For the last 39 years, the ‘Tree Man of India’ is leading the charge against global warming, one tree at a time
In the residential neighbourhood of Virugambakkam in Chennai, a 52-year-old carries saplings, packed in milk packets, to deliver to households. He will give the saplings for free; his only request - plant the sapling and take care of it.
Gopal Mullaivanam has made former late President Dr APJ Abdul Kalam’s ‘Green Kalam Project’ his life mission, though he has been distributing plants to people free of charge for a long time now. Gopal’s vision is to plant trees and help reverse some of the effects of global warming, and with this mission, he started the ‘Tree Bank’ in Chennai in 2008.
Popularly known as the ‘Tree Man of India’, Mullai says, “There are blood banks, eye banks, and other banks for the needy. So why not a 'Tree bank' that can protect the environment? Trees give us oxygen to breathe free, and we should repay this by planting more trees.”
As part of this initiative, Mullai says he has planted 1.47 crore saplings in Tamil Nadu. A firm believer in the power of collective effort, he motivates people to join him and hundreds of college students, IT professionals, and others have joined him in his mission to make a greener planet.
Gopal was introduced to the concept of organic farming at a young age of 13 by his father, and he found great joy in planting saplings and watching them grow into trees.
“I would pick up the seeds on the road and plant it inside empty milk packets and distribute them to people I would meet along the way to school,” he recalls.
Gopal’s grandfather, who worked as an agricultural worker in Chennai, and his mother, who delivered milk, helped him in his endeavour. His mother, who distributed Aavin milk in Virugambakkam in the morning, told the residents of her son’s desire to give away free plant saplings and asked for empty milk packets. Soon, she was collecting almost 300 empty milk packets a day.
“As a child, I just wanted to spread greenery in Chennai and build an environment in which I grew in. My grandfather told me about the importance of trees and conservation of the environment. As Chennai was developing, and more buildings were coming up, I knew that I had to do something. And whenever I used to give plant saplings to someone they would instantly smile, and return for more,” the 52-year-old says.
While he was in school, Gopal began distributing plant saplings to his teachers and friends. He went on to set up a a non-profit sapling bank - ‘Tree Bank’ - in Chennai.
A collective green effort
A terrace gardener by profession, Gopal earns approximately Rs 60,000 a month, and says his primary expenditure is on transportation of the tree saplings.
Gopal initially got orders from friends and relatives but as word spread, people from across the city, and even beyond, asked him for saplings.
“I receive many requests from schools, colleges and corporate offices. However, I only agree to work with them if they are committed to the project. I always make a personal visit to the site to determine the space availability, and how we can make this a sustainable initiative. Only after they promise us to take proper care of the trees do we dispatch the required quantity of saplings. Everything is free of charge – the saplings, my services, and my team’s work. Only the transportation costs need to be borne by the hosts,” Gopal says.
Struggles and challenges
In 2010, Dr Kalam recognised and gifted Gopal a pickup truck to transport saplings, as well as a gold medal to appreciate his passion, dedication, and service.
Gopal’s initiative, however, suffered a major setback in 2017 as Cyclone Vardha destroyed his home as well as the Tree Bank. Gopal had to mortgage his car and personal assets to rebuild his home, but refused to let go of the Tree Bank. He is currently crowdsourcing funds to continue his initiative.
“At that time, despite our own personal losses, we (Gopal and his team) went and helped restore the trees.”
The same year, Gopal also filed a petition in the Madras High Court to ask citizens to plant a tree when they purchased a vehicle.
“We should plant one tree a day, and everyone should plant at least one tree during their life. Youngsters should engage in selfless acts that help society, and you should never commercialise such deeds,” he concludes.