His day job as a bus conductor from Coimbatore isn’t all that out of the normal. But M Yoganathan, 49-years-old has an achievement that makes him stand out from the crowd— in the last 29 years, he has planted more than three lakh trees in 32 districts in Tamil Nadu.
Yoganathan's fight for the trees began when he was living in Nilgiris in 1987 and he began campaigning against trees being cut for firewood. He says that he has learnt most about trees from the tribal population living there.
As for how he finds the time for his tree-planting while holding down a full-time job as a conductor for the past 15 years, he says, "On my weekly off, Monday, I go plant trees in all educational institutions like schools, colleges and universities."
And his efforts don’t stop at merely planting trees. He also conducts awareness-building sessions, educating students about different types of plants, grass and trees and how to care for them. "In schools, we make every child name the plant or tree with their name, and ask them to bring two water bottles, one for the tree and the other one for themselves."
Describing the contrast between his two jobs, he says, "Tree plantation I do because I like doing it, the other one is done by hard work."
Yoganathan says that the one person who inspired him most in his journey was environmentalist Jeyachandran. “He was the one who kept encouraging me to plant more trees."
Over the years, Yoganathan has received many awards and accolades for his work, including an “Eco Warrior Award” and a State Environment Department Award in 2008, a CNN-IBN Real Heroes Award in 2011 and a Periyar Award in 2015. But Yoganathan doesn’t bother to collect his awards anymore because, “I do not even have a house of my own and the government does not support me in any way."
Talking about the problems he faces, he says, "I keep shifting houses. I get a rented house and then plant trees there. The house owner will ask me to leave and then again I have to shift my house."
It isn’t only a problem of finding a house to live in. He says a little under half his salary also gets spent each month on all his tree planting activities.
And various people have taken exception to his work, even filing cases against him. "The forest department and other people file cases against me for planting trees by the side of some roads, or for stopping trees from being cut," he says.
And he has had to often take leave from his regular job to keep his environmental work going.
He feels that it is only because of the support from his wife and two children he is able to continue with all his work.
He says he does not regret any of this, but wants help from the government. He has visited about 3700 schools and educated students about trees, but needs more support to take his efforts forward. "I want the students to go 'evergreen' (not use anything which harms the trees) but that can only happen with the financial support from the government," he says.
"They should at least give me a small piece of land and a house to live so that I can also start a nursery also," he says.