This place is home to 250 varieties of trees, 10 different species of mammals, 60 species of butterflies, 100 different types of birds and at least 10 different types of snakes.
We’re not talking about a wildlife sanctuary or some forest in a Bengal village. It is a one-kilometre corridor of urban forest in the heart of south Kolkata’s Chetla. What’s even more remarkable is that this green stretch is the brainchild of just one man, done with a little help from his friends.
Montu Hait is an advocate at the Alipore court, but he introduces himself as a naturalist first and then an advocate. For him, it’s been a labour of love for over two decades, planting every seed and grafting every sapling. All this for a dream: a patch of green in a rapidly greying city. And his dream has finally borne fruit.
While travelling along the city’s most prominent disaster-management structure — the bailey bridge between New Alipore and Alipore — and the most-used road to travel to and from Behala and down south, it’s hard to miss the lush green patch along the northern side of the canal between Majerhat and New Alipore railway tracks. It’s land that belongs to the Kolkata Port Trust. At a time the city’s air quality index has recorded massive highs, the man-made forest has been proving — literally — a breath of fresh air to a vast area around it for the last few years.
According to Chetla resident Hait, it all started in 1997, when he first found some fairly old trees that had randomly grown in the area, being felled indiscriminately. “My friends and I used to play in this area as children,” he says. “During a random visit, I saw some old trees had dried up and several others were felled. By 2000, the place had turned barren, almost a dump-yard. I realised something had to be done. And so, with a group of friends, we began sowing seeds and plant saplings in the area. We didn’t bother — anything we could get our hands on, we planted.”
It took them some years to organise themselves, though, but by 2009, the motley group had sown and planted a number of trees in the area, hoping to give a fresh lease of life to his childhood hangout zone.
However, with no previous knowledge of organised gardening, his worst nightmares came true. After the first few weeks of the plantation drive, almost all the plants planted were either dead or wilted because of lack of water and care. The incident shook Hait, but he came back with a fair amount of research. This time, he came loaded with seeds of fruit trees, which he planted in the area using the ‘guerrilla technique’, which involves the sowing of one particular type of seed so that a large number of trees grows in a small area. He sowed seeds in summer, around April and May, hoping the plants would have a better chance at survival. The technique worked. The rain of the following months proved beneficial, and the plants started bearing fruit.
“The rain helped the trees flourish and they soon started bearing fruit and flowers. I was ecstatic and it spurred me into planting more trees, using the same tactic, every year,” says Hait, standing under the shade of an expansive sirish tree.
Overall, however, it wasn’t an easy task. “While most trees survived, some didn’t. Trees like dates, tamarind, sirish and many other flourished with ease but some fruit-bearing trees had a tough time. But then, we slowly started getting more support from some locals who began taking care of the trees on their own and the forest started getting bigger and denser,” Hait says.
Now 11 years young, the urban forest formed because of guerrilla gardening has drastically brought the air quality index around the Alipore area down in spite of several construction projects and railway station activities in the area. The influx of animals and birds has also attracted birders and photography enthusiasts, along with naturalists and green crusaders.
“This area was barren 10 years back. Now, we wake up with the dawn chorus. And it’s not one or two, but hundreds of birds, especially during the morning and evening hours. I have even seen some extremely rare birds in this area, which are not generally spotted elsewhere in the city,” says local resident Arup Chatterjee. Hait says he has even photographed some migratory birds in the forest.
As the years rolled by, the stretch of road beside the green zone — fondly called Chetla Forest by locals — has become one of the most happening morning and evening walk zones in the city, with people even driving down from Behala and Rasbehari Avenue to breathe in the fresh air.
Sushil Agarwal, 72, a resident of New Alipore, is among those who regularly come here for a walk beside the forest. “The air is purer here than in any other parts of the city. The moment you reach the area, there is a sudden dip in temperature and you feel the difference. Even with the construction of Majerhat Bridge in full swing, which has enveloped almost all homes in a 2km-radius with thick dust, the place around the forest feels like heaven,” Agarwal says.
Acknowledging that the urban forest has managed to bring down the air quality index in the area significantly, environmentalists said the green patch will have a much long-term impact on the environment around the forest.
“The urban forest acts as a pollution sink. It sucks in pollutants and greenhouse gases from the surrounding area and not only cleans the air above the forest but also a much larger area surrounding the greenery,” says a senior official of the state pollution control board.
A large portion of the forest was chopped off to facilitate the construction of the bailey bridge after the Majerhat bridge collapse last year. And illegal tree-felling is still a major threat. “We often come to the spot to find a number of trees brutally hacked. We have filed police complaints and have even posted night guards but have failed to control it,” says Hait, adding that several illegal units like a packaging material recycling unit have also come up in the area that generates a lot plastic waste and harms the environment.
Hait says, as the land belongs to the Kolkata Port Trust, he has written to the trust a number of times but has got no response. “When I decided first to go ahead with organised guerrilla plantation, I had written to the KoPT for their permission, but there was no response and I went ahead with the plantation. KoPT has never raised any objection but it also never gave me any permission,” he says.
A senior officer of KoPT says they were aware of the plantation activity but never sanctioned it, adding they may use the land in future if needed. “We have already allotted lands in Taratala and near Dhobi Talao for urban forest zones. But we never sanctioned this area beside the railway tracks. If needed, we may use it in future,” the official says.
Source: Times of India