The city of the Taj Mahal is set to look greener from the barren wasteland it has been reduced to over the decades.
Inspired by one man's example of planting trees, now educational institutions, cultural groups, resident welfare associations and other groups are participating in a major plantation drive in the city.
Harvijay Singh Bahia, a shoe exporter and formula car racer, decided to begin tree planting on his own in April. He hired a tractor with a mechanical driller and spent the entire May in the gruelling summer heat, drilling six-foot-deep holes on private land, on school and college campuses, factory premises and 'wherever people invited me', but his condition was that they would look after the saplings 'like their own children'.
When the first showers came in early July, the stage was set for a massive sapling plantation drive across the city.
Bahia took up the barren stretch along Mantola nullah on the MG Road. 'It took sustained efforts against an ocean of indifference and resources, but today that eyesore has turned green and the thousand-odd plants there are well entrenched and waiting to bloom,' Bahia told IANS.
In just one month, more than 20,000 saplings have been planted in colonies, along open drains, in the Central Hindi Institute campus and St Peter's College. Dozens of voluntary agencies have joined Bahia in his effort.
The Central Hindi University's registrar, Chandra Kant Tripathi, told IANS that they were experimenting with planting hundreds of neem saplings on a plot to be developed as a 'gurukul'.
Principal of the 164-year-old St Peter's College, Father John Farreira told IANS that they had 'already earmarked a big field for a gurukul under the shade of neem, banyan and peepal trees'.
The Amar Ujala group has initiated its own green campaign, planting hundreds of saplings each day in various parts of the city. Till last week, the group had planted 11,964 saplings and its campaign is to continue till Independence Day (Aug 15).
Agra University has also directed its 437 affiliated colleges to plant 100 saplings each and look after them for three years. Registrar Shatrughan Singh said the guidelines had been sent to all the college authorities.
In the S.N. Medical College, Principal K.K. Gupta has been leading the green campaign. National Cadet Corps members have also been planting saplings in different colleges.
A dozen women's groups and service clubs have pooled in their resources to plant saplings in different areas. The Citizens Council, Agra Vikas Manch, Wake Up Agra, Lions, Rotary, Bharat Vikas Parishad, the residents welfare societies and the cultural and religious bodies in the city are also involved in the drive.
Seeing the all-round enthusiasm, the government too has woken up and joined the efforts.
District Magistrate Amrit Abhijat has announced the 'Mera Vriksh' (My Tree) scheme, under which people can deposit Rs.1,100 with the forest department and plant a tree in the Taj Nature Park from Aug 12 in memory of their dear ones.
Divisional Forest Officer P.K. Janu said the department would look after the tree, protect it with a tree guard, give a proper certificate and put a stone plaque, giving details of the donor.
The key feature of the campaign this time is that the saplings are not being planted haphazardly as happened in the past leading to a low survival rate, said Narendra Malhotra, former president of the Federation of Gynaecologists and Obstetricians Societies of India and a keen volunteer.
'Proper planning and a huge database has been prepared, with names of people, locations and categories of saplings planted,' he said.
Braj Mandal Heritage Conservation Society president Surendra Sharma said: 'If this trend continues, not only will Agra's landscape look greener, but it will emerge as a role model for other cities in India to follow.'
Bahia said he did not intend to merely plant saplings and forget about them.
'I have a record of every sapling and location and will ensure not one dies a premature death for lack of care,' he said.
That's the green way to go, for sure!
(Brij Khandelwal can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)