We moved this tree 15 km on a truck along the stretch between Avinashi and Avinashipalayam.” V. Mahendran points to a hulking tree trunk. “The operation took us nine hours. Even with its branches and most of its canopy chopped off, it weighed more than 40 tonnes.” We are at the Tiruppur Collectorate, and Mahendran, who works at a leading Tiruppur apparel company, is telling me about the massive tree planting drive across Tiruppur district that he is part of.
“Four hundred trees were to be cut for a highways project. And 150 trees of them were transplanted— three of them at the Collectorate.” This particular tree, a rare variety of banyan, is around 150 years old. He points to a sprig of leaves on a bare branch. “The tree lives.”
Mahendran comes from a long line of farmers in Dharapuram “and I know about native trees and the soil.” Fourteen years ago, he joined the administrative department of an apparel manufacturing and exporting company. But when his managing director, T.R. Sivaram, spearheaded the Vanathukul Tiruppur (Tiruppur within a forest) in 2015, a movement to green the city, Mahendran’s job description changed. He became the initiative’s project manager.
As we drive along, Mahendran identifies the trees that have been planted as part of the project. He says with considerable pride that 3.5 lakh trees have been planted in the last two years in the district and 90% are flourishing. “Nothing gives me greater satisfaction than knowing that we have put trees on almost every street of Tiruppur,” he says.
Sivaram, who started an NGO called Vetry to tackle environmental problems of the region, found the right people to fulfil a promise he made to himself; one that gathered strength when his hero A.P.J. Abdul Kalam passed away. “Dr. Kalam had said every human must plant and nurture at least five trees in their lifetime.
When he died, a few of us thought the best way to honour his memory was to plant and look after saplings. In 2015, 8,000 people from all walks of life assembled and pledged to plant one lakh trees in four months.” That was the first phase of Vanathukul Tiruppur. In just under 100 days, 1.35 lakh saplings were planted.
That was the first milestone and the response was overwhelming. Sivaram approached the frontrunners of business in the wealthy knitwear town of Tiruppur. Almost all the garment industrialists threw their weight behind his project. When I tell Sivaram that I always thought of Tiruppur as a plastic-infected, hot and dusty mess, he is not very pleased.
“We are clothing the world and the city is one of the busiest industrial hubs in the country raking in over ₹25,000 crore per annum in export revenue and doing equally well in the domestic market. Over 11 lakh workers are employed in the industries and, with that volume, the city is not going to smell sweet.”
D.M. Kumar, CEO of another apparel company and project director of Vanathukul Tiruppur, makes a candid admission.
“We have caused grievous harm to the environment and we must make amends.” He says that while the industry’s growth has been exponential, no one paid any attention to the environmental fallout. Water bodies paid the price with effluents being discharged into them and trees suffered too.
But not any more.
The new ‘VIPs’
The trees in Tiruppur are now VIPs, says Sivaram. “We brainstormed and came up with a sustainable plan. Too many tree planting drives are coming to nought. In order to save time, energy and resources, we decided to plant in enclosed private lands.” He explains how people offered vacant lands to plant saplings. Nearly 4,000 acres have been planted. I see 6,000 trees growing on 60 acres belonging to a major industrialist. Farmers with uncultivable land were persuaded to plant teak, malai vembu and sandalwood.
Before the saplings find a home, Mahendran and his team find out what tree will grow best in that particular soil. Treated sewage water is used to water the saplings. Industrialists have provided tractors fitted with GPS to the Vanathukul Tiruppur team. These follow a meticulously drawn up schedule to crisscross the district carrying 6,000 litres of water a trip. The tractors make five trips a day. In some farms, drip irrigation is used.
But it isn’t all smooth sailing. There have been some setbacks, reveals Kumar. “When we planted saplings in public spaces, miscreants set fire to them, poured acid on them or hammered nails into them. But plantations on private lands get proper care and the trees get a fair chance of survival.”
Kumar says they would gladly help housing complexes to start greening drives too. “You don’t need that much space. We have also adopted the Miyawaki forestry method (a form of ecological engineering) and now several places have densely planted trees.”
In the lush outdoors of yet another apparel exporting company, 4,000 assorted saplings grow in a Miyawaki forest. They include banyan, badam, teak, pomegranate, rosewood, cherry, neem, silver oak, mandarai, guava and mango. Children from nearby schools planted them and they return every now and then to check on their progress.
Mahendran says the planting drive has helped bring back rare indigenous species that would have otherwise disappeared. “The Vanathukul movement has spread its roots. Dindigul, Erode, Namakkal have all begun similar projects,” says Kumar.
Both Sivaram and Kumar reiterate that the greening effort has been successful because it is a people’s movement, wholeheartedly supported by the government. District Forest Officer A. Periasamy seconds that. “In the first two years of the scheme, the forest department supplied nearly two lakh saplings.
Meanwhile, the organisers themselves established nurseries and identified sources for saplings. But the forest department will continue to offer technical expertise in terms of saplings and soil conditions.”
Sivaram hopes to see positive results in about three years. “More rainfall, more birds, less pollution and less heat.” And their next project on restoring water bodies is already underway.