From being hailed as a godsend in the face of severe firewood shortage in the 1960s, seemai karuvelam has turned into a monster species that everybody loves to hate
Today, it is vilified as an invasive tree that causes enormous damage to the environment and inhibits the growth of indigenous plants. But in the early 1960s, when Tamil Nadu was reeling under a severe shortage of firewood and the issue even triggered a debate in the Legislative Assembly, prosopis Juliflora, known as seemai karuvelam, was seen as a saviour to overcome this shortage. It even earned the sobriquet panjam thaangi (providing succour during famine).
The then Congress government, led by Chief Minister Kamaraj, made arrangements for aerial seeding of the plant from a helicopter in Ramanathapuram district. The authorities in other districts advised people to plant the tree in poromboke land, tank bunds and natham land to overcome the firewood shortage. The tree was also used to erect fences, making it difficult for animals to invade agricultural fields.
With cooking gas and kerosene replacing firewood even in remote villages, the role of seemai karuvelam as a provider of firewood has almost come to an end. But, the tree has entrenched itself in the soil, spreading its roots like the tentacles of a mythical animal.