Shaj Liberty Garden has brought its residents together for a common cause – raising trees, writes Esther Elias

Shaj Liberty Garden in Edayarpalayam is the kind of housing colony picture books are made of. Homes sit pretty in neat rows and there’s not a street above which the trees don’t meet in a tight canopy. It’s the fruit of labour done 15 years ago when the colony’s promoter Mohd Ibrahim planted 130 trees, one at each plot, and marked the roadsides with avenue trees such as gulmohars.

Down the years though, as more plots were occupied and new constructions arose, trees were cut down to make room for them. “We’d see an ancient tree today and tomorrow it would be gone — either chopped off or buried in a heap of sand and construction material,” says Hema Unni, a resident.

Three years ago, after a robbery which shook up the colony, the residents got together to clear the thorny brush which filled two common plots. “We wanted our colony to be such that houses could be seen clearly across crossroads, not hidden behind unruly growth,” says Balamathy Nehru.

So for weeks every Sunday morning, the residents set out with aruvals and knives cutting through the mess with bare hands. “A JCB cleared the big growth but we had to pull out the smaller weeds physically,” says V. Srisathya.

Once done, they began planting 40 fruit and flowering saplings in the larger plot to develop a park for the area’s children. “Seeing our work, Ramya Nursery gifted us 50 more saplings, some of which we planted in the smaller plot. We also procured 100 neem saplings for free from the Mettupalayam Forest College and Research Institute. Organisations such as Siruthuli and RAAC gave us guidance and we began the project,” says Hema.

They were soon to discover however that while trees would root and spring up soon enough, man was sadistic enough to stall that growth.

Tough road ahead

“It’s easier to raise a child, than grow a tree! Every time we’d plant, someone would come along and break off a branch or destroy it entirely,” says Srisathya. Water was hard to come by too.

The area receives drinking water once a week and regular water once in 10 days. “So we’d fill up drums and carry the water to each plant in buckets every couple of days. In the beginning, we even used to buy water for the saplings,” says A. Viola.

It takes over an hour of collective work each morning just watering, pruning, and hemming in the saplings in bamboo cases. The group also collects the previous day’s fallen leaves and piles them at the foot of each tree for it to turn into manure.

For three years worth of work, the common plots now have fledgling trees, making cautious progress. In a few years, they should provide the shade and pleasure the fast-disappearing older trees now give.

Working with trees has changed them as people, says Srisathya. “We’ve learnt patience and perseverance, but when someone destroys a tree, it still feels like we’re being physically hit,” adds Hema. It’s also brought them together as a colony. “We’d have never gotten to know each other this well if it hadn’t been for the trees,” says Balamathy.