Volume 28 - Issue 10 :: May. 07-20, 2011
from the publishers of THE HINDU


Rooting for a garden


An uncertain future awaits Mumbai's 150-year-old botanical garden with rare and endangered tree species.


Amherstia nobilis, considered one of the most beautiful trees.

PARAKEETS shriek from the upper reaches of the trees, a koel calls, squirrels squeak and a common kingfisher perches patiently near a pond. Some 50 metres from the periphery of this Eden, one can hear the mayhem of Mumbai life with its discordant sounds of traffic. Inside, there is serenity and, more importantly for Mumbaikars, a 2 C drop in the temperature even on the hottest days.

This is Rani Baug, the city's botanical garden and zoo. Inaugurated in 1861, it is one of Mumbai's favourite public spaces. Now in its 150th year, the future of this green park spread over 53 acres (one acre is 0.4 hectare) in the heart of the city is uncertain. At risk is not only the city's largest public space but also rare and endangered flora – Amherstia nobilis Wall., Annona glabra L., Anogeissus pendula Edgew, Caesalpinia ferrea Mart., Colvillea racemosa Boj., Enterolobium cyclocarpa Gaertn. and Kleinhovia hospita L., to mention a few.


Two baobabs stand as sentinels on either side of the triple triumphal arch entrance.

Ironically, the threat to this small piece of paradise comes from its very owner – the Brihan Mumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC). In 2007, the BMC announced a plan to build an international zoo at the site. The existing zoo had been modified over the past decade or so and the cages replaced with moated enclosures so that the animals could roam freely and yet be safe. But the BMC wanted to expand the zoo to “international standards”. This meant eating into the space of the botanical garden.

Opposition to this plan came almost immediately, though the protesters were not, in a manner of speaking, the usual suspects. They were a group of women who for years had enjoyed their walks on the pathways that crisscross Rani Baug, admiring the rare and not-so-rare trees and plants, lingering by the Japanese garden, strolling down the avenue of Lignum vitae, gazing up at the towering Melaleuca leucadendrom or stopping by the flowering Amherstia nobilis, considered one of the most beautiful trees in the world.


THE GREEN SPACE consists of the botanical garden and the zoo.

This all-woman team consisting of Shubhada Nikharge, Hutokshi Rustomfram, Sheila Tanna, Hutoxi Arethna, Renee Vyas, Katie Bagli and Neelima Kalgi formed the “Save Rani Bagh Botanical Garden Action Committee” and is actively supported by various environmental groups and institutions. The women contend that Rani Baug is primarily a botanical garden and not a zoo and so the plan to expand the zoo at the cost of the garden is unacceptable. Historical records and the present collection of flora validate their stand. To some extent their campaign to save the garden has paid off because the Union Minister of State for Environment and Forests, Jairam Ramesh, has expressed the view that the garden should not be touched. In a letter dated April 6 to Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan, he wrote, “The proposal to convert this historical botanical garden into an international standard zoo is ill-advised as it would gravely endanger the 150-year-old botanical garden.” While his support is encouraging, there is still the matter of the BMC reworking the plan so that it is in conjunction with the Minister's views.



In 1835, the Agro-Horticultural Society was given a large piece of land in Sewree, far from the hub of Bombay city, now Mumbai. When the Sewree location was converted into a cemetery, the plants were transferred to the present site at Byculla, and in 1861 the Victoria Gardens were established on a plot of 35 acres. In 1873, an additional 15 acres was granted to the society. This was when the zoo was started. At the same time, a museum, a clock tower and a bandstand were built on the site to further its grandeur. These features have given Rani Baug its Grade II B heritage precinct status, entitling the whole area (except for six acres that were added about 12 years ago) to protection by the Mumbai Heritage Conservation Committee.



While the proponents of the new zoo are trying to push the view that Rani Baug is not a botanical garden, Hutokshi Rustomfram asserts that it has “always been a botanical garden and there is more than adequate proof of this”. It appears in the Indian Botanic Garden Network and the Botanic Garden Conservation International lists of botanic gardens. First, there is its history which clearly says that it was established as a botanical garden in 1861 much before the zoo came into existence. It is definitely the oldest garden in western India and among the oldest in India. Supporting this view is the impressive variety of plant species that the garden houses. There are 3,212 trees belonging to 276 species and an estimated 846 species of shrubs and climbers.



It is worth noting that the botanical garden has the largest agglomeration and largest species diversity in the city apart from the Borivali National Park. In the flowering season, the garden turns into a nature lover's pilgrimage site. Despite all this, the BMC has been challenging the nomenclature botanical garden. As part of its effort at discrediting this, it even distorted the figures in the tree census by not showing as many as 866 trees as belonging to the garden. However, the BMC has shot itself in the foot by accepting an award for the best botanical garden and also listing Rani Baug as one on its official website.


THE CAJEPUT TREE grows to over 30 metres and is harvested for medicinal purposes. The tree will be cut if the new zoo plan is implemented.

Another indicator of the garden's antiquity is its layout. Even to an untutored eye there is something classical about the basic layout. In architectural terms, the layout is typical of Renaissance axial planning. At the northern boundary of the garden stands a clock tower. To its right is a museum and on the same axis is a sundial followed by a triple triumphal arch flanked by two baobabs. A wooden conservatory in the style of the one at Kew Gardens, England, has been restored and stands to the left. Statues, cupolas, cast iron railings and gates and meandering pathways abound and add to the garden's period feel.


THE SERENITY OF the Japanese garden attracts both people and winter birds.

The Save Rani Bagh Committee wants the 150th year of the garden to be celebrated so that no one can later challenge its status as a botanical garden. “If the proposed [zoo expansion] plan is put into action most of this will be destroyed,” says Shubhada Nikharge.


KAILASHPATI, OR THE cannonball tree, is a good indicator of pollution levels. If there is too much sulphur in the air, its leaves drop off.

Of the existing 53 acres, 30 acres is occupied by the botanical garden and 8.5 acres by the zoo. The rest is taken up by administrative buildings, car parks, bungalows of officials and even an unlawful, commercial ready-mix concrete plant. Proponents of the zoo claim that minimal damage will be done to the garden, but even the simplest calculation shows that at least 13 acres of it will be taken up to accommodate the 13 new animal enclosures.


PISCIDIA PSICIPULE, ONE of a rare tree species that was destroyed during the illegal construction.

The current plan has grandiose features such as country-wise sections, elevated pathways, moats, shallow waterbodies and glass-walled enclosures. As Shubhada Nikharge points out, all these are only possible at the cost of the garden. “There will be huge amounts of digging to reinstall sewage, electrical lines, plumbing, freshwater and storm water drains… everything will have to be done again. New shallow waterbodies will damage and possibly kill the root systems of older trees. All this is a negation of the heritage layout. Not only will the construction destroy the green aspect of the garden but the zoo itself will remain closed for five years.”



One of the garden's finest features will be drastically affected. Its existing 103 internal gardens will shrink to 47 if the “international standard” zoo comes into existence. Internal gardens are literally smaller gardens within a larger garden. Instead of designing a single contiguous expanse of trees and shrubs, the 19th century planners of the botanical garden created 103 internal gardens within the larger space. Contrary to logic, this magnifies the sense of visual space. Avenues bisect the entire area, and these small internal gardens are separated from the rest of the space by herbaceous borders, hedges or fences that have gates.

The internal gardens complement the pathways that crisscross Rani Baug. For most people the walkways are nothing more than convenient paved areas, and they are so well designed that they can accommodate 30,000 visitors at a time. Katie Bagli also points out that they are integral to the Renaissance axial plan. In the new plan of the zoo, the old pathways have been replaced with new ones, destroying the structure of the space. She says, “The pathways have to be seen as part of the garden area architecturally and also because the root systems of the trees connect under the pathways.”


The oriental magpie robin.

Though tended by a handful of dedicated gardeners, the gardens have a semi-wild air. Colonies of roosting bats, bird nests on trees and shrubs, myriads of butterflies, active insects and ants, and seeds, pods, leaves and flowers on the grass reinforce Hutokshi Rustomfram's description of the garden being “a thriving habitat – not some sterile manicured landscape”. Losing 13 acres of green space in a city starved of open public spaces is bad enough. “For 150 years the place has been open to everyone,” says Hutokshi Rustomfram, who remembers that entry was free in the 1960s. Now the maximum cost per ticket is Rs.5. If the new zoo comes up, the cost per ticket is bound to be not less than Rs.300. With plans to include a dining section overlooking a glass-walled cheetah enclosure, it is clear that the egalitarian aspect of the garden and zoo will be destroyed. Besides, the whole venture is oriented towards business rather than public education and relaxation. The budget for the new plan comes from taxpayers' money. After spending about Rs.150 crore on building the new zoo, it is to be handed over to private operators.

Although the plans currently seem to be favouring the guardians of the garden, they are wary of the influential interests who are trying to push through the idea of the zoo. Complicating matters is the diverse ownership of Rani Baug. The garden is owned by the BMC, and the Heritage Committee is only its custodian. The zoo comes under the Central Zoo Authority (CZA), which is under the Ministry for Environment and Forests. While the Heritage Committee has rejected the new proposal and said the botanical garden must be respected, it worries that the BMC is still leaning towards what it ironically considers an improvement plan.


The purple sunbird.

Hutokshi Rustomfram says there is a need for “intelligent custodianship of the garden” and believes that there is a lot to learn from the 138 years of coexistence between the zoo and the garden. If it comes to the crunch, she says, what is really required in the heart of a city is a garden and not a zoo. The CZA too is keen to shift the zoo to a larger space as is Jairam Ramesh, whose letter of April 6 says, “The zoo proposes to house too many species in a relatively small area. Housing 627 animals of 84 species is a tall order. It is advised to relocate the zoo to a fairly large area, preferably more than 50 hectares, outside the city in the interest of conservation, animal health and well-being.”


THE WOMEN BEHIND the Save Rani Bagh movement.

The guardians of the garden do want the existing animal enclosures to be upgraded, but not at the cost of the trees and the meticulously planned garden.

Save Rani Bagh Botanical Garden Foundation