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Honouring Arthur V. Dias

Jak tree should have been named the National Tree:

The Daily News feature writers Nalin Fernando and Firoze Sameer deserve to be complimented by readers for their excellent well researched article (July 31) on that great patriot of yore Arthur V. Dias. Of all his pioneering, courageous initiatives, the campaign to plant a million jak trees was indeed the most noble concept. Had this effort been relentlessly pursued, today it would be having a significant beneficial impact not only supplementing healthy food requirements but more importantly the environment.


Arthur V. Dias

But by the wanton destruction of Jak trees accelerated particularly by the timber requirements of the construction boom of the past three decades a great disservice has been done to the memory of this great son of Lanka.

The rapid fragmentation of land for building purposes has had a devastating effect on jak as well as other trees. Notwithstanding all the laws that have been enacted by well meaning governments Jak trees keep on vanishing. In most urban areas of the country, Jak trees and even coconut trees have become a rarity. It is not far from the truth to state that many schoolchildren in Colombo have not seen a jak tree!

When a Jak tree can easily be grown in a homegarden and its wonderful shade and fruits enjoyed, lazy urban lifestyles are driving housewives to stand round pavement jak vendors to buy a polythene bagful of cleaned and shredded tender or mature jak. When bought by the gramme and cooked and consumed as a mere accompanying curry they probably do not realize the potential jak has as a substitute for the rice of the common man.

The proliferation of residential buildings in cities and the suburbs with limited space for trees has led to the emergence of individuals and even communities with no love for trees. There are even anti-social petty minded individuals who curse the winds if the leaf of a neighbour's falls on their concrete, treeless and even grassless outer areas. It was this mental degradation resulting in a condition that psychiatrics described as an "aversion to greenery" that prompted Singapore to introduce legislation to make it compulsory to grow trees round houses.

This unique, less apparent human factor would also have presented obstacles to the Jak planting campaign of Arthur V. Dias. Singaporeans who for generations had grown up in 'concrete jungles' initially found it difficult to adjust to a green environment with falling leaves, twigs and fruits. This natural fall out of a green environment came to be considered a nuisance.

Such cranky individuals exist in Sri Lanka too. About 25 to 30 years ago when I was DIG Metropolitan, I received a petition against the Cinnamon Gardens Police that the latter had refused to entertain a complaint. When I recorded the statement of the aggrieved party he said that when he drove out of his residence rotting mangoes that had fallen off a tree of a neighbour on to the road were polluting the wheels of his new car! I asked this man who was an educated professional," what if you run over cow dung or the sh--of a dog-- you will want to change the wheels of your car." I had to explain to this stupid man that the police were well within the law to refuse to entertain trivial complaints.

Another major sociological obstacle to Arthur V. Dias's efforts to popularize jak was the 'brown Sahib' dominated ruling class of the time who used only silver cutlery and Johnson's crockery. To this class, which exists even today eating jak was 'infra dig' it is a fact that seldom or never is jak served at our State banquets or even at wedding functions in star class hotels. The country needs another V. Dias to give a start.

Jak tree is one tree that fully deserves to be protected to the utmost. Its fruit can be consumed tender, mature or ripe. Our forefathers even dehydrated the pulp (Atu Kos) and preserved it to be eaten during the off season. The value of a jak tree as a 'buth gaha' overwhelmingly outweighs its timber value.

The Na Tree's (Iron wood tree) tender leaves often glamourized in classical Sinhala poetry led to its fame and recognition. But unlike the highly versatile jak, Na has limited uses. Because of its thick foliage that provides shade and the unique redness of its tender leaves it had been planted as an ornamental tree in the Walawwas of yore eg. Batadola and Weke in the Gampaha District and in cemeteries eg. Borella Kanatte. It is surprising indeed that adequate importance had not been given to the life sustaining jak tree when naming a "National Tree".

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