As trees are felled regularly to make way for wider roads and new buildings, Akila Kannadasan finds hope growing in the by-lanes of Ram Nagar, where auto-drivers and goods loaders silently plant trees

No water, no vaadagai

Their autos are parked under a strapping arasa maram. The tree is as old as the auto-stand — it is among the 10 trees planted 20 years ago by auto-drivers G. Radhakrishnan, N. Dhakshinamoorthy, S. Ramasamy, D. Venugopal and P. Ramakrishnan. An unbearably hot day brought with it an idea. “It was so hot that we couldn’t even sit inside our autos in the afternoon,” recalls Radhakrishnan.

The auto-drivers decided to plant trees for shade.

Today, vembu, naval and kondrai stand tall around their auto-stand in Ram Nagar. They have also stacked stone slabs under one of the trees to act as a bench. The ‘auto-stand arasa maram’ is a refuge for passers-by on hot afternoons. “Elderly pedestrians stop by the tree to rest. We also place a water pot next to it from which people can help themselves,” says Radhakrishnan. “It’s heart-warming to see our trees help people. On Sundays, vendors spread their ware and setup shop under them,” says Dhakshinamoorthy.

Planting a tree is a huge responsibility. “You have to water it till the roots are strong enough to absorb groundwater,” says Radhakrishnan. “We are very strict when it comes to watering our saplings. Initially, we took turns to water them. If any of us missed his turn, he was prohibited from running his auto for three days,” he smiles. The ‘no water, no vaadagai’ rule worked. Not a day went by without them watering the saplings.

“A few weeks ago, some branches of our arasa maram were chopped off by men from the electricity board. They were clearing the path for overhead power lines,” says Radhakrishnan. “Branches that were in no way a hindrance were cut too,” he rues. But the men vow to continue planting trees — they recently planted three saplings near their stand. Radhakrishnan and his friends have inspired several others. Among them, are R. Arumugam and team of Katoor.

Plants by the pandal

The tree’s canopy was like a mammoth umbrella at the corner of Kaleeswara Nagar. Its cool shade was a haven for auto-drivers and goods loaders in the area. It became a part of their lives — they lounged under it as they sipped tea during breaks from work. But one day, it was chopped off. A lifeless stump stands in its place. The tree has left an emptiness in Kaleeswara Nagar and in the hearts of people such as auto-driver N. Balasubramanian and goods loader R. Arumugam.

“We thought, ‘why not plant more trees in its place,’” says Balasubramanian. They planted about 10 saplings by the pandal of the ‘Baaram thookuvor sangam’. It has been five months since maa maram, arasa maram and pungai maram were planted and the men are determined to see to their well-being. “We are doing this because we want shade,” says Balasubramanian. “But if the trees benefit others in the process, we will be happy.” Arumugam points to a tall tree at a distance and says, “A friend and I planted it many years ago. The friend is dead. But see, the tree is still there.”

Green patch at street-corner

A dismal street-corner used more like a urinal and a garbage dump is now a patch of green thanks to auto-driver S. Kannan and team. They have planted 12 plants by their auto-stand and are nurturing. “There are 10of us at the stand. We ensure that there is at least one of us here to keep an eye on our plants,” explains Kannan. He has stuck reflective stickers around the stems to protect them from being run over by vehicles at night. The auto-men come to the stand at 7 a.m. The first thing they do is clean the surrounding area and water the plants. A neighbour has offered to provide water. “We see to it that the soil doesn’t go dry,” says Kannan. He adds, “This is the little we can do; but we want to do it well.”