Pics by Gamini Gunawardana

All religions preached virtues. Jesus, the Buddha, Prophet Mohammed and many others taught the people to do good, and be good. However, thousands of years later, these words are subject to interpretations and decipherment, often to the benefit of those responsible for the propagation of such religions. Words of religion is twisted so much so that the public is in a conflict between veneration and public good. The recent protests by residents of Pannipitiya against the government’s move to remove a Bo tree in order to make way for a road expansion seem to be a perfect example of the scenario.

The Bo tree, which is considered a sacred symbol closely knit with Buddhism in Sri Lanka and around the world, has now become a controversy.

Religious leaders and residents in Pannipitiya took to the streets last week after authorities decided to cut down a Bo tree as it was standing in the way of a road expansion project.

The rapid boost in construction and infrastructure development in Colombo and other parts of the country during the recent times had resulted in several trees being cut down.

Cutting down a tree is usually an environmental issue, not only in Sri Lanka, but all over the world. The world has now come to realize the value of a tree.

Environmentalists had also raised their concerns over rapid development projects resulting in the reduction of green cover in the country.

However, the situation is different as far as the Bo tree is concerned. In Sri Lanka, the Bo tree is revered. It’s the tree under which Lord Buddha meditated and gained enlightenment.
Hence, the plan to remove the tree has become a sensitive issue and has evoked negative responses from area residents and Buddhist priests.

Every Buddhist temple in the country has a Bo tree in its premises.

Bo trees along with a small shrine with an altar and a statue of the Buddha are found in places such as the Punchi Borella junction in the middle of a main road thereby blocking the pathway of oncoming traffic while others such as the one near the National Eye Hospital is tucked away and found located in a non-obstructive way. Some trees are old while others are relatively young. One also finds that roundabouts have sometimes been constructed around the Bo trees.

In reference to a recent incident that had occurred in Pannipitiya over an alleged move to remove a Bo tree for the purpose of road construction and expansion, the Asgiriya Chapter was of the view that Buddhists should exercise patience in this regard without rushing into conflicts over it.

Chief Secretary of the Chapter Dr. Medagama Dhammananda thera  however also noted that since the matter concerned a move to remove a place or an object of worship which is considered sacred by the people of the said faith, it was likely to prick the sensitivities of the public and incite them, particularly in a country where the majority of the populous are Buddhists.
He also noted that since some form of construction was erected at the centre of the roundabouts, there was no harm in it being a Bo tree or a monument including a statue. He pointed out that the issue needed to be addressed in a peaceful manner.

“These matters should be resolved peacefully. This involves the population, urbanization and the resultant congestion on roads and the need for road construction and the requirement to expand roads. Alternatives must be looked at with the view of providing a solution that is fair to all parties concerned. One must try as much as possible not to remove them. Traffic must ideally circulate around it,” he explained.

Meanwhile, civil engineers involved in transportation, highway and traffic engineering pointed out that in seeking a solution to the matter one should first begin by estimating the desired outcome using tools and based on it select the best option.

They said that although it may be difficult to tell the precise outcome at the beginning, there were certain tools one can use to arrive at an estimation concerning it. Outcomes therefore can be measured to a certain degree at the outset.

Accordingly, they said it was important to figure out what one is going to achieve. One cannot merely engage in doing things. Desired outcomes could be lesser delays on roads in terms of time spent on travel and less accidents. The latter according to civil engineers should be decided by the real stakeholders affected by the solution.

Head of the Department of Civil Engineering of the University of Moratuwa, Prof. JMSJ Bandara further explained that in order to estimate the outcomes one needed to have the evidence which however the authorities did not possess in nearly all the instances.

All depends however on the evaluation of the facts. The significance or the insignificance of the Bo tree will be defined by the people in the area. One cannot know in prior how significant it is to the people because not all Bo trees, a tree which grows everywhere, are considered significant. The magnitude of the significance too must be looked at. How one values something plays a role in this regard.

Prof Bandara reiterated that the fact was that during road widening some party had to suffer, adding that such could entail a house or building having to be demolished and relocated or trees having to be felled.

“The technical solution is different to the socially acceptable solution. When a conflict arises, there is no way the technical solution will prevail. It is the socially acceptable solution that will generally dictate matters. The Government will expand a road because there is a problem that requires intervention. Otherwise they will not. The issues may be delays and accidents. The inputs and outputs have to be regarded. When it comes to stakeholders, what the people want is of more importance than anything else. The choice should however belong to the real stakeholders and not the pseudo-stakeholders, the latter whose objective may be to obtain some publicity,” he said.

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