CHENNAI: Is it the woman who plants trees?” asks the puzzled gatekeeper at the apartment building as I enquire if Shobha was in.
But Shobha Menon, founder and managing trustee of Nizhal, an NGO, that fights to retain and improve what is left of the city’s green cover, is more than a just a woman who plants trees. She cares.
“People tend to believe that their job is done once saplings are planted,” says Shobha. “But who cares what happens after that?”
So why trees? Why not an organisation to support the poor or feed the children?
“I’ve been asked that before,” says the 52-year-old. “And I tell them, unless you breathe how can you eat?”
It is this kind of public apathy that she and her team have been working against ever since they took up the cause.
“There is this disconnect between citizens and the environment that I find alarming,” she says. “People go to great lengths to secure a movie ticket because they don’t want to miss their favourite screen idol. How about spreading that enthusiasm to keeping one’s neighbourhood clean and green?”
Formed in 2005, Nizhal has been involved in various landmark projects, noteworthy among them the Kotturpuram Tree Park. A five-acre area that was once a garbage dump yard now stands beautified, adding a rare vibrancy to the Adyar River that flows adjacent.
“The biggest challenge was funding,” she says of the Tree Park project. “So we relied on volunteers to transform the area into a bio-diversity rich space.”
Maintained by Nizhal volunteers with help from locals and the Chennai Corporation, it continues to inspire similar community parks in the city.
Nizhal also helped transform State prisons via their ‘Green Prison’ initiative, an idea which Shobha feels could be implemented nationwide. She admits it was a challenge convincing prison inmates to work with them.
“But once they saw the fruit of their labour, they got involved whole-heartedly,” she said. “Currently some of the best organic produce comes from prisons across Tamil Nadu.”
The BJP government’s decision to fast track infrastructure projects, by simplifying the environmental clearance process, seems not to deter her. She believes that infrastructure development and environment protection can go together.
“When we have more citizens who care about their environment, there will always be a way to work around these challenges,” she said.