When was the last time you spent a few minutes amidst vast expanses of foliage, inhaling the fresh air and feeling relaxed?
Finding lush greenery in a world where concretisation is increasing rapidly, may seem like a distant dream. But if you happen to be in Kolkata, all you need to do is to head to Alipore.
Located between the Majerhat and New Alipore railway stations, a one-kilometer verdant patch of land will offer you a variety of trees including mango, guava, nut, tamarind, date palm, lemon, etc.
The Better India spoke to Mantu Hait, a lawyer who planted approximately 25,000 trees in ten years and revived this previously barren dumpyard.
As a child, Mantu would always look forward to his summer vacations.
He would spend hours climbing trees and pluck various fruits, or just relax under their shade after playing gully cricket with his friends.
However, as he entered his teens, he noticed a decline in the number of trees.
The volume of green cover in Kolkata was high till a decade ago, but gradually the ratio of trees to buildings changed. In 1995, it saddened me to see that majority of the trees near Alipore were cleared to make way for construction projects, says Mantu to TBI.
Like everyone else, Mantu too was confined by societal pressures of studying, making a career and settling. However, the issue of lack of green space bothered him for years.
Finally, in 2010 he decided to plant trees on the roadside. But he lacked legal rights to the roadside area of Alipore.
“Since the area belongs to Calcutta Port Trust, I had written a letter to them asking for permission to plant trees. I waited for their response for several weeks, but there was no answer,” says Mantu.
After speaking with a few of his friends and doing some internet-based research, he came across the concept of Guerrilla Gardening.
Guerrilla gardening is the act of gardening on land that the gardeners do not have the legal rights to cultivate, such as abandoned sites, areas that are not being cared for, or private property.
The Green Mission
Mantu purchased the seeds and embarked on his green mission with help from city-based environmental organizations like Nature Mate and Alipore Environment Society.
Unfortuntately, a few weeks into the plantation, his worst nightmare came true. The plants were destroyed or were dead due to the absence of water and care. The incident shook him, but not enough to quit.
He researched and concluded that by sowing the seeds in summer, the plants would have a better chance at surviving and flourishing. So he hired a few labourers and sowed seeds between April to June in 2011.
As anticipated, the rains that came in the following months proved beneficial for the seeds.
“The results were overwhelming,” says Mantu. “By August the plants were giving fruits and flowers. Looking at them grow every day was a meditative experience.”
Since then, he has been following this practice every year.
When it comes to nurturing the plants that have now grown into healthy trees, Mantu says that most of the trees don’t require maintenance. As for the plants that do, the residents of Alipore have been kind enough to water them regularly.
Today, there are over 250 varieties of plants and trees spread over a one-kilometer stretch that provide clean air and fresh oxygen to areas within a 10-km radius around it according to Mantu.
Another positive impact from the urban forest is the increasing presence of the birds and animals including mongoose and golden jackals.
While the world uses air quality monitoring devices to measure the air pollution, for me the validation of clean air are the 50 types of birds that can be spotted chirping in the wee hours of the morning, he says.
While there has been no problem from the authorities for using the abandoned land for growing trees, the cases of illegal tree felling in the night is proving to be a threat.
“In the last couple of months, we noticed that several trees were cut down. We filed a police complaint and even posted night guards, but the cases are still prevalent,” says the 43-year-old.
While Mantu is doing everything in his capacity to save the forest he built over the years, he and his environment-conscious friends are also surveying areas that are abandoned in and around the city. They are doing this to ensure that ahead of the upcoming monsoon season, they can sow hundreds of seeds and increase the green cover.
This will be Mantu’s 11th year of planting seeds and he wishes to continue his mission for as long as he can.
Planting trees is my blood and I will do so till I die. I don’t want our future generations to question our actions of not saving the environment. I don’t want them to wake up one day and not find any trees around. This is me, doing my bit for them, he concludes.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)