Meet Shyam Kumar from Palakkad Kerala – an auto driver, an avid reader and also a passionate environmentalist.
Shyam Kumar, an auto driver, spends almost all of his free time reading books. Around 16 years ago, he chanced upon a 2,000-year-old book called Vrikshayurvedam. Apart from learning various interesting facts about trees and forests from this book, he also read how “a single tree can make a difference to 10 children at a time.”
People were just beginning to talk about deforestation, global warming and environment destruction at the time.
But everything suddenly began to make sense to Shyam and he decided he needed to do his best to save the environment in whatever way he could.
Shyam lives in a village called Thenkurrisi in the Palakkad district of Kerala. He started to do some research to learn more about the trees that grow well in this area and what he should plant to help the animals and birds commonly found in the neighbourhood. He started by planting trees around his house – some large shade trees and some fruit trees that attract many birds, squirrels and bats.
For many years, Shyam carried out these activities all by himself. But soon after his marriage, his wife too joined him in his efforts and now his children also help him care for the environment.
As soon as a young tree grows to a particular height with a decent girth, Shyam ties a plastic bottle with small holes in it to the plant. The water dripping from the bottle keeps the soil around the tree moist.
On seeing Shyam’s work to keep the environment healthy, others in the village have also joined him. They help him plant saplings and today, within a radius of 15 kms around the village, there are some 23,000 trees.
Around eight years ago, Shyam bought an auto and became an auto driver. He has painted ‘Save Water- Save Trees’ on the the back of his vehicle in both English and Malayalam. He usually carries cans of water in the auto to replenish the water bottles tied to trees on the routes he takes.
Shyam’s auto really stands out and invariably intrigues the passengers who ride in it.
“I usually do not have to broach the subject with my passengers,” says Shyam. “They themselves want to know more about what I do and I tell them everything that I do for the environment. Most of my passengers are interested to know more and want to know what they can do to help make this world a better place to live in. I do not hesitate in answering any of their queries.”
Around four years ago, Shyam started another activity. He noticed that some tailor birds from the surrounding trees had flown down to a pool of water stagnating around one of his plants and were drinking from it.
The heat was soaring in Kerala and Shyam realized the birds too need water. He first placed some water in some empty coconut shells on his front porch and found that these makeshift water bowls did attract thirsty birds.
“Today, we have something like 25 water bowls and bird feed bowls all over my compound. They attract a lot of birds to my front and back yards. I have learnt how to identify most of them and there are around 23 species of birds that visit my home right through the hot and humid summer. We have tailor birds, robins, barbets, drongos, mynahs, crows, treepies and the Indian roller birds,” he says.
Shyam Kumar’s work has been appreciated by the local media in Kerala and many people have been influenced by his efforts. Recently, he received calls from a friend in Lakshadweep and another in Salem, asking for expert advice on what trees to plant in and around their homes.
Shyam personally helped his friend transport saplings to Lakshadweep from Kerala.
Around five years ago, Shyam was asked to assist in planting tree guards for the trees at Mangalavanam, which is very close to the High Court in Cochin. The judge from the court requested Shyam to help them in their afforestation drive too. Shyam carried some tree saplings with him when he went to Cochin and not only did he help with the tree guards for the external trees, he also planted trees to attract birds. Today, this area feels like a small bird park with plenty of birds and squirrels being attracted to the trees at Mangalavanam.
Shyam’s efforts have not gone unnoticed – over the years he has received recognition in various forms from the forest department as well as from private organisations.
‘Vrikshamitra’, ‘ Vanamitra’, ‘Prakrati Mitra’ and the ‘Harita Vyakti Award’ are some of the honours he has received.
Shyam has read about how the once commonly seen house sparrow is slowly vanishing from most areas where there is a high density of human population. He is taking measures to learn more and hopes to be able to do his bit for these little birds.
This extraordinary crusader for nature and the environment believes he still has a lot more to learn and do in order to leave a green and clean world for future generations to enjoy.
Photo credits: Shyam Kumar
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Aparna Menon is a freelance writer, writing for various newspapers for the past 10 years. Her main fields of interest are wildlife, heritage and history. A keen traveler, she loves to read and write and does a lot of art work too.