The mortuary near the Karnataka Institute of Medical Sciences (KIMS) Hospital in Hubli presents a very unusual look; whereas in all other mortuaries, one cannot find any shade nearby where friends and relatives can take shelter while post-mortems of the recently deceased are carried out, here at the KIMS mortuary, there is plenty of shade for those in grief. The man behind this 'thankless job' is a busy ENT surgeon, Dr. Mahantesh C. Tapashetti, who has been silently planting and taking care of plants at public places in Hubli. Thanks to his 'treatment', in the last 12 years, Hubli has grown richer by 12,000 trees - an astonishing figure for a single individual's efforts.

Every day, he spares at least one hour for his dear plants. His car is always equipped with materials like twine, scissors and chicken mesh. On his 'check-up rounds', seeing a bent plant, he stops the vehicle and ties it back to its support. If the shoot is within reach of goats, he wraps a thin chicken mesh around it. "If you just take care of these plants for one year, that will suffice. After that, they grow without any problem", he explains.

Picture: The plant doctor sits amidst a row of Pletoforma trees near Central College..

Examples of Dr Tapashetti's plant doctoring are evident all around town. Earlier, there was not even a single tree around the playground at Dr.Joshi English Medium School. Today, 25 big trees encircle it, lending beauty and shade at the campus. This was one of the oldest 'adoptions' of the good doctor. "This land is strewn with rocks. As such, it required Herculean efforts to save the plants in the beginning", he reminisces while showing us around. When he was the Rotary President years ago, he got 1500 trees planted near the then-new bus-stand. These are growing very nicely now. BVB Engineering College, Santhosh Nagar, Adarsh Nagar, Vishweshwara Nagara, Nrupatunga Hills and Central School are some other areas where this doctors 'plant children' are raising their heads. Peltoforma trees planted decade ago on the edge of Central College have grown very big, providing shade for the students and teachers who relax here sitting on the cement rings constructed around the basins.

Once when Dr Mahantesh was passing by KIMS Medical College, the gardeners were trimming the fence. Amidst the ornamental shrubs, there were many trees like neem too, and the shoots of these trees were also being trimmed every year! Mahantesh went inside and discussed this with the authorities. This en-masse trimming had been the practice since the last 30 years, he learned! He persuaded the authorities otherwise; the trees which were allowed to grow since then have attained a height of 10-12 metres in only the last three years.

Greenery around revived tank

Three years ago, the Santhosh Nagar tank was silted. It was being encroached upon from all around by hutment dwellers. Unless something was done, Dr Tapashetti realised, the tank would go useless in a few years. He brought the alarming state of affairs to the municipal member Rayanagoudara. Luckily, the member took it seriously, evacuated all the encroachers, and got the tank desilted. Now this tank is full of water.

At the same time the plant doctor got trees planted all around the tank area. Seeing them today, it is very difficult to believe that these are just three years old. "Yes, we have irrigated each one of them throughout the summer. We had employed a labourer for this purpose specifically. In the last year, the rainfall was very meagre. So these plants had to be irrigated continuously for 14 months. Three kodas (a water vessel that is common in the state) of water to each plant, daily. When water was not available nearby, we got it in tankers too." Dr Tapashetti personally accompanies the tankers, making sure that water is distributed to each plant. Not only that, on some occasions, he physically carries kodas containing water on both his shoulders, as farmers do in villages.

Wherever Mahantesh starts his 'after-care' of plants, the first step he takes is to arrange to harvest rain for the new plant. A simple furrow and trench does the job.

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A thousand plants each year - that's this plant doctor's target. The Forest Department happily co-operates with him by supplying and planting them. Neem, Pongamia, Rain Tree, Peltoforma etc are the main varieties he gets. "The forest department", he says, "has recognised my interest. 'Which area you would take up this year, doctor?' they ask me. In the area I suggest, they provide and plant the trees neatly. For my convenience in taking care [of these plants], I have selected most of the places within one kilometer of my residence."

Surprisingly, not all residents welcome his efforts. "Some house owners protest planting trees in front of their homes", he says. "We try to convince them. If they aren't willing, we don't plant there. Because if we plant against their wish, they themselves might cut them off." A particular problem area is Nrupathunga hill, the only hill in Hubli, covering approximately 50 acres. It appears green only during the monsoon months. Trees are very scarce. If only it is possible to develop a thick forest on this hill, it would have augmented the declining groundwater table of a bigger part of Hubli around it. But Mahantesh has stopped his afforestation efforts on the hills. "As we go on planting from one side, people start cutting from the other."

Wherever Mahantesh starts his 'after-care' of plants, the first step he takes is to arrange to harvest rain for the new plant. A simple furrow and trench does the job, and ensures the survival and growth rate of the plant. He explains, "seeing these structures, engineers complain that I am damaging their roads. But if they care to see and understand it properly, these tiny structures don't do any harm to pedestrians or vehicles passing by. Nor to the road as well." This low-effort technique to retain in-situ moisture is one of the secrets of Dr Tapashetti's plants health and growth.

Year-round activity

Planting trees is only a monsoon activity for many NGO's and social workers, but Mahantesh spends the whole year on his mission. In between, he always keeps an eye out for public places where the next year's planting programme could begin. Meeting public officials, convincing them, taking their permission, etc. is all done in the pre-monsoon months. And after taking care of the plants for one year intensively, he shifts his attention to the next area.

Hiw wife, Dr Vijayalakshmi, a Professor at KIMS Medical College, recalls a memorable incident that happened a decade ago. "Our son Chandrasekhar was three years old. Father and son had gone to Nrupathunga hill. Mahantesh was so involved in inspecting the plants that he forgot the boy. This little boy came back alone walking all the way, half a kilometer on the road. Even now, when I recall the incident of such a small boy returning alone on road, my body shivers for a while." She adds, "now it's okay [to say this]. All our three children are grown-up."

How did this unusual interest get started? The doctor's memory takes him back to his native city of Bagalkot, which now lies submerged by the waters of the Alamatti dam. Mahantesh recalls, "there is a nasty disease of the nose by name Atrophic Rhinitis. Some glands at the inner side of the nose secrete a liquid that keeps it moist. Drying up of these glands causes this disease. The nose loses its ability to smell, and a bad odour starts emanating. Such patients are kept away by the rest of society. There is no cure for this. It's not clearly known why this disease occurs. But it affects mainly poor people, who lack good nutrition. Its occurrence is more in dry areas than in Malnad where there are abundant trees. So I felt that planting more and more trees would at least bring down the incidence of this disease."

Picture: 3-year-old plants around Santhosh Nagar tank.

While at Bagalkot, he planted 200-300 plants in three years. These trees, planted on a barren area falling in the campus of Basaveshwara Dental College have grown considerably now.

His year-round tending of plants and care requires substantial resources. How does the doctor meet these? "Once in a while I collect a little money from well-wishers who would contribute happily. For example, Reddy's Laboratories of Hyderabad paid for one year's care of all the plants near Santhosh Nagar tank. Some close friends too join hands and pitch in. The rest is from my pocket. God has given me a good opportunity to earn, you see", he explains.

Though many Hublians see and appreciate his work, Dr Tapashetti is a bit disappointed because he has not been successful in getting some like-minded to match his spirit and vision. Two years ago, Mahanthesh founded the Green India Club. However, this has remained a sort of one-man's organization. His interest, however, has not diminished, despite the failure to find similar minds to work alongside him. Sheshachala Karpoor, Assistant Horticulture Officer, Hubli Municipality, says, "I have known Dr Mahantesh' mission for a decade. There is no great soul like his in the whole of Hubli. A silent worker, he never goes in search of publicity. Have you ever seen a busy doctor like him physically digging a pit and carrying water on his shoulders elsewhere in this country?"