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Two young men wandered across the length and breadth of India persuading people to plant saplings. Giving them a hand were two clay figures - Changu and Mangu.
As kids, Hari Chakyar and Anthony Karbhari thought India was the size of an A-4 sheet. What destroyed this notion for good recently was the source of the A-4 sheet.
On October 10 last year, the two men had left from Mumbai with a laptop, a lakh of rupees and a pick-axe named 'Matters'. It was their way of taking matters into their own hands. They were on a mission to plant trees in all the 29 states and six Union territories of India - a mission they called Project 35. Last week, the two friends returned with bushy English beards and triumphant smiles that spoke of a successful mission.
It was 26-year-old advertising professional Chakyar's urge to talk to young India about the advantages of planting trees that made him think of ways to reach them early last year. "How about planting trees all over India?" thought Chakyar, who had already planted 180 trees in Ambernath as part of a campaign called Nature Baba. He then ran this idea by his friend, 24-year-old Anthony Karbhari, a filmmaker and fellow member at the Wilson College Nature Club, who readily enlisted himself in the project.
Together, they decided to plant saplings with students and screen documentary films for them in each state. In three months, an itinerary for a four-month journey that started from Silvassa and ended at Goa was chalked out. In this time, they had to figure out travel plans and find hosts - mostly friends of friends - in all the states. Besides, they even had to seek permissions from school and colleges where they could deliver lectures.
The easiest part for the advertising professional, strangely, was seeking permission for four months of leave. "They even let me take the office laptop and internet dongle, " muses Chakyar. His mother, however, was not as enthusiastic. She reminded him that his dad was retiring soon, that his sister's education still needed help and that they needed to soon buy a house. "I somehow convinced her that I wouldn't be spending all of my savings on this trip, " says Chakyar.
The funds for the trip came mostly from friends, colleagues, relatives, Facebook friends and their friends and a crowdfunding platform called Wishberry through which people contributed to their mission "even while we were travelling", says Chakyar. These contributions ranged from Rs 5 to Rs 20, 000 - an amount that came from Roopak Saluja, CEO of The Big Bang Films. When the duo left Mumbai, they had close to a lakh of rupees in hand and their target was five times that amount. "But we managed to finish the entire India Tour within 2 lakh rupees, " says Chakyar, who, along with Karbhari, planted close to 193 saplings in all.
Before each screening, their two miniature clay figurines or alter-egos, Changu and Mangu, helped break the ice with children. "Look, these two little people are going around planting trees. So it is not just the work of the government or municipalities to plant trees. You can do it too and it's fun!" they would tell kids. In some cases, where the students were either too young for the films or did not understand the language, they even used cloth puppets from Rajasthan. Also, Chakyar, who had been itching to try shadow puppet theatre for a long time, finally got to show off in Bangalore where he told a story about how people sell endangered sea-turtle eggs and how a little girl helps the cops nab the bad man.
What really stumped the two was the level of environmental degradation in Kerala. "Sand mining is killing rivers. People are felling sacred temple groves to build concrete temples. Everyone knows that sand mining is harmful in the long run but they continue to do it and ignore it. This apathy is depressing, " says Chakyar, who has even come across the practice of planting with a plastic pouch. "This prevents roots from reaching the soil, " he says.
Experiences such as staying in a hut made of bamboo and wood meant for players in a football club, refusing to use a bathtub in a luxury hotel in Silchar, a sober New Year's Eve and the sight of dosas in Nagaland added value to their journey to raise eco-consciousness. Also, while food was not an issue for Karbhari, who eats anything that moves, Chakyar, an egg-eating vegetarian, survived most of the Northeast on dal, rice and boiled vegetables. So, he was nearly moved to tears when his host offered him dosas and sambar once for dinner.
There were many such surprises. In Agra, for instance, when they couldn't find a place to plant saplings, after being refused by an orphanage, a junior college and a church, the rickshaw driver who was plying them everywhere said, "Aap ek kaam karo, mere yahaan lagao, main usko sambhaloonga!" He drove them to his place, deep inside Agra. It was a rural house with two cows and a buffalo. "We still talk over the phone, " says Chakyar.
Another instance was that of his co-passenger in the train to Palakkad from Shoranur. "He had planted over one lakh trees in Palakkad, Thrissur and Wayanad districts. How do I tell you how happily surprised he looked when we told him about Project 35 Trees?" Chakyar says.
Their only regret for the duo, that rates the soil in south Goa as the rockiest, was not being able to cover Arunachal Pradesh and Lakshadweep. "Both times we tried to go to Arunachal, they had bandhs there, " says Chakyar. Also, "it is difficult to go to Lakshadweep as someone from the islands has to invite you over. We had no contacts there, " adds Chakyar, who can now boast of having friends in every state, some of them as close as family. "I think I'll now understand patriotism better than before, " says Chakyar, who sported dense mutton-chops on his return. Though he has shaved it off now, the 26-year-old was happy to note that even growing a beard is eco-friendly.
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