State. But after the advent of foreign liquor, which is harmful to health, demand for padhaneer and toddy took a beating, “ Nallusamy said.
Pointing out that palm trees were the main source for sugar and jaggery till just seven or eight decades ago, Nallusamy said, “After the introduction of white sugar which used to be called aska sarkarai, the deterioration started. Now, modern science has found that white sugar is harmful to the health.”
“In the 1950s, white sugar was seen as a status symbol. During feasts hosted by rich people, aska sarkarai would be served on the plate or on banana leaves in a very small quantity and country sugar would be served in large quantities. In 1962, a tea shop was started in our village wherein ordinary tea using country sugar was priced at three paise per cup while aska tea was priced at five paise.
So, slowly, the image of white sugar went up while country sugar lost its sheen,” Nallusamy said, recalling how white sugar made inroads into the lives of Tamils who were using panankaruppati (palm sugar candy).“Now, the trend has come a full circle. At present, white sugar is available at Rs 40 per kg while karuppatti is priced at Rs 200 per kg,” he said.
According to Nallusamy, Tamil Nadu alone had around 50 crore palmyra trees before Independence. While every day, palmyra trees are cut — mostly for firewood — neighbouring Sri Lanka has made the cutting a palmyra tree a non-bailable offence. “A sizeable number of existing palmyra trees are fighting for survival. The main reason for this is depleting groundwater level. Palm trees survived because of rainwater and groundwater. By Nature’s law of water sharing, groundwater is there for vegetation like trees, while water in rivers, ponds, and other sources are for human beings and animals. But we have exploited groundwater to the maximum extent and this has led to the withering of palmyra trees, “ Nallusamy said.
S Ilavenil, founder Panaiyerigal (palm climbers) movement in Ramanathapuram district, offers a different dimension. He is of the view that the number of palmyra trees will be proportionate to the number of climbers. “Now, the general notion is that palm climbing is a lowly profession. There is a general view that palm climbers hail only from Nadar community. It is not so. In Ramanathapuram district alone, there are 12 communities engaged in that work,” he said, adding that he is training interested persons as palm climbers.
“Even now, palm trees are being felled every day. There is no manpower to climb palm trees to manage operations regarding extraction of palm juice to make padhaneer. There is no special effort needed for growing palm trees. For example, a few decades ago, palm trees were in abundance in Tamil Nadu and no one took any extra effort to grow those palm trees. This was because there were sufficient people to climb the trees and the palm products had a value,” he said.
The road ahead
The way forward, according to activists, is to promote palm products and create awareneness about the benefits of using such products. “In Andhra Pradesh, even now in many villages, toddy is given to babies as well as pregnant and new mothers. There are liquor varieties for every country. Like vodka for Russia and wine for France, toddy is our indigenous liquor. If prepared properly, toddy will not affect the health of individuals,” Ilavenil said, arguing for the lifting of ban on toddy.
Nallusamy suggests that the government should stop providing white sugar through ration shops and instead sell karuppatti. Further, palm seeds should be sown on the banks of water bodies such as ponds and lakes, as well as along highways and waterways, he said, adding that palm trees take years to bear fruit, and those growing palm trees should be encouraged with incentives and long term loans.
However, some activists note that demand for palm products has been slowly rising. “Awareness about the health benefits of palm products have gone up in the past few years. People have started demanding palm products. Once the use of palm products increases, the number of palm trees would also automatically increase,” said B Kalanidhi, of Semmai Vazhviyal Naduvam (SVN), an organisation working for the revival of traditional way of Tamil life.
SVN is engaged in training people on making karuppatti in their homes. “When we organise this training, even in villages, people turn up in sizeable numbers since they want to produce genuine palm products on their own and avoid spurious ones in the market,” he pointed out, adding that increasing the number of palm climbers was one of their objectives.Noting that efforts of the government in protecting the palmyra tree were insufficient, Kalanidhi acknowledged that the government had done some good by introducing palm products such as padhaneer in all districts.
Raghunatha Bhoopathy, founder, Panaikal Kodi (meaning one crore palymra trees), a movement devoted to increasing the number of palmyra trees in the State, said the organisation was planting trees and tracking their growth. “Our volunteers’ group is creating a database of the palm seeds we have sown, whether they are in good condition, and how many seeds failed to sprout,” he explained. Depending upon the areas and soil content, the yield given by the palmyra trees differ. In Thoothukudi and Tiruchendur areas, high-yielding palmyra trees are seen even now. Panaikal Kodi works in tandem with other groups engaged in this work across the State.
One tree, many uses
The palmyra is the official tree of TN. It is called karpaga vruksham (celestial tree which offers everything one asks for), and is highly respected because all its parts can be used
Newly germinated seeds form fleshy sprouts below the surface which can be boiled and eaten as a fibrous, nutritious food
The ripe fibrous outer layer of the fruits is edible after boiling or roasting. When the fruit is tender, the kernel inside the hard shell is an edible jelly (nungu) that is refreshing and rich in minerals
Leaves were widely used in roofing
In ancient times, dried palm leaves were used to write manuscripts
According to Nallusamy, coordinator of Toddy movement, while every day palmyra trees are cut in Tamil Nadu, mostly for firewood, neighbouring Sri Lanka has made cutting a palmyra tree non-bailable offence
For its part, the State government had sanctioned a scheme for ‘Safeguarding and planting of Palmyra’ at a cost of Rs 1.38 crore to be implemented from 2016-17 to 2020-21. However, the efforts to know the latest position on this scheme failed since Forest Department Secretary Mohammed Nasimuddin could not be reached