Staying true to the roots

The 73-year-old K J Raju, from Nilgiris, has been leading a silent revolution to protect the species of his land and to educate Gen Z about why the initiative is important.
KJ Raju, a retired teacher, tirelessly works to preserve the forest cover in Kotagiri | express
KJ Raju, a retired teacher, tirelessly works to preserve the forest cover in Kotagiri | express

NILGIRIS: Not many gardening freaks pore over the origin of plants that occupy prime spots in their little gardens. All they look for are ornamental plants neatly placed in colourful pots. The plant parents delightfully nurture their babies, most of them invasive and exotic. These plants are almost everywhere and little do we know about how dramatically they impact ecosystems by establishing themselves densely and suppressing the growth of native species.

The 73-year-old K J Raju, from Nilgiris, has been leading a silent revolution to protect the species of his land and to educate Gen Z about why the initiative is important. Creating more water sources for living beings across the Nilgiris district by removing exotic species and planting natural shola plants is his life mission. Raju, a retired mathematics teacher, began this fascinating journey three decades back after seeing a group of people in Kotagiri axing trees for firewood.

Like any other environmentalist, Raju asked them to stop the practice and tried to provide awareness on the ill-effects of deforestation. However, it took him no time to realise that the people cannot be prevented from cutting down trees unless the root cause of their suffering is found and addressed. With the help of state and central government agencies, he arranged LPG connections to 100 homes, thereby stopping their firewood stacking.

A set of well-wishers. who stood by Raju in this initiative, slowly evolved into a group and in 1996, they formed Longwood Shola Watchdog Committee (LWSWDC).Raju, the coordinator, along with other members, conducts frequent patrolling and takes students and researchers inside the woods. They tell and show them the uniqueness of Longwood Shola forest, which is patches of evergreen tropical rainforests in valleys of the southern end of the Western Ghats, surrounded by natural grasslands.

The committee is the first to prove that Shola forests can be created. They also documented every living species in the Longwood. “With the help of volunteers and students, we have completely removed shoots of eucalyptus, a common invasive species, from five acres out of the total 250-acre Longwood Shola forest,” says Raju. He gratefully reminisces the contribution of Padmashree Michael Danino to the mission and added that two members — Chandrasekar and Michael Ezkiel — became the living martyrs of the committee as they were severely injured in a wild gaur attack while patrolling in the forest.

“My aim is to remove all exotic species across the Nilgiris so that we will get an additional 40,000 TMC water as shola is a water conserving species. In a study, we have also found that one hectare of shola forest can generate 750 litres of water in a second. The present forest is a water source for 50,000 people in 18 villages in and around Kotagiri,” gushes Raju.

An England-based organisation has granted Queens of Commonwealth Canopy (QCC) accreditation to the longwood shola forest. Tamil Nadu government has sanctioned Rs 5 crore to carry out developmental works here.Other than preserving the woods, the teacher has educated thousands of kids and turned them into green warriors. Some of them are now internationally-acclaimed eco activists. One such person is Mahendran who has spent five years with Greenpeace India.The energetic septuagenarian continues his mission in high spirits and clearly, nothing can stop him.

(Edited by Anagha R Manoj)

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