03 July 2014

Forest Documentation of Mahan Forest © Vivek M / Greenpeace


The sleepy Coimbatore Express finally decided to crawl out of Lokmanya Tilak Terminus at 04:20 this morning. The 5-hour, 45-minute delay doesn't seem to work against the engine driver's conscience, who makes lasting stops at every station and in between. Honestly, I have more hope of marrying Vin Diesel than getting to Bangalore on time.

Our chai vendor must come with a snooze button because I heard him go by six times in an hour. I finally gave in and sat up in my side berth. What time is it? 09:43 am. Thought for the day: I'd make a lousy bird. Looking around I see other lousy birds and then, one first class Birdy. An 11-year-old child, perched on the lower berth in ardha padmasan, singing away, little fingers drumming on his knee. I overhear his guardian tell an old aunty that the child acts in Marathi films. The child gives this new fan a quick look. Autograph later, huh? I could see my new friend, who I happily named Birdy, gorging on my share of homemade rotis and chutney. Now I'm awake.

I get down, wash up and sit by the window. Birdy climbs up on my berth, leans below so I can see his happy face, dangles my scarf and asks, 'Aapka hai?' I take it with a smile, imagining him lying like an Egyptian king on my berth while my aunty feeds him roti-chutney.

Later in the day, I got to chatting with his father. They're to get off at Solapur. He asked if I'm studying. For someone who just celebrated her 31st birthday, I'm blushing like there's no tomorrow. "No uncle, I work for an NGO, Greenpeace. We work for the environment." (Don't go by the shorts and red hair.)

Our conversation follows the usual path: our environment is degrading. Supplement your statement with one or two examples. When I was a child... do you get paid or do you do samaj seva... country has gone to the dogs... what will our children do? ... I saw this as an opportunity to involve Birdy, who had, all that while been providing the background score to our hopeless tale. I asked him, "Does anyone in your class at school want to grow up and be a farmer?" He smiled sheepishly, "No. Doctor or lawyer." I quiz him, "If nobody wants to be a farmer, then where will our food come from?" Strike one! He retreated to think. Another uncle joined in. Suddenly, Birdy started, "I don't have to be a farmer to help farmers!" Ah, a real original thinker.

What followed is a lively debate with Birdy on one side and everyone else on the other. Then, he looked at us in exasperation, "Where I live in Pandharpur, there are hardly any trees. The children didn't cut it down. But if I try to stop an adult from cutting a tree, they say, 'You are a kid. You know nothing. Finish your 10th standard first, then come talk'. Because older people think that the environment does not matter, children are also thinking like this. My friends and I play cricket on the ground and they cut all the small trees that surround the ground because these were obstacles for fours and sixes. You're saying write a letter to the authorities? Even if I write to the Prime Minister, what good is it? He is the person allowing tree cutting."

We struggled to make him feel hopeful, hopelessly. What got my goat the most was that we're not working hard enough or fast enough; that our apathy and reluctance to lead by example has cost children their hope, and hope is the most beautiful weapon a child can wield at the world.

With Solapur station around the bend, I pulled out someone's business card, frantic to find paper. I scribbled my contact details on the back of the card and handed it to his father. "Thank you," he smiled. I turned to Birdy, a.k.a. Pushkar, "Call me. I will send some volunteers. We will knock on doors together and bring people out to plant trees in Pandharpur. We won't beat anyone, we will win them with reason and love. But you have to come too. During your holidays. And bring a few friends." I waited for an answer, a verdict. Pushkar got up, looked at his dad and said, "Baba, give her your number also na. How will she find us?" He waves brightly as he leaves.

With a little hope, my dear Birdy. Just a little hope.

Ruth D'Costa is a Public Engagement Campaigner with Greenpeace India.