One of the recommendations of the Royal Commission into the Sanitary State of the Army in India – a committee appointed to suggest reforms to improve soldiers’ health – was that every principal military station in British India should have what was called a soldier’s garden. These gardens – like libraries, clubs and skittle grounds – were expected to help soldiers pass their free time and keep them away from the alcohol at canteens. Vegetables cultivated in these gardens also served to supplement the soldiers’ diets in case of any shortages in the rations.

The 18th volume of the Gazetteer of the Bombay Presidency: Poona, printed in 1885, mentions the transfer of a botanical garden from the Ganeshkhind area in Pune to a soldiers garden occupying 41 acres 250 yards north of St Patrick’s Cathedral on the east border of the cantonment. The garden had passed from private owners to the British government in 1838.

Named Empress Garden in honour of Queen Victoria, it is smaller today at 37 acres, and could be carved up some more in the near future – the Maharashtra state government plans to use 10 acres of this land to build accommodation for senior government employees and judges.

The Agri-Horticultural Society of Western India, which has been managing the garden since 1892 and counts industrialists such as Rahul Bajaj among its trustees, has come out in strong opposition to the proposal and has received the support of political leaders, along with environmentalists and other activists.

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As Pune’s population grows, public gardens are more vital than ever. The gates of Empress Garden are open every day of the week, with an entry fee of Rs 15 per head and the lush greenery and open spaces offer a respite to those looking to escape cramped housing conditions and polluted streets.

In a letter to Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, the managing body of the Agri-Horticultural Society has said it was “shocked and surprised” when it received a letter from the Public Works Department with details about a proposal to construct buildings on land leased to it for the garden. Notably, according to the society, some of the quarters are meant for senior officers of the Public Works Department itself.

Supriya Sule, a Member of Parliament from Baramati, attended a protest at the garden and tweeted that her father, Sharad Pawar, who is the president of the Nationalist Congress Party, had intervened when a similar situation had arisen earlier.

A petition titled Save Empress Garden addressed to the chief minister crossed 30,000 signatures in under a week. It also asks that the garden be made a world heritage site so as to prevent any further acquisitions.

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It is unclear if the outcry has rattled authorities who say the land they are looking at acquiring is owned by the state government and not a part of the garden at all. District Collector Saurabh Rao told The Times of India that there is a discrepancy between the lease held by the society and the Pune Cantonment Board records. According to Rao, PCB records show that survey number 504 – which the government plans to use – consists of 10 acres and is a separate plot from survey number 500, which consists of the 39 acres of Empress Garden.

Prashant Chavan, the garden’s manager, refuted this and said both surveys 500 and 504 together make up Empress Garden’s 37 acres.

Suresh Pingale, a horticultural expert who serves as the society’s honorary secretary, said nearly a hundred plants and trees have been planted on the 10 acres the government seeks – “We also want to keep certain portions vacant and develop them into open spaces, which can be used by children for picnics or for workshops to be held.”

Pingale is confident that with the support the garden has been getting, the authorities will not be able to claim any of its land. Following the protests, new measurements of both surveys have been promised by the authorities.

Photo credit: Deborah D'souza

This land is our land

Empress Garden is used for the purpose of botanical education and research in Pune. “They do have some very old trees and specimens, and it’s a useful resource to have,” said Deepak Barua, an associate professor of biology at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research in Pune whose research focuses on plant life. However, he believes the garden’s contribution to science isn’t nearly as important as the service it provides to the general public. Construction in the garden would cause the loss of an accessible green space in the middle of the city. “It’s about what Empress Garden represents,” he said.

It hosts an Annual Flower Show, which sees 50,000 visitors and hundreds of participants. Visitors can also take a part of the greenery home with a purchase from the garden’s plant nursery. Hurda parties – gatherings in which fresh, tender jowar (sorghum) is roasted over coals – were also organised at Empress Garden seven days a week in December.

The garden has previously expressed its support for couples looking for privacy and is a popular picnic spot for families and communities looking for a venue to celebrate together. Muslims visit on Barsi Eid and Protestant Christians are present in large numbers on Boxing Day every year.

The Bangiya Sanskriti Samsad, an organisation of Bengalis based in Pune, which also promotes interest in the culture, has been hosting its annual Basant Utsav event at the garden since 2006. The group’s treasurer, Kunal Bhattacharya, said, “[The garden] resembles and creates an environment [like] Rabindranath’s Shantiniketan. A Sunday morning with spring in the air helps to set the correct mood for the cultural event.”

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The British founded many other botanical gardens in India that exist to this day, including the Government Botanical Gardens in Ooty, the Calcutta Botanical Garden in Howrah and the Lloyd Botanical Garden in Darjeeling. Gardens established during the British era and situated in cantonment areas in cities like Meerut, Faizabad and Allahabad are still locally known as “Company Garden”.

Long battle ahead

Chikita Purav, a resident of Pune for many years, said, “It’s sad the government only thinks of urbanisation. That’s not the same as development.” As a student in the mid-1990s, she recalls protesting the cutting of trees on Fergusson College road and worries that if the effort to save the garden loses steam, the government will have its way. “They have a very simple strategy. They just wait you out.”

Highlighting the need for an equitable distribution of space in a crowded city is the fact that next door to the garden is the Pune Race Course, another institution from the British era. It covers 118.5 acres of land and is run by the Royal Western India Turf Club. Life membership is Rs 10 lakh plus service tax, and the club, which also runs Mumbai’s Mahalaxmi Racecourse, had under 8,000 members as of 2010.