Bordering on Business

By word of mouth and advertisement, we call for expressions of interest in the “Adoption” of mature saplings of many indigenous varieties, under definite conditions: new owners must maintain the trees until death do us part and they are obliged to give us a donation. We are a Charitable Trust, note: not businessmen. We have almost no funds left and we will be so pleased to write vouchers for the donations.

Now we come to Ground Reality Day, the day on which a prominent businessman from the town and Author of Books came with his lovely wife – also an Author of Books, to select saplings to match the budget they had chosen; they had spoken with Arun of The Forest Way prior to Arun ringing me for their appointment; they intended to select one hundred trees and anticipated offering a donation of two thousand rupees, and Arun had explained that the mature saplings would be more expensive, ethically speaking. There was an aura of respectability around the event and it was emphasised that the New Owners intended to plant the saplings on a sizeable piece of land out of town: another upcoming Private Forest. We were all happy about the occasion.

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The concept of “by donation” is a tenuous one. If the context lies within parameters of personal commitment, then the onus is upon oneself only to have cultivated robust detachment hence be prepared to be ripped off frequently by fat cats. But in the case of Trustees of an NGO – alien as this concept may be to Indian culture, the dynamics of giving and receiving become internally inconsistent since responsibility lies on the one hand with determined divergence from interest in reward or gain, and on the other hand in legal obligation to make sure the public Trust funds are not exploited.

Since my Tamil is so terrible, it was Phoorni’s task to supervise the choice of trees and estimate status of new owners relative to appropriateness of donation – as we had been advised to do by other CEOs of Charitable Trusts or Societies. My attention became wholly diverted to the subject of providing screenings of good films on Climate Change issues while dimly aware of excited movement and conversation in Tamil in and out the rows of plants. After a quite lengthy and inspiring conversation we moved toward the centre of action to find most of the saplings already on the truck. To me the photo-finish conclusion of the undertaking appeared just about as cheerful as a bunch of squirrels, except for the glint in the New Owner’s eye which – although caught by my trusty camera, was unnoticed by me at the time:

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While I was engaged in stimulating conversation at the back of the nursery with a person in masterful command of huge Eco-audiences in Tamil Nadu and beyond, Phoorni watched in a suitable Supervisory manner while that New Owner – prosperous businessman, took almost every member in sight of the most sought species – including almost all our Bodhi trees, all Jack fruit, many Teak, Nagarlingam and Ashoka, leaving the spaces previously occupied by these mature saplings conspicuously empty.

Phoornima – a mere woman and young to boot, did try tenaciously to pin him down to an appropriate donation but all the while – she now reports, he refused to commit himself to the proportions of his generosity by repeatedly telling her that he had spoken to me (although he doesn’t understand a word of what I say and certainly had not spoken to me), as well as to Arun – who had in fact emphasised to him the moral value of a generous donation to a struggling Charitable Trust.

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As the truck trundled off past the waving flags of Virupaksha Development and everyone else had departed, Phoorni found her complaining voice to report to me – too late too late, what had happened.

Finally focussing on the fiasco the morning after, I pinned her down to the results of the task set her the day before: apropos saplings and congruency of donation. Her miffed approximation was that the amount eventually given was only about half of the appropriate donation. For one hundred and sixty seven saplings – many to most mature ones, the prosperous businessman offered five thousand rupees.

To complicate matters further, that day I had discovered that thirty three six-year-old Bodhi trees had been spoken for by prior arrangement the day before – albeit with some confusion about the Tamil name of these desirable trees, by a Japanese donor who was arranging for them to be planted on the East face of the mountain. She arrived with a truck to pick them up only to find the empty space where they has stood the day before. Our watchman – below posing for another pic on the back on the loaded truck with proud new owner, had been clearly informed of her intention (she thought) the day before but had neglected to pass on to us the information while he buzzed about helping to load the truck with saplings (including the thirty-three), although this was entirely uncalled for since the businessman had brought lots of lackeys to do the loading work.

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It was evident that we needed to use business tactics in future: compile an adequate donation list for itemised species/age, and prefix the notice with a request that prospective new owners please not hog the more exotic species but select a fair range from the collection. In preparation for further conquistadors Phoorni and I may need to fortify ourselves somehow with hard noses and a big dog, however the injustice of the previous day’s exploitation still should be confronted if at all possible. So I made an appointment to discuss this entire confused and in some ways ignoble matter with the gentleman with whom I had conversed intently aside from all the previous day’s action, who is a close friend of the New Owner and a patient ombudsman. He would know how to resolve the situation.

In the convivial atmosphere of the InterFaith Dialogue Centre, JP explained to me the Tamil cultural imperative to bargain out a good deal, that he considers to have been in process the day before between New Owner and Phoornima; this of course didn’t quite stand up to examination because Phoornima’s side of the dialogue was not respected but just fobbed off – it wasn’t a bargaining process at all even if it did originate in such a cultural imperative. It was, I conjecture, savagely supported by the cultural imperative to distain all attempts by young ladies to persuade middle-aged successful businessmen into behaving in an ethical manner, however I refrained from taking the conversation in this direction; what’s the use!

Nevertheless a discussion about cultural imperatives veiled to an outsider did help align my empathy for the new owner somewhat: JP was saying that the man couldn’t help himself; primeval urges demanded he take unfair advantage. Foolish us failed to anticipate this by fortifying ourselves. Like all the other recent scams and unscrupulous unfair advantages taken: we should have known better. And we should, we definitely should.

JP and I certainly agreed that it was unfortunate that those saplings had been marked by prior arrangement that none of us except the watchman were aware of at the time. Now that we know that this, JP said he will speak with his friend to find a solution. We moved on to enjoy a discussion about good films on our magnificent world and ClimateChange and he copied quite a few films on to his suitably heavy HD; nice to know they will be furthered into fertile corners, enabling healthy ripples of respect for Mother Nature and interest in a sustainable future for all our young.

When I arrived at the nursery this morning the electricity was on and the plants were being watered softly by the watchman who was not blotto.

The spaces vacated by the saplings the day before invited new growth:

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But the conclusion of this story is disturbing: despite the patient ombudsman, that new owner spewed his dirty pent up anger through the phone, both at Phoorni and myself the following day, although he still wasn’t letting Phoorni get a word in edge ways and no response from my end would have been comprehensible to him.

Friends console us by resorting to the fact that this is Kali Yuga but that doesn’t change anything does it?

2 thoughts on “Bordering on Business

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