apurva bhandari Sankalptaru - tree plantation mission

Revolutionising reforestation: How this techie is creating a greener India

Using the power of technology and his love for the nature, Bhandari is revolutionising reforestation. He has made planting trees as easy as a single tap on your mobile screen through his app.
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Millions of years ago, long before homo sapiens first appeared, Earth was covered in a lush green blanket of forests. Just imagine, no skyscrapers or tall bridges, no pollution or melting glaciers, just an endless sheet of trees, sheltering millions of species.

Today, if you look from afar, nothing would seem different. From the Sundarbans in the Bay of Bengal to the Amazon in the South American continent, the trees stand tall protecting countless species and the environment. But if you look closely, the real picture is scary at best and deadly at worst.

There has been a mass destruction of trees and forest cover across the planet over the decades. According to a report by UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, between 1990 and 2015, there has been a global net loss of 1.29 million square kilometers of forest. Another study has estimated that there are just around 3 trillion trees left on our planet and over 15 billion trees are chopped down each year. Another worrying statistics highlighted by the research states that “the global number of trees has fallen by approximately 46% since the start of human civilization.”

If we continue to keep cutting trees at that rate, we will become treeless in about 300 years. According to the WWF, the Amazon rainforest has already lost 17 percent of its footprint in the past 50 years. India on the other hand has lost nearly 38.5 thousand hectares of tropical forest between 2019 and 2020 making up nearly 14 percent loss of its tree cover.

Today, farming, grazing of livestock, mining, and drilling are the leading causes of deforestation. In the Amazon, soy plantations and wildfires are the reasons the biggest rainforest in the world is losing its footprint at an alarming rate. In India, shifting cultivation, rotational felling, and diversion of forest lands for developmental activities are some of the reasons behind deforestation, as per a report by IntechOpen.

Amid such a crisis, people like Apurva Bhandari are working day and night to protect the planet. Using the power of technology and his love for nature, Bhandari is revolutionising reforestation. He has made planting trees as easy as a single tap on your mobile screen through his app. His organisation SankalpTaru has one mission–to develop a sustainable world for posterity, with the core philosophy of, “planting trees for the people, by the people.” Soulveda engages in a candid conversation with Bhandari to get a better understanding of his mission and how it can lead the fight against deforestation.

SankalpTaru was founded in 2011 with a mission to create a green and clean planet through tree plantation. Can you tell about the story behind your initiative?

Back in 2011, when a handful of Indians were using the internet, around 10 percent compared to 45 percent in 2021, the inception of ‘SankalpTaru’—which means to take a pledge to plant trees—using an online platform relied on a foreseen surge of increase in the internet usage in the coming years. The idea behind offering a technologically enabled tree plantation platform was to be able to provide better transparency, adaptability and a user-friendly scenario to track the plantation details and post plantation updates.

What motivated you to work for environmental conservation?

Born and raised in Uttarakhand, I have seen nature’s beauty in its most pristine form–lush green forests, snow-clad mountains, rivers and waterfalls–but also when I travelled to different regions of the country to identify plantation sites. I must say that I have fallen in love with India and its natural, cultural and linguistic biodiversity that comes with its majestic mountains, mystical cold deserts, coastal regions and the Deccan plateau. The beauty in its diversity urged me to protect it by carrying plantations across all the diversified regions of our country. Moreover, my father, who is a plant pathologist, instilled a love for plants in me.

Your initiative has helped people plant close to two million trees across 23 states in India. What challenges did you face when you started your journey?

The journey began with the pilot-scale plantation in two of the toughest terrains—the Thar Desert in Rajasthan and drought-affected areas of Deccan in Andhra Pradesh. Starting small helped us sustain the trees, which we had planted and then gradually with the demonstration of the success rate of tree survival to our donors, we could expand our plantation projects to 21 other states as well and make India greener. The challenges majorly revolved around post plantation maintenance to ensure high survival rates in the areas of water inadequacy, extreme weather conditions in rocky, rough terrains.

Through your app, you have integrated technology with nature. How does it work?

Our app allows people to plant a tree at any of our plantation sites. They just have to choose a tree and a location and we do the rest. This app provides a transparent update on tree plantations. Every tree that is planted is geotagged through our app where its latitude and longitude are captured in the database, generating a tree URL. The tree link contains an actual photo of the plantation, its Google location and beneficiary’s details, which is then shared with the stakeholder.

SankalpTaru supports the livelihood of farmers through tree plantations. How has the initiative changed the lives of the farmers?

Instead of looking for short-term relief options for our farmers, SankalpTaru looks for a more sustainable long term impact on their lives through our Rural Livelihood Support Program, where we allow farmers to increase their standards of living by improving their financial returns with the help of the trees that we plant on their farms. We also look for women farmer-beneficiaries who can be benefitted from this program to support women empowerment and strengthen ecofeminism in India.

We have helped our farmers rebuild their lost fields—due to incidents like flash floods which are very common in the cold desert of Ladakh—into beautiful orchards. We have also helped them sustain their yield in some of the warmest temperatures with a very little availability of water resources, predominantly in the hot desert of Thar by really economising water through micro drip irrigation systems installed in their fields by our team.

Children will play a big role in conserving the planet. How do you help them become environmentally conscious citizens?

We encourage a lot of school children and rural community participation in our on-ground tree plantations through our programs like Clean and Green School Programs, Urban Plantation Programs along with Rural Livelihood Support Program. They are motivated by their practical experiences of seeing the barren and desolate lands transforming into lush green farms, gardens and agroforests. They learn from their real-life experiences of how these trees are helping in strengthening the ecological systems by bringing back the wildlife into the middle of cities and how they are impacting the socio-economic statuses of their own families in the case of rural children. We also conduct a variety of online and offline awareness campaigns, training sessions and educational workshops to nurture them as environmentally responsible citizens for tomorrow.

Carbon footprint is one of the biggest challenges today. How do you educate people to live sustainably?

We have been collaborating with eco-conscious and sustainably responsible corporates and retail brands to carry out tree plantation campaigns that not only influence the environment but also have a socio-economic impact on uplifting our rural economy. We conduct a variety of farmer training sessions in our PEEPAL Research & Development Centre in Dehradun along with online and on-ground employee volunteering programs, sustainable living workshops and environmental awareness sessions for our corporate partners and donors.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to its knees. Can you talk about the connection between pandemics and climate change?

Many of the root causes of climate change—global warming and deforestation being the primary ones–also increase the risk of pandemics.

As the planet heats up, animals big and small, on land and in the sea, are headed to the poles to get out of the heat. That means animals are coming into contact with other animals they normally wouldn’t. Also, deforestation, which occurs mostly for agricultural purposes, is the largest cause of habitat loss worldwide. COVID-19 is a warning to protect nature as our interference has brought animals closer to humans and thus providing an opportunity for the virus to mutate and affect human health and lives.

The lockdown provided us with an insight into what can happen if we slow down the damaging spree and how the Earth tries to bounce back to its best form. The clean rivers and sky, the recovery of the ozone hole, and the lower level of pollution are proof of this.

While Covid-19 restricts people to be physically present on the ground to plant trees, we offer contactless plantation programs through a virtual online platform that offers a virtual, near-to-real plantation experience.

What does the future look like for SankalpTaru?

We have recently launched a farmer registration portal that runs in all regional languages where farmers who are interested in planting trees with us can register. This will help us increase our base of farmer-beneficiaries.

We have a volunteering portal where people around the world reach out to us for volunteering opportunities. In fact, we have been receiving many applications even during the COVID-19 pandemic and we have been figuring out more and more remote locations for them to increase our reach with our plantation projects.

We have also collaborated with green heroes such as Sonam Wangchuk, Director of Himalayan Institute of Alternatives, Ladakh and Jadav Payeng, the Forest Man of India to work on massive plantation projects together.

  • Born and raised amidst the natural treasure of the Uttarakhand Himalayas, Apurva Bhandari has worked previously in BPCL and in the IT sector. He won The Times of India’s “Take Care Take Charge” initiative in July 2011 that kick-started SankalpTaru’s journey. An avid traveller, he is on a mission to make the planet greener. He also has a passion for photography and loves spending time in nature.

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