Home >Lounge >Features >Vijay Nishanth: The man who talks to trees

Vijay Nishanth brings alive the horrors that trees must brave in our cities. In addition to rampant illegal cutting, diseases and pollution-related stress, they must watch mutely as people drill big holes in their decades-old trunks, then pour acid into the holes and wait until their insides are slowly poisoned. Bengaluru’s best-known tree doctor shows me pictures of the burnt innards of trees that look eerily human. When he is called to save such trees, he first removes the poison, scrapes away the charred parts and applies a liquid bandage of beeswax and orange oil to the hurt trees’ wounds.

In one particularly horrific case a couple of years ago, someone poisoned 17 trees that were blocking two hoardings. The trees burnt for 20 days before 14 of them succumbed. “I felt so sad I can’t tell you. I called home and cried," Nishanth tells me on a rainy windswept evening in Bengaluru. “Then I called the BBMP (Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike) and all the TV reporters I know." He saved three trees and replanted others. “I celebrated rakhi with them last year," he says.

Another tactic is to douse trees with kerosene and burn them, like some folks did to two beautiful banyan trees earlier this year. Nishanth was involved in their successful rescue and now the Bangalore Development Authority (BDA) has said it will build a park to house them.

When he goes to speak to children in schools, they are usually waiting impatiently to see what a tree doctor looks like, he says. Many officials imagine an older man. Nishanth, 34, dressed in black jeans, a black T-shirt and a thin black jacket, straight hair flopping over his forehead, has driven to our meeting on his Honda Dio scooter. “I am usually an all-black guy but my friends say it’s boring and often insist on styling me for occasions," he says. Like the time he wore a leaf-green checked suit to receive the 2018 award for sustainability at the World Green Infrastructure Congress or the time he was photographed in a deep-pink churidar kurta with an off-white waistcoat walking alongside a disciple of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (Iskcon). Both the pictures can be found amid the sea of regulation black T-shirts on his Instagram account @VijayNishanth46.

Nishanth has a grouse against dog lovers: They can’t see beyond their love for dogs. He says love should encompass all living creatures and nature in its entirety. “I am an urban conservationist, but not the kind you see in nature parks wearing khaki and carrying big zoom lenses." Recently, he has helped in the fight against illegal quarrying in the hilly, deciduous forests of the Bannerghatta National Park on the outskirts of the city. Now that the quality of the water bodies has improved, he often receives messages from grateful people with pictorial proof that after three years, many animals have returned.

He fought successfully to reinstate the no-night-traffic rule through Karnataka’s Bandipur forest, is involved in many projects to revive the city’s lakes and has volunteered with BBMP’s forest cell for more than a decade to stop illegal poaching and rescue and rehabilitate animals.

Yet his biggest passion is trees. Nishanth consults with everyone from the BBMP to resident welfare associations and even the army at its lush Madras Engineering Group (MEG) campus in the city’s Ulsoor area. He was excited that the Lokayukta had ordered the BDA to plant 68,800 saplings before the end of 2018-19. He’s part of the group that will battle the state government’s proposed elevated corridor, set to destroy thousands of trees across the city, and a board member of the city’s high court appointed tree committee. Vruksha, the online tree-mapping start-up he co-founded in 2010, will soon expand to other cities.

Former chief justice M.N. Venkatachaliah, who lives in Bengaluru and thinks of Nishanth as a son, usually introduces him to people with, “If you really want to see true love…" Over the phone, Venkatachaliah says Nishanth must have been a beautiful tree in his previous birth. “He can hear the language of trees in his heart," he adds.

Nishanth lost his parents early and grew up at Child Fun Association, a children’s home in Jayanagar. Mary Isaacs, the kindly octogenarian who brought up this “loafer", as she referred to him, always encouraged him to play outdoors. He says she nudged him to follow his dreams when he wanted to drop out of engineering college after three years.

He started working with trees informally around 2002, when Bengaluru began its transformation from garden city to concrete ghetto. Most of his know-how about healing trees is self-taught, though he did an year-long stint with his mentor Harini Nagendra, an author and one of the city’s foremost tree experts, at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (Atree) in 2011.

“Over the years I have really seen him grow," says Nagendra, who first met him when he was working on Vruksha. Back then, she often forwarded him calls from people who were looking for ways to save a tree. “His work is fantastic but it really needs scaling. We need hundreds of tree doctors like Vijay across our cities. I like the fact that he has already begun training people," she adds.

In March, Nishanth was involved in the crowdfunded transplantation of two large trees—a banyan and a peepal—that were coming in the path of an elevated Metro line at a busy junction. A team that included representatives from the Bangalore Metro, the BBMP’s forest cell, the residents of a building, an infrastructure company, and experts such as Nishanth decided to transplant them to a lake-bed 4km away. “The root bowl of the banyan was so big it got stuck en route on a narrow road," he says. Look out for The Better India documentary on those dramatic five days.

If there’s public drama in the life of a tree doctor, there are also quiet moments. When Nishanth comes face-to-trunk with a hurt tree, he touches it. “Don’t worry," he says gently. “It happens. I’m here to heal you."

Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.

She tweets at @priyaramani

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