Autorickshaw driver plants 350 saplings at Thane, convinces 40 other drivers to join him

Affected by rising air pollution levels around the Mumbai Metropolitan Region, a Thane-based autorickshaw driver decided to plant saplings in the area from January 2016 onwards, in a bid to increase tree cover. Within a year, Purushottamlal Gupta, 40, planted more than 350 saplings across 25 locations, with a survival rate of 80%.

Gupta's efforts were recognised by chief minister Devendra Fadnavis in September last year. He has now decided to plant more than 1,500 sapling plantations by mid-2017. Inspired by his success, 40 more autorickshaw drivers joined him, called their movement ‘Sadbhavana Hara Bhara Bharat' and now organise plantation drives every weekend.

His efforts come at a time when MMR's green cover has been declining owing to a number of infrastructure projects, and transplantation or replantation drives have yielded poor results.

"Since I drive an auto around Thane daily, I know the amount of pollution I breathe daily. Increasing the area's green cover will disperse pollutants," said Gupta, who hails from Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh. "Autorickshaw drivers do not earn a lot. However, instead of just spending time earning a daily wage, I wanted to do something for my planet and safeguard my children's future."

In January last year, Gupta identified a green patch near Upvan lake, where the Thane Municipal Corporation (TMC) had planted 165 saplings.

"Along with planting saplings, we also need to check their survival rate. My neighbours, the families of other autorickshaw drivers and I started an awareness rally at the lake spread over a month. We requested senior citizens and children to take care of these plants whenever they visit the area," he said.

He added that all 165 plants grew more than five feet tall.

Within a few months, from May to June last year, Purushottamlal and his team planted more than 100 medina, badam and palm saplings at areas around Upvan Lake, Dharamveer Nagar and Hyde Park.

"Gupta earns Rs15,000 a month, which he spends on his children's education and on buying saplings," said Shivkumar Gupta, an autorickshaw driver.

TMC officials said they initially thought Gupta's initiative was a publicity stunt. "We had never heard of an autorickshaw driver giving up his work to safeguard the environment. However, when we attended one of his rallies at Upvan Lake, we were surprised," said a senior TMC official. "Children and senior citizens praised his work, and so we started supporting him."

According to the TMC's 2011 tree census, there are 4.45 lakh trees in Thane. Over the past 23 weeks, the TMC has planted 2.10 lakh saplings, of which more than 80% have survived. Additionally, 1.7 lakh trees in Thane have been geo-tagged.

After the monsoon last year, the civic body gave Gupta 20 bamboo logs, which serve as tree guards for his saplings. Last week, his team dug trenches in front of the municipal corporation and a school. "In a bid to make the younger generation aware, we have asked the school principal and teachers to help students plant saplings on their birthday," said Purushottamlal.

"Small contributions from such warriors make all the difference," said Stalin Dayanand, director, NGO Vanashakti.

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