Coimbatore: Fifty-year-old Tamil Nadu ‘treeman’ M. Yoganathan beams with pride as he looks at the award cabinet in his Coimbatore home. Just like the saplings he distributes free of cost, his award cabinet has grown too. Now, PM Narendra Modi’s Mann ki Baat praise will also find pride of place on it.
“This is a result of years of hard work,” the bus conductor-cum-tree-planting evangelist said, recalling years of tirelessly distributing saplings to passengers.
After Modi’s radio endorsement, there is only one other person that his mission requires. “I want to meet Rajnikanth to join my fight and help me. He will ease my job, he, too, was a bus conductor.”
Yoganathan was lauded by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his Mann Ki Baat radio address Sunday. Modi praised Yoganathan for planting trees and for spending his own salary to do such inspirational work.
It was the recognition of an over-30-year journey that has seen Yoganathan plant 4 lakh saplings, of which 3 lakh have grown into trees.
In 2008, he was awarded the Eco Warrior award by the Vice-President of India. Two years later, the Tamil Nadu government gave him the ‘Environmentalist of the Year’ award.
A bus conductor with the Tamil Nadu State Transport Corporation, he is now known to distribute free saplings among passengers, an initiative he started five years ago.
“Every day I distribute at least 10 saplings,” he told ThePrint. “If I can’t stop them from cutting trees, at least I can ensure new ones are planted.”
Falling in love with forests
Yoganathan developed a deep affinity for forests while in school at Nilgiri district’s Kotagiri, where his mother worked at a tea plantation. Yoganathan would walk to the tea plantation every now and then, a distance of 13 km through a forest area, and he fell in love.
It was around this time, he said, that he realised the timber mafia was illegally cutting firewood to roast tea leaves. In an attempt to stop it, he wrote a letter to the state government, which did not elicit a reply.
So, he added, one day, when a lorry came to collect the chopped firewood, he performed his own version of the Chipko movement and lay flat on the ground in its path. The firewood wasn’t picked up that day.
There has been no looking back since.
Yoganathan said he then became closely associated with activist Jayachandran of the Tamil Nadu Green Movement, and this increased his interest in nature conservation. “Whatever I know, I have learnt on the job,” he said.
He added that his complaints about people cutting trees often gets him in trouble. He started as a bus conductor in Coonoor, but said he was constantly transferred due to the “political nexus”.
He thus decided to start distributing saplings.
His family — his wife and two daughters, aged 22 and 26 — help him out. He calls his wife his financial manager, while his elder daughter handles his social media and the younger one drives him to the nursery and back to collect saplings.
Yoganathan uses his weekly off-day — Monday — to visit schools and colleges to offer presentations and take part in tree plantation drives.
“I chose Monday because, after the weekend, students are most fresh. I go in the first period,” he said. “Last week, at Kovai Kalaimagal College of Arts and Science, we planted 500 trees.”
‘Long way to go’
Yoganathan said he still has a long way to go. His aim is to ensure that five trees are planted in everyone’s homes — coconut, mango, amla, jackfruit and guava. The reason for this is that drainage from households will flow to the trees and help them grow, he added.
He said he specifically named these five trees because they live longer and are low-maintenance.
While Yoganathan acknowledged the recognition from the government, he complained that neither the state nor the central administrations are doing enough to protect trees.
Citing road widening as an example, Yoganathan said apart from the trees cut for the exercise, more continued to be hacked after it had been completed.
“They are not giving money to those who grow trees but to those who cut them,” he said. “To develop our nation, they should not destroy forests.”