A crusader by nature
He may have no money to pay his phone bills. But Dev Balaji will not let such little things deter his enthusiasm for nature and adventure
DEV BALAJI fights a somewhat lonely battle against environmental pollution. The small room out of which he runs Nature Admire, the adventure company he began when he was 18, is crowded with proud press clippings and nature posters. His cell phone rings persistently, and someone walks in to discuss their last minute preparations for a trek to Manas Sarovar. Despite being a one-man show, Nature Admire is obviously a busy little outfit. But its two landlines are surprisingly silent. "No money to pay the bills," explains Dev sheepishly. Trekking might be brisk business elsewhere, but Nature Admire is still struggling to make ends meet.
Dev first got interested in the outdoors when he joined the Scouts in Class V, mainly out of a fascination for their uniform, but he hurriedly explains: "Scouting was a great movement at that time, but today it has lost all its charm." In 9th Grade, he was a President's Scout, the youngest from Karnataka. Listless about his academics, it was scouting and trekking that enthused him and in 10th Grade he took out his first batch of students. Along with a friend, he guided a group of 10th Grade girls to Nandi Hill. The trip went well, and soon, nature and trekking became something of an obsession with Dev.
He joined Vivekananda College, which did nothing to ignite his passion for the outdoors. A teacher from his alma mater channelised his passion for the environment by introducing him to environmentalists and guiding him through a slew of campaigns: anti plastic, emission checking, tree planting. His disapproving parents insisted he take up a job to bring in money to their cash strapped family, and so he began working at an automobile shop. "It was my uncle's shop, but I used to run and come back," says Dev. In January '98, there was a camp in the Scouts, and Dev decided he wanted to run out. His uncle didn't take to well to the loss of a helper: "He blasted me saying I wouldn't come up in life, but I knew once I've come out I'll never go back again," says Dev. "My parents and relatives were all forcing me to go back to the shop. I said no way, I will not go, I want to go camping," he recalls.
His mother sold condiments, so as a compromise, Dev suggested they allow him to work on environment and adventure if he also sold condiments: on footpaths and in offices. He did this for six to seven months, while his teacher plumped him up with campaign work. Nature Admire's first programme was in '98, when Dev was 19. "The name just came to me," he explains. "There was no money. One friend made me the letter head and I photocopied the rest. In the first year, there was just one programme. We just kept planning treks, placing ads, there was not much support."
Then Dev heard about a course at an outdoors school in the US, and won a scholarship to go there. "So many people sponsored me because I didn't have the money," Dev says. "I didn't even have a proper pant or shoes. I used to collect food from refugee centres, work on college campus, I have a sustainability." During the course, students stayed in the jungle and Dev learnt many lessons about living in the outdoors, valuable to him today.
When he returned, he started working on making Nature Admire more commercially viable. Fifty places in and around Bangalore were identified for treks, and there was one every weekend. Recently, Dev has begun concentrating more on management exercises, he says. Team building exercises, integrating with employees, understanding leadership skills are values he inculcates, having learnt them at the outdoor school.
"Taking people out on treks is fun but it doesn't pay," Dev explains. "This, (on the other hand) is challenging, creative, sustainable."
His dream is to make the Western Ghats an eco-tourist destination, and build an outdoor school with programmes for specific target groups since "these days everybody has to become a leader, by improving their skills. They don't have confidence," he explains.
After National Geographic Channel launched in India, more people are trekking, says Dev. He claims that more than 10,000 people go trekking every weekend, making this an over Rs. 35-crore market. "Its a process of inculcating love for nature," says Dev. "Most people want good food, beer, camp fire, the easy thing. But we don't do that kind of thing. Mountains for me are a temple, they're God. I don't want people to go make noise. I slap them if they do. When you come to the forests, it's calm, it's divine. You can't booze, smoke, you cant throw plastics, papers. Nature has a priority for me; that's why we've had a major fight with some companies who now do their programmes in resorts."
There may be no money to pay the phone bills, but Dev is far from giving up his crusade against polluters. At 25, he can boast more than 15 conservation programmes and has organised programmes to check over 5,000 vehicles and plant 5,000 trees. "I do this because I love it," he says, "Bangalore is full of air pollution, there are no environmental rules, no ethics, no waste disposal. I don't have any money to pay my phone bills, but we're into adventure right?! There is always hope."
Dev Balaji can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org
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