Tree bay A panchayat shows the way by creating lung space even in a parched water deprived land. Pankaja Srinivasan reports

Ten acres of poromboke land. Six months ago, A.V. Govindaraj, President of the Arasur Panchayat, spent his own money, fenced the land and with social workers N. Nityanandan and G. Radhakrishnan started a tree-planting project. They spent two months clearing out the land that was covered with undergrowth, marked out spots at 10 feet distance and planted 3,000 saplings of native species.

The land was lying unused, mostly limestone and with very little water. Three bore wells were dug but they yielded little water. So drip irrigation was introduced. Despite severe water shortage, the panchayat has managed to plant and nurture the plants. Today, thanks to the young trees, there is a ripple of cool breeze and a constant din of birds. “Nearly 50 peacocks visit us daily,” says Nityanandan. As if on cue, we spot one disappearing behind some plants. Mynahs, drongos and a host of other birds flit around, settling in the shade of a tree or swooping down on some bug.

“The reason we have planted saplings so close to each other is to discourage weeds. We want a dense forest in this land. That will encourage more bird life,” says Nityanandan. The initiative has taken root thanks to a joint effort of Govindaraj, NGOs such as RAAC and Siruthuli, the Forest Department and student volunteers from panchayat schools and colleges such as K.P.R. College and Maharaja College. This public-private partnership is what has given the project such an impetus. According to the volunteers, all that is needed to create a lung space is to plant good quality saplings, water them till they take root, make sure the plants grow and get local people involved. Sustainability is only possible through support of the people who live in and around that area. Otherwise, they say, the saplings will just wither and die. A heart-warming outcome of the Arasur tree-planting drive (only native species are planted) is that many more Panchayats have come forward wanting to replicate the good job Govindaraj has done.

Slender green naval, vembu, pungan and poovarasan saplings, some of them upright, others leaning on support sticks, look fresh and healthy, despite the relentless heat and lack of rain. It has just been six months, and the panchayat folks are confident that by next year this time we will be able to walk in the woods here. We walk back to the stately banyan and stand under its munificent shade for a while. There is a soft breeze with just a hint of perfume. We know now how much of a difference a tree can make to the temperature. Looking up at the old banyan’s dense canopy, with its clusters of red berries, we can tell the branches are home to a host of birds and bats. There is nonstop chirping. Just one tree supports so much life. Imagine what a forest of such trees could bring to the city.