If you happen to take a walk around Juhu in Mumbai one of these days, some vibrant and colourful trees will welcome you – trees that are no longer alive but have been painted in beautiful colours and designs. Meet the group behind this makeover.
“We are a voluntary group of women who have chosen to care for the environment and help save trees. Instead of complaining and whining about authorities not doing their job, we are looking for ways to assist them in achieving their goals,” says 48-year-old Neelu Virk, a resident of Mumbai.
Neelu is a member of Raasta Chaap, a group of 14 women who have come together for one amazing reason – to spread awareness about the dying rain trees in Mumbai and the deteriorating condition of the environment.
Today, they can be seen at different places in the city, armed with paint brushes and shovels – painting dead trees, planting new ones, and preserving those that need to be taken care of.
It all began in May 2015 when some of these women connected with each other on social media. All of them had something or the other in common – they we were either alumni of the same college or were living in the same locality.
“That was when we came across some pictures of street art in Juhu. Sabishi, a member of the group, had shared them on Facebook. They were fabulous and Sabishi suggested we should go for a walk to explore the area. The paintings fascinated us and we wanted to do something similar. Very soon, Saijal posted another picture of painted dead trees. That inspired everybody and we thought – why don’t we do that,” recalls Neelu, who is a communication analyst.
The group had come across many dead trees during their walk around Juhu and felt the need to draw people’s attention towards them.
After getting the required permission from the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), they started by painting a few trees outside the Jamnabai Narsee High School. After that they painted some outside the Juhu Vile Parle Gymkhana Club.
“The greatest thing about Raasta Chaap is that there are some of women in the group who are very artistically inclined. They don’t just want to paint the trees in solid colours but want to work on them for 3-4 days, almost like art projects. They even repaint some trees if they are not satisfied with the designs. Each one of them is so passionately involved and the entire project is so personal to them that the end results are always beautiful,” says Neelu.
Raasta Chaap was not started with any fixed agenda; it evolved in a very organic manner. After beginning with painting, the team decided they should plant two trees for every dead tree they come across. And then, on giving further thought to what would happen to the trees once they were planted, they started preserving them using fertilisers and pesticides.
Today, they have a team of 15 volunteers, other than the 14 members in the core group. “We are just environment enthusiasts and nature lovers. None of us has a background in horticulture or anything like that. So we are learning along the way,” Neelu points out. They have been interacting with Vanashakti, a Mumbai-based NGO working on the environment, and they get a lot of information about the basics of planting and preserving trees from them. They are also trying to reach out to people who can help in the process of preserving these trees. So there are some individuals who agree to take care of one or two trees in their neighbourhoods, some offer to spray pesticides in a locality near them at regular intervals, and then there are some organizations that offer to contribute fertilisers at cheap rates.
The team also has some very dedicated women who do not prefer to wait for any individual or authority but believe in doing things themselves.
“There is always a problem when it comes to watering the trees. But one of the group members, Archana, has taken this responsibility upon herself and she carries 20 litres of water in her car everyday – riding around the city and watering the plants whenever she can,” says Neelu.
Additionally, the group has put up many boards with messages like ‘I am thirsty. Can you give me water?’ or ‘If you give me water, I will give you oxygen.’ They have especially placed these messages around schools because many children empty their water bottles when they walk out in the evening.
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Members of Raasta Chaap coordinate and communicate with the help of a WhatsApp group. Currently, they don’t have permission to plant trees everywhere, so they usually plant and paint in Juhu, and also preserve some trees in the Khar and Bandra areas. They initiated the project with their own funds but, over time, have started getting volunteers who contribute the required money and choose to paint the trees themselves.
So far, the team has painted around 20 trees in Juhu.
Two members of the group, Shirley and Merylin, are active ALM (Advanced Locality Management) members so they make it easy for the team to get permissions from the BMC. All the women are working professionals in the age group of 40-50 years.
Recently, Bollywood actress Twinkle Khanna also joined the core team as she was interested the work they are doing. The other members include – Archana Shroff, Shaheen Jaffer, Sabishi Shankar, Shirley Singh, Merylin Joseph, Priya Bhimani, Saijal Goenka, Rupali Shah, Shaguna Khatri, Sonal Pal, Neelu Virk, Anuradha Jasani, and Jugnu Shah.
From being dead stumps that nobody used to notice or be aware of, the newly painted trees of Juhu have turned into selfie spots.
And while some are happy about how the trees have brightened the city, there are others who feel disturbed by the sad reality that there are so many dead trees they didn’t even notice for so long.
“The bottom line is that we have created awareness. Art should disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed. That is what we have done,” concludes Neelu.
The literal meaning of Raasta Chaap in English is ‘wanderer,’ but the word ‘chaap’ also means ‘mark.’ And that is what the team is doing – leaving a mark of awareness in the hearts and minds of people so they can help save the environment in their own way.
Here is a look at some more of their work:
Know more about there work here.