Chennai-ites would watch, amused, two gentlemen in shorts and tee-shirts, riding tricycle carts early in the morning. The carts would be carrying saplings. The duo would look out for streets that had no trees and find a spot for planting a sapling.
But before doing that, they would call on a house on the street. And only if the resident of the house promised to water the sapling would they plant the tree. Since most Chennai streets were barren, the two men were kept extremely busy.
The tricycle journey that started 15 years ago continues, albeit a bit sluggishly, since Chennai faces a water crisis these days.
For years, the two men were considered eccentric, but they are perhaps the unsung green heroes of Chennai. By profession, V Subramanian was a banker at the Reserve Bank of India, while Dr R Madhavan is a practising paediatrician.
Recalling the motive that pushed them into planting trees, Madhavan says, "The city was barren in those days and we wanted to do something that would benefit everybody. Now, even the poorest people have gained. They are the people who walk on the streets: the hawkers, the salespeople, and the pedestrians. In the beginning, people called us crackpots! Even now, we are 'two mad men' to many."
They started their endeavour by planting saplings on the street on which they lived. Then they moved to the next street, and the next, and so forth. By the end of the first year, they had planted more than 400 saplings in and around Mandaveli, the locality where they lived. Initially, they collected Rs 60 from each resident to build tree guards around the saplings, but after a year they got the United India Insurance Company to sponsor the tree guards.
"It was not possible for us to water the plants daily. That became the responsibility of the residents. But we'd inspect the plants regularly. We do not expect others to come and do the manual work. We do it because we love it," says Subramanian.
The twosome started the Environmental Society of Mandaveli. They renamed it Global Greenways as their area of operation began spreading. "Earlier, we used to cycle down noting the width of the streets and chose the trees accordingly. But, after a few years, many people recognised our work and started calling us to specific places," says Subramanian.
Not that all residents were enthusiastic about having trees on the pavements. Madhavan remembers how some hostile residents chased them away. "One morning, we opened the gate of a house to ask the residents whether they were interested in a tree in front of their house. What welcomed us was a 'barking' woman. She roared at us, 'How did you open my gate and come inside? Who gave you the permission? Go out!' We just ran away.
"But those who invited us inside and offered us coffee outnumber such hostile elements! Some of them would even water all the saplings we planted on the street."
Initially, they collected the saplings from the Corporation of Madras (as Chennai was then known) but soon began their own nursery. Anyone who wanted to plant a tree was given a free sapling. Over the years, organisations such as the Rotary Club and the Lions Club learnt about Subramanian and Madhavan and began to contact Global Greenways for saplings.
"We used to get calls from northern Madras asking us to visit and plant trees. We would travel more than 20 kilometres to plant trees," says Subramanian.
Madhavan has added his own touch -- he gifts saplings to all his patients.
Fifteen years later, they might have personally planted more than 15,000 trees in various areas all over Chennai. Over and above that, they have distributed thousands of saplings. "They are all big trees now. They are like our own children. We planted them with our own hands. Twenty years ago, if you saw Madras from an aeroplane, it did not have so many trees. It is greener now. People have become more aware," avers Subramanian.
The two have faced hurdles in their attempts to green Chennai. "Just take the example of my neighbour," says Madhavan wryly. "He pesters me to cut the rosewood tree that gives shade to a very large area here. The reason: leaves fall into his yard and he finds it difficult to clean it up! I have flatly refused. It is sad that many people in Chennai still prefer a concrete jungle to greenery."
Both Madhavan and Subramanian are not against felling trees per se. "If you want to cut down a tree, do it, but our plea is: please plant two trees when you cut one. A lady called recently: she is developing a plot of land and was cutting five trees on the site. She wanted to plant at least 10 trees somewhere else," says Madhavan.
From the terrace of Madhavan's house, one can see greenery all around. "This is what gives us the most satisfaction even though what you see is only 50 per cent of our efforts. If more people had supported us, Chennai would have been greener. When my patients to whom I have gifted saplings come and tell me, 'Doctor, they are big trees now. Thank you', I feel satisfied," says Madhavan.
The two have now turned their attention to flowering plants. "Wouldn't it be wonderful if people could see flowers on the streets in the mornings? The streets that have big trees can also have flowering plants," says Subramanian.
Global Greenways can be contacted at (+91-44) 2493 8368/2493 7060.
Photographs: Sreeram Selvaraj