Palmyra tree, one of the most significant symbols of rural TN and the official state tree, is rapidly vanishing from the countryside causing concern to even heritage lovers and environmentalists besides farmers here.
For a tree that has forged a centuries-old connection with the Tamil society to the point of even being mentioned in literature and folklore of the land, the state government has done almost nothing to promote and protect the famed species, claim environmentalists who add that if action is not taken in due time, the species might slowly wane out of this landscape. .
Scientifically known as Borassus flabellifer, the palmyrah palm is one of the most drought resistant trees in the region and needs little to no care despite giving a variety of useful products.
“Some of the food products that are made from the fruit and sap of palm tree include jaggrey, sugar, syrup, candy and toddy. Interestingly, all these products are good for health and better than the crystallized sugar that we consume,” says noted environmentalist Dr. D. Narasimhan from the Madras Christian College here. “While countries like Canada have successfully marketed their national tree (Maple Tree) across the globe with its syrup, wood etc. we have never tapped the huge potential of one of our native species.”
According to members of the Tamil Nadu Farmers Assocation, there were atleast 35,000 crores of Palmyra trees in the state just a few decades ago. “When a survey was taken five years ago, the numbers had been reduced to just 5 crore trees. Since then another three crore trees have died due to drought and various other factors. Unless we do something, the numbers will still reduce,” says S. Kathiresan, state organizer of the Tamil Nadu Toddy Movement.
He points out that the state of affairs with regard to the Palm tree was so bad that thousands of trees are being cut for their wood which is the main source of fuel in brick kilns across the state. “In neighbouring Sri Lanka, cutting a Palmyra tree is an offence whereas in TN this tree is felled largely for being used as fuel in various industries as its economic value has dwindled so much,” says Kathiresan.
Toddy ban adds to Palmyra's woes
Despite receiving overwhelming support from a cross section of people across the state and the patronage of political parties during elections, members of the Tamil Nadu Toddy Movement claim that successive state governments have failed lakhs of farmers and farm workers in the state by refusing to lift the ban on toddy tapping. The beverage produced mostly from Palmyra sap has been banned in TN since January 1987.
“Even the present CM had announced during her election campaign speeches during 2011 before the local assembly elections that toddy ban would be lifted but no progress has taken place for our cause for the past three years,” says a prominent member of the Tamil Nadu Toddy Movement.
Members of this movement claim that the main reason for state governments paying a deaf ear to their woes is the powerful Indian Manufactured Foreign Liqour (IMFL) lobby in the state. They point out that while several studies have proved that toddy has medicinal benefits and is least harmful to health, the state is yet to consider their plea seriously.
Palm toddy is presently being tapped, packaged professionally and exported from Sri Lanka to several countries across the world earning millions of dollars for the farmers and businessmen in the country. “Our plea to the government is that even if they do not allow us to sell toddy locally, we might atleast be allowed to package toddy and send it abroad and even other states,” says L. Kathiresan of the Tamil Nadu Toddy Movement. “Unless, we revive the demand for Palmyra products, the tree will not be protected.”