Creating cooler shades for Chennai: A chat with the Founder of Nizhal

Citizen Matters caught up with the founder of Nizhal, who has been committed to the cause of greening Chennai for over a decade now.

The Tree Lady, Nature Lover, Tree Evangelist… titles of eulogy sit lightly on Shobha Menon’s shoulders. At first sight she gives away none of the tenacity and grit that has stood her in good stead in her determined fight to protect and increase the city’s tree cover.

The soft spoken Shobha chose to put the brakes on a long and successful stint in writing, to set up Nizhal (meaning shade in Tamil) in 2005. After a long (and often lonely) battle, she and her band of faithfuls can look back in happiness at the lovely Kotturpuram Tree Park, a 5-acre patch of biodiversity on what was once a barren patch.

How has the journey been? And what can Chennaiites do to make their city greener? Excerpts from a tete a tete with Shobha Menon, on a warm afternoon, at KTP (where else!)

Q. Which are some of Nizhal’s most active initiatives today and how can citizens be a part of these?

Nizhal was founded in June 2005, with the mission of increasing awareness of the role of trees in our lives. There are so many different projects that are pursued with equal vigour and zeal, it’s difficult to put one over the other.

One unique initiative is the creation of Asoka Vanam at the Kotturpuram Tree Park (KTP) through which we set up and nurtured a unique grove of endangered Asoka (Saraca asoka) trees. Nizhal encourages Shramdaan/community gardening/ volunteering at the Kotturpuram Tree Park.

There are similar initiatives for Shramdaan/volunteering at Madhavaram/Chitlappakkam/ Ashok Nagar/ Perungudi Tree Parks – much smaller and recent but growing initiatives following in the footsteps of KTP.

Many young volunteers come forward to participate in FTC or Free the Tree Campaigns. They aim to educate people on the need to not hurt trees by nailing posters and boards or wrapping lights around their trunks, and stringing wires and cables through the branches!

Another singular contribution of Nizhal is organising seed and sapling collection drives throughout the city, once again to raise awareness on Chennai’s unique biodiversity heritage.

All of Nizhal’s programs are conceptualised and run by volunteers, common citizens from all walks of life. Anyone is welcome to join these!

Other Nizhal initiatives

  • Orientation programmes for corporates and students on the importance of planting, propagating and nurturing trees, especially native species
  • Regular programmes on therapeutic gardening and horticulture for students
  • Compilation of  a book on Landmark Trees of Chennai- a clarion call to protect our green heritage (currently underway)
  • Compilation of an e-book on the tree biodiversity of KTP, where more than a hundred species have identified, documented and photographed (ongoing)
  • Regular tree walks for students, corporates and citizens across the city

More information can be found on

Q. The state afforestation programme has been in the news reports for various campaigns from time to time, often at very high costs. What are your thoughts on the programme and its effectiveness over the years?

Massive tree planting campaigns need to be planned more carefully. Involving citizens in planting and aftercare, and choosing species carefully. Transparency needs to be maintained, so that NGOs and civil society networks can be taken along with the initiative… then it’s a win-win for all ! Otherwise, it could turn out to be just a waste of public money, year after year!

Q. One often hears of citizen- or organisation-driven plantation drives in cities. What should be the guidelines to remember in such cases by the initiators and owners?

We don’t need to be experts to know what to do. As long as we are sensitive to trees and plants that do so much for us, we will learn to be careful and treat them with respect! We have to plant the right kind of species, that is region and location specific, that adds to local biodiversity and will have more relationships with local fauna too. We have to take care of it till it can be on its own and also take care of mature trees, (attend to) their care and management of health and disease, as much as we take care of our own health.

Q. Getting data pertaining to green cover in an Indian city is usually not easy. There are rarely any audits over the years, or records of changes. Is Chennai any different in this respect? Has there been any recent recording or documentation of how much green space it has lost or gained over the last 5 years, say?

I am not sure that such audits exist, or if such a system is even being worked towards by government agencies. Currently different agencies go about greening in the way they think best. As far as Nizhal is concerned , we believe it is important to green sensitively with an emphasis on indigenous species and also ensure aftercare and sustained nurturing into mature trees.

There was a recent Forest Department survey of institutional campuses. Nizhal has been trying to coerce the Corporation of Chennai to embark on a city-wide survey of tree cover, involving students and citizens. Only such initiatives can get citizens involved to speak up for trees around them.

Q. What is the biggest challenge that you face in your work today?

This has been a long journey. Today, a lot of young people are coming forward to understand the importance of urban green cover and work with Nizhal. But in the early days, I often found herself waging lone battles.

In the first year of setting up the KTP, we hired a watchman, who need prodding and pushing, to water the trees regularly. So every morning, I would wake up at 4 and come to the park by 5.30. The watchman and I have physically lugged buckets to water every single sapling in the park. Sometimes people volunteered to help, but when they realised that it meant hard physical work, they would quietly drop out, or give advice like – buy a hose! If I had the money, I would have bought more plants than spend it on a hose!

But, it was not the hard work that bothered me but the feeling of being alone in this fight. No one came forward to join hands – not even some of the early trustees.. Many people’s contribution stopped at putting their names on the trust deed!

We’ve covered significant ground since then, but even now the biggest challenge is in making people see that this is ‘THEIR’ problem, your problem, my problem. Most people still think this is a problem for rural practitioners, conservationists and wildlife experts to worry about. They don’t see that each and every one of us will benefit or lose, depending on how we change our attitude and behaviour towards trees.

Q. A general question on urban greening: Given the increasing and inevitable pace of urbanisation across the country today, infrastructure creation is a real need. And this invariably leads to cutting of trees, encroachment of open spaces. Do you think that there can be a path where the two causes may be balanced to arrive at something like sustainable infrastructure development?

Definitely, possible…where we think it is. And one can work around the ‘development’ itself! For instance, instead of removing ancient tamarind trees by the highway, we could look on them as scooter or cyclist paths. Provided citizens are disciplined, of course.

Where trees absolutely need to go, they will need to. But the first step would be to transplant where possible (taking into account the species and age of the tree). If that is not possible, remove the particular tree and plant at least ten others and in the area nearby. Preferably tall saplings that will grow quicker into mature trees. Then, we can at least say we have caused the least damage!

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