From garbage dump to flourishing forest: How a retired officer undertook an eco-revolution in Pune

The officer Praveen Kumar, who was born in Dehradun and grew up in Haridwar, believes in social concerns.

In 2013, Praveen Kumar went for a walk and ended up coming home sick. His encounter inspired a citizens' initiative in Pune, which culminated in the establishment of four thriving forest areas that are now home to 25,000 trees.

The 33-acre hill in Kondhwa, Pune, known locally as "Tekdi, had long been subjected to a distressing fate. Over the course of many years, it served as a dumping ground for various types of waste, including construction debris, medical waste, and household garbage transported from all corners of the city. In July 2013, Praveen Kumar, who had recently retired as the general manager of a pharmaceutical company in Delhi, relocated to Pune with his wife. Little did he know that a walk in the area would spark a transformative journey.

What followed is a citizens’ movement that is fighting back against global warming and groundwater depletion in Pune the hard way—by turning a desolate wasteland into a lush forest called Anand Van (Forest of Happiness). "A group of people volunteered and did some good work. We are with them in their efforts to make the city green. Everybody in Pune can feel the rising heat, so we need to plant as many trees as possible and turn the hills in Pune green. "The direct participation of people is most welcome," says Praveen N. R., the chief conservator of forests in Pune. The group working to raise the forest is called Anand Van Mitra Mandal.

Kumar, who was born in Dehradun and grew up in Haridwar, believes in social concerns. In Pune, he began to visit the trash yard every day to clean it up by himself. "It is the feeling with which you work that determines the result. Even if you don’t get the desired result, it is okay," he says.

Kumar initiated the process of engaging with pedestrians, hikers, and students along the roadside, sharing his vision to enhance the greenery in the area. Among the interested individuals were M. V. Thomas, a local resident, and Bhupesh Sharma, an employee at an IT company. They joined forces and gathered resources, including funds, machinery, and manpower, to support the project. Recognising that clearing all the garbage would be an arduous task, a decision was made to level the area and cultivate it.

On March 24, 2014, the project commenced its first tree-planting campaign, involving the planting of 24 jamun saplings. Unfortunately, these saplings failed to thrive due to a lack of water. Undeterred, the group attempted additional plantings, but those too did not survive. As it was their first attempt at creating a forest, Kumar and the other volunteers sought training. They acquired valuable insights, such as the importance of larger planting pits and specific tools and equipment.

The training and their efforts yielded results and Anand Van I was a success. “It was a process of growth for us as well,” says Kumar.

In the second COVID shutdown, the group was handed custody of three more spaces, forming Anand Van II, III, and IV. Today, the four forest sections include 25,000 trees of 150–200 species. The concentration is on native species such as peepal, banyan, mulberry, sheesham, jamun, bel, neem, and bamboo. These are relatively tall currently but, in a few years, should be giants that shade the ground with their enormous canopies.

Statement by Kumar

"Several species of trees have flowers and seeds that are food for birds that fly far and disseminate these to other areas," explains Kumar. The growth has attracted birds such as cuckoos, parakeets, mynahs, sunbirds, and bulbuls. In 2016, the volunteers witnessed their first peacock. Now, there are 14 people who have been born here. In a water tank created without concrete, there are waterfowl that have attracted bird watchers and photographers.

"We came to know that Japan has a number of mini urban forests, so we decided to grow one here. On a 2,000-square-foot patch, we made the Anand Van Dense Forest (ADF), where native saplings were planted in close profusion rather than at planned distances from one another," he says. Even in high summer, the woodland is cool through the day as birds flutter among the leaves and a cuckoo calls relentlessly. Kumar believes that schools, colleges, corporate offices, and companies can develop similar woods on their campuses.

Anand Van is also a case study in arranging big groups of people for a tough endeavour. Thomas could have been enjoying a holiday in South Africa with his daughter. “But Pune has become very hot and I don’t want to leave the trees,” he says. For six to eight hours every day, as the sun beats down brutally, he goes around inspecting the health of the trees. “My shoes don’t last three months,” he admits.

Sharma dedicates his mornings and most evenings to engage in tasks involving water management, soil preparation, and tending to saplings. He actively visits nurseries and seeks advice from tree plantation experts. Vedanta Chavan, a 10th-grade student, shares that despite the allure of cell phones that many of his peers succumb to, he has chosen to immerse himself in nature. He values the opportunity to breathe fresh oxygen and learn the art of creating pits in the earth.

Although additional assistance is required, Anand Van has become a collective responsibility embraced by hundreds of volunteers. Students and corporate volunteers are receiving training through Environmental Training Workshops (ETW) organized by the group, with the aim of spreading the practice of forest cultivation across the nation and even globally.

Sit with any cluster of people in the forest, and you will be dragged into discussions on the skill development centre that is coming up, medicinal plants, and the plan to grow bamboo along the boundary of the hill so that no water exits the forest. "Creating a forest is not only about planting seeds or saplings but also keeping them alive. Trees know when you love them. This year, we will cultivate more trees in the four forests," says Sharma.