On a bright Sunday morning, 62-year old Govindrao Bohite, a former banker, breaks large stones into small pieces to be used for the path that goes up the Pashan hill in Pune. He is helping fix the road for the water tanker that ferries several gallons of water through the year for his trees on the hill.
This is not an unusual task for Mr Bohite, or Nana as he is fondly called. He is one of the many volunteers of Pune-based NGO, Vasundhara Swachata Abhiyan, who have made it their mission to reforest the hills and ensure that the trees live. They planted have over 25,000 trees in Pune at Pashan, Mhalunge, and Rotary Hill.
The dedicated work of all these people, with support from the government and administration, has turned four hills into green lungs for the rapidly concretising Pune.
VSA has been working tirelessly over the past ten years on this mammoth task, all through voluntary work alone. They plant 500-1000 trees every year on four hills in Pune in and around the Pashan area.
Each weekend sees close to 200 volunteers working at the four spots. At least 30 volunteers, among them professionals and retired folks, contribute 1-2 hours daily before they begin their routine. Over the 11 years, over 2,00,000 people have contributed their labour here (shramdaan) even if it is for just an hour.
VSA’s core efforts are for pure air, pure water and pure food. Reforestation, along with natural farming, is part of their 7-point agenda. They also work for water percolation, plastic-free lifestyle, river cleaning, mosquito-free settlements, water conservation and honeybee promotion.
The NGO has ensured that the trees planted are all native to the region. They have kadunimb (neem), avala (Indian gooseberry), vad (banyan), pimpal (pipal), umbar (Indian fig tree), and tamarind, to name a few. They have also planted fruit trees like mango and ber (Indian plum) to attract birds.
For the last four years, VSA has adopted Subhash Palekar’s Zero Budget Natural Farming technique here, which has resulted in the faster growth of trees which are stronger and healthier.
The Zero Budget Natural Farming was developed by Subhash Palekar, an Indian agriculturist who was awarded the Padma Shri in 2016.
Nana has been witness to the death of trees caused by carelessly thrown cigarette butts. He also knows that sometimes people have set the trees alight just out of pure cruelty towards the green beings and good work.
To ensure that the trees survive the harsh summer and illogical mischievous elements, VSA quickly set up simple techniques to prevent fires from spreading, and now the residents around the hills have become alert, and warn the group of the smallest issue, whether it is fire or something else.
Among the weekend volunteers is Siddhesh Kadam, a resident of a neighbouring housing society. Along with weekends he also works on the hill on other days off. “On my first day here the older folks said ‘This place is like a temple. You can come and worship here, work here, and these plants will bless you for several generations to come’,” he shares. “Besides it’s nice to spend time with senior citizens. There is much to learn from them and nature.”
“And you don’t have to go to the gym if you’re working here!” quips Dipak Shrote, one of the founder members of VSA. “We tell people to spare just 1 hour of the 168 hours in the week where you don’t expect anything back.”
VSA has tried different experiments to keep the work going. When they started in 2007, there were no water tanks on Pashan hill, so they used to carry two bottles each for the trees. Several curious people became partners when VSA told them the destination of the water.
Eventually, people contributed enough money to set up water tanks. Now there are 25-30 tanks across the hills.
However, it is not just 25,000 trees but the mindset of the people that is important. “Our volunteers who moved to Uttarakhand and Belgaum have started reforestation work there,” shares Mr Shrote.
“People want to do something good, but they often don’t know what. When people see us at work on the hill, they ask us out of curiosity and eventually join us. That is our true inspiration,” says Dipak. “On top of that, we felt that there’s no use just complaining. You must just get up and start doing constructive work. Then people as young as three years and as old as 80 years also joined the movement, which keeps us going.”
Mr Shrote is eager to help more people adopt this work. “Anyone can contact us and we will there to help,” he says! But what has made this effort last an unending decade? It’s simple — come out and begin your work. It will always end up attracting like-minded people.
To know more about the organisation, please see their website: www.vsaorg.in
(This article has been written by Shatakshi Gawade)