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IAmGurgaon | A green thumbs up

Standing under the shade of an Indian babool tree at Gurugram’s Badshahpur forest corridor, banker-turned-environmentalist Latika Thukral, 55, says that giving the city green habitats goes beyond flora and fauna for her. “Why should people have to walk through garbage and sewage to get to work? This corridor links housing societies together and, now, when your help walks through it for work, they are walking through lush forest. They have the dignity of space; this fact makes me happy every day,” she says.

Standing under the shade of an Indian babool tree at Gurugram’s Badshahpur forest corridor, banker-turned-environmentalist Latika Thukral, 55, says that giving the city green habitats goes beyond flora and fauna for her. “Why should people have to walk through garbage and sewage to get to work? This corridor links housing societies together and, now, when your help walks through it for work, they are walking through lush forest. They have the dignity of space; this fact makes me happy every day,” she says.

The three-kilometre Badshahpur corridor (soon to be extended to 5 km) is the third major reforestation project undertaken by the charity that Thukral co-founded 12 years ago—IAmGurgaon. The area was once an open stormwater drain overflowing with waste and construction debris. It took workers six months to just dig through the waste and clear the drainage. Another six months were invested in creating a pavement over the drain, and then planting around 17,000 saplings on both sides. The space was further beautified using recycled crates and construction material. Using recycled material has also helped the team keep their costs low.

“Every few weeks I go to local government offices and dig out discarded objects which we then use to make public art installations, public sitting areas, and even recycle bins,” Thukral says with a smile. Behind her, a White Orange Tip butterfly flits around on blades of tall grass, and a handful of centipedes make a long, slow journey up the bark of a kikar tree. The plants in this corridor are just over a year old, yet the flora and fauna have expanded with surprising speed. “A naturalist came to this space last week and identified 14 species of butterflies,” she says.

The success was largely due to the fact that all the planting done was local. “We did a lot of research to come up with trees that are native to the Aravalli hills. Then a massive project to source their seeds was undertaken. Our team visited wild and semi-wild areas to collect seeds during the fruiting season. These were then grown as saplings in our own nursery and then planted in the corridor,” says Thukral. She adds that when the planting is done right, using suitable and sustainable plants, the birds, butterflies and bees follow on their own. “All these plants need to be watered once a week. After three years, they don’t even need that, they can sustain themselves on their own.”

Much of the team’s experience comes from their most extensive project till date—the Aravalli Biodiversity Park, a 380-acre city forest where IAmGurgaon planted about 145,000 saplings together with the help of local residents, schoolchildren and corporate volunteers. “The Aravalli hills are over 3 bill­ion years old. When we set out to create a city forest, we wanted to respect the heritage of the rocks,” reflects Swanzal Kak Kapoor. In 2009, Kapoor and Thukral jointly co-founded IAmGurgaon, fuelled by the realisation that the quality of life in the city was declining due to rampant and unplanned urbanisation, destruction of natural habitats, water logging and lack of civic responsibility. “Change can happen when citizens become aware and take action. We have seen a lot of interest from residents willing to help and volunteer with us. People really love the green spaces we have created,” adds Kapoor.

The biodiversity park is a result of such citizen action. Today, the park is home to grasslands, rocky outcrops, a groundwater recharge zone, a research station for naturalists and an educational space to teach the next generation the importance of nature. There are 106 species of trees, 60 varieties of climbers, 96 species of grasses. In addition,, 200 species of birds have been spotted, as also eight types of frogs and close to 50 types of butterflies.

Last year, the charity worked to create channels that would divert rainwater into the forests and grounds. It’s had an instant impact; this year, the usually flooded Golf Course Road did not go under water at all. “The Golf Course Road lies at the bottom of a hill, and so naturally water will collect there,” explains Thukral. She adds that the team has received support from several corporates and government officials. Genpact, MakeMyTrip, IndusInd Bank and American Express are some of their donors. “We have another green corridor in the city that is completed—the Wazirabad Bandh,” she says.

Located close to Gurgaon’s famous Galleria market, this 5 km tract has been a welcome reprieve for city dwellers. “I return from my job after an hour in traffic and immediately go and sit on a bench in the park to meditate,” says 36-year-old engineer Amrita Nanda, a resident of nearby Hamilton Court Apartments. “I used to have high blood pressure due to stress, it caused me insomnia and panic attacks. My doctor has been asking me to meditate but it is difficult to find such internal stillness inside your own house. In the green corridor, it is easy to switch off. Every second there gives me joy.”

For the past 12 years, Thukral has devoted all her time to this work. There have been many challenges, but she says she has also received a tremendous outpouring of gratitude and appreciation from residents. “I have had legal cases filed against me by people who didn’t want us to clear up spaces since they were used to dumping their garbage there. But I have stood my ground and fought back. I don’t look at this work as what I have lost, but what I have gained. For example, I have learnt a lot about plants and birds by being on the ground every day. My energy, awareness and stamina have increased over the past decade. What makes me happiest is the interactions I have had with local Haryanvis; these are experiences I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t done this work.”

There are two major projects in the pipeline now, one involving 200 acres and another, 80. Thukral says that with each project, it isn’t just nature which is catching up, but also the sense of community and civic responsibility.

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