Greening Urban Spaces: Nizhal

Posted: December 9, 2011

An interview with Shobha Menon of Nizhal, ‘the tree NGO’ on why sensitive greening matters and why indigenous trees are so critical to Indian cities.

Interview by Aparna V. Singh

On hearing the word, “ecology”, we first think of wildlife sanctuaries and nature reserves. Yet, the urban environment we live in also needs sound ecological thought, given the rapid population growth and attendant pressures in India.

Nizhal (shade, in Tamil) a non-profit trust that started working in Chennai in 2006, aims to preserve and nurture indigenous trees in urban landscapes, as well as create awareness of the need for greening in crowded urban areas.

We caught up with Shobha Menon, a Trustee and founder-member of Nizhal, to learn about the interesting work they do in the urban ecology space. The meeting spot was interesting too; a “tree-park” coming up on the banks of the Adyar river, hidden away in one of Chennai’s busy neighbourhoods.

Aparna V. Singh (AVS): This is an interesting place to meet, Shobha! What is Nizhal doing here?

Shobha Menon (SM): This land is a 5-acre property that belongs to the PWD. It was actually a dump yard where all kinds of refuse used to be dumped. The PWD approached us, since they wanted something to commemorate their 140th anniversary.

It has taken us 4 years to clear the space from scratch and plant and grow all these trees, most of which are either indigenous or naturalized species. Till a few months ago, all we had was a hand pump, from which we used to fill buckets and water these trees. When we had enough volunteers, we used to form a bucket relay, and when we didn’t, it was just a few of us watering the young trees. In a climate like Chennai’s, it is not easy! 

AVS: Why the focus on indigenous tree species? 

SM: Nizhal was set up with the aim of encouraging sensitive urban greening. Did you know that the Purasawalkam locality in Chennai derives its name from the Purasai (Palash) tree? Yet today, there is only one Purasai left there, at the Gangadheeshwarar temple.

Indigenous species are dying away because of lack of demand. Everyone wants ornamentals like the Gulmohar, because they grow quickly! Our indigenous trees need to be conserved; else there is a risk of losing them forever. Such trees have more relationships with the birds and butterflies of that particular area.  Even a dead tree still maintains a relationship with all the life forms that exist on and around it.

AVS: What is the philosophy behind sensitive greening? 

SM: Sensitive greening is not about increasing the number of trees.It is about empowering people to take care of trees in their own neighbourhoods. It is not just about planting trees; it is also about taking care of grown trees. Saplings are planted in large numbers, and then forgotten. When the focus is on numbers, any tree will do, but indigenous trees, even when they grow slowly, are hardier and can withstand the toughest local conditions.

AVS: How easy or difficult has it been to raise awareness about urban greening?

SM: Chennai is actually a fairly green city. However, I read that though it is possible to have about 20% of its area as green space, today, it is only about 4%.

We do get a lot of calls from people interested in volunteering, but we also get a many who want us to attend to every problem, saying, “You’re the tree NGO, it’s your job!”

There is a lot of interest in the environment, but it cannot be voyeuristic. It has to go beyond that. We need 2 or 3 people on every street to begin with, who will care for the trees on their street. We do advise people on what species to plant and how to care for them, but we need more volunteers. In fact, I would request you to stress on this to your readers – don’t just read this piece, see how you can get involved!

It is really not about how much time you have, but whether you have the inclination to do something in the time available to you! For example, in Alwarpet, one of our members removes all boards nailed to trees when she goes out walking her dog.  People think that simply watching National Geographic or taking pictures of trees is loving nature. But it is about developing a relationship with the tree and nurturing it. It is not just the tree which benefits, you benefit too – it is because of the trees around us that we breathe!

AVS: We read on your website about your work at Puzhal prison. How did this happen and why?

SM: Not just at Puzhal, today we are working at all the state prisons to create ‘green prisons’ with bird and butterfly attracting shrubs, kitchen gardensandconverting leaf and vegetable waste into beneficial compost for the prison. Most prisons have very large tracts of land and available manpower. This program helps them grow their own food, and it heals your mind too. One convict who worked at this program told us that when he was released, he would like to join Nizhal as a member so he could continue working with us!

All our work uses organic farming techniques, and we connect an organic expert from each district with the prison there. In fact, we have a team of such experts – agricultural scientists, researchers, biologists – who contribute their expertise entirely on a voluntary basis.

We also conduct a similar program at the Institute of Mental Health, Kilpauk.

AVS: Before we wrap up, we’d love to hear about some of the high points of Nizhal’s 5-year journey.

SM: It has been a great journey. Although it has also been hard, I wouldn’t exchange it for anything else. The high points are our volunteers and the work of our core team. For instance, an elderly man of 75 years who was vision impaired, was so touched by Nizhal’s efforts that he offered to hand pump 10 buckets of water every day and water the trees here. He did this week after week. He also used to bring in his friends to help out and often used to say, that at this rate, his friends would soon abandon him, because he was getting them to work for free! These are the people that keep us going. 

You can learn more about sensitive greening at the Nizhal website. And, if you are in Chennai and interested in volunteering, learn more about how you can help.

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