The Other Kapil Sharma: Meet This US-Based IT Professional Who Has Planted 3,00,000+ Trees In India

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It was 10 AM on a bright, sunny Saturday morning in India. Worlds apart in the USA, the clock was ticking way past midnight, prodding many to get immersed in the Friday night frenzy. But like every weekend, Kapil Sharma stayed wide awake, browsing through emails, documents and having his interview with Efforts For Good

Not every person chooses to burn the midnight oil on a Friday unless it’s a work-related emergency. But, Kapil has been doing the same for years sheerly out of his passion. Hard-working would be an understatement for Kapil Sharma, the founder of well-known environmental organisation SayTrees, which has planted millions of trees across India in the past 12 years. 

No one has ever become poor by giving
– Anne Frank

Kapil Sharma Battling Challenges – 10 Years Ago & Now

“The challenges I deal with today are quite different from what I faced at the beginning of my work. For instance, when I started in 2007, finding the right places in Bengaluru to plant saplings and maintaining them used to my pivotal aim. Now, my main concern is how to expand SayTrees as a pioneer organisation catering to all environmental problems in India – from afforestation to water body rejuvenation,” shares Kapil, hinting that the one thing that remained unchanged all throughout is his deep love for nature.

Today, multiple organisations in India are involved in tree plantation programmes. They present their tally in the number of saplings they planted. Whereas, SayTrees ensure to record the number of saplings they have successfully raised to be mature trees. With probably the highest survival rate of planted saplings, SayTrees stand out as a frontrunner in the green scene of India.

The Initial Days As A Sole Crusader

But, to reach its present stature, SayTrees founder Kapil Sharma had to endure a horde of hurdles over the course of the decade. He started as a sole crusader, who devoted his weekends to planting saplings in abandoned spaces in and around Bengaluru. “Mondays to Fridays were for office and weekends were for trees,” he recalls.

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“Around 2006-2007, on way to my office, I daily used to see trees being brutally cut down in broad daylight. It was heartbreaking for me as these trees had only made the city heavenly but they were now being brought down as if they were worthless,” shares Kapil, who hails from Chattisgarh, a place notorious for its soaring mercury in summer.

We created a video to show current conditions of our lakes and how we were able to rejuvenate 2 lakes in no time with support from our corporate partners and with Anand Malligavad – A man of Lake Rejuvenation . And now we wish to join hands with Anand to rejuvenate 45 lakes in next 5 years. it may sound tough but is not if right people come together. So inviting these right people to join hands and make this possible. Inviting all corporates to support rejuvenation of lakes and prevent them from being dead. Water Conservation – A saytree.org initiative

Posted by SayTrees on Sunday, May 12, 2019

He interacted with people asking why they were supporting the large-scale felling of the trees without thinking of the consequences. “Some told me they didn’t like the dry leaves cluttering their courtyards. For some, trees were restricting parking spaces, while for others, trees were simply blocking their view,” he expresses how difficult it was initially to garner support from the public to start his plantation initiative.

The Problems With Funds And Lands

After Kapil started out on his own, he soon realised the importance of community support and funding for continuing such initiatives. Fortunately, his family and friends whole-heartedly supported him, so did nature-lovers across Bengaluru, soon as word about his work started spreading.

“The problems I face today comprise a vicious cycle. Sometimes, we find lots of barren lands to afforest but no substantial funds to back us. At other times, it’s vice versa, with funds available but not enough places to plant trees in,” Kapil compares.

Grow A Forest In The City: SayTrees

This World Forest Day, know about a method of growing dense urban forest faster than ever. #WorldForestDay SayTrees

Posted by Efforts For Good on Wednesday, March 20, 2019

For The Love Of Nature

Kapil’s career required him to move to the USA. But his heart stayed behind in India, with SayTrees. “I made sure tree plantation would continue no matter where I am,” he shows his unflinching dedication.

Needless to say, managing two entirely different job profiles, that too remotely, is no cakewalk. But, Kapil continues to make endless sacrifices to ensure no hindrance ever thwart any project of SayTrees.

Beyond his day job as a software professional at a top USA firm, Kapil makes sure to devote at least four hours for SayTrees, every single day, including weekends and holidays. He borrows extra time for SayTrees by curtailing his sleeping hours. While everyone else is sound asleep, Kapil stays awake, instructing with his ten-membered team in India or interacting with CSR heads of corporates, forest officials, as well as nature lover volunteers.

“If you are truly passionate about something, you always find time for it,” Kapil reiterates.

Gaining Trust Of The Local Community

Once started as a tree plantation initiative, SayTrees has now proliferated towards other activities like assisting farmers, raising urban forests as well as lake rejuvenation. In fact, Kapil has plans to venture into plastic pollution control in the near future.

“This is the need of the hour as our country is facing a huge water crisis and this will only grow if not addressed. If we don’t act now, we will face catastrophic consequences in future. And I cannot just sit and let things ruin for my nation and mother earth. Things I used to fear are coming true now. Extreme heat, drought, cyclone, floods and whatnot. I feel that my efforts have to be exponential if I have to bring even a small change,” he asserts.

Tree Plantation – Bagepalli, Karnataka – 01-09-2018

Employees of L&T Infotech traveled from Bangalore to Bagepalli to be part of 35000 saplings which are being planted in the area. Karnataka has 80% arid land and is next to Rajasthan. We need many more forests in the state and SayTrees is trying to achieve the same with support from our corporate partners under their #CSR initiatives. Thanks L&T Infotech for greening the nation. Thanks @Vinodh Bharadwaj and all who were present for this plantation drive.SayTrees.org

Posted by SayTrees on Sunday, September 2, 2018

Till now, SayTrees has rejuvenated two lakes each in Bengaluru and Tamil Nadu. They also have lakes in Delhi-NCR on their to-do list.

When Kapil first stepped into lake rejuvenation, he singled out a few choked up lakes in the outskirts of Bengaluru. His first tryst with the local residents around the lake has not been quite encouraging, as there happened to be a few individuals who doubted their intentions.

To gain their trust, Kapil took the best yet most painstaking approach – showing them the work of SayTrees in person, till their trust was established. “I made them understand how the project can benefit their community. That is how the people came together to support our initiative,” he narrates.

“The key is to keep them informed and updated about each and every step,” Kapil adds about the basics of community engagement.

Creative Campaigns

While in the USA, Kapil designed the first vertical garden on a flyover pillar. The concept went viral and now this is being executed in multiple cities.

He also started the ‘Silent Tree Protest’ which people from all over the world are diligently circulating all over social media. Nature-lovers from five countries even started the same in their cities.

Recently, he reached out to the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) and even funded a drone that will be used to afforest a 3000-acre land with over one crore saplings and seed-balls.

SayTrees Will Always Be His Priority

Despite his relentless efforts, funds still happen to be a roadblock for SayTrees’ upcoming projects. Every day, Kapil receives calls and enquiries from all over India, requesting him to replicate his tree plantation projects in other cities and states.

As of now, though SayTrees is more concentrated in Southern India, Kapil wishes to expand his operations to the North as well. That is, once he secures adequate funding and manpower. He sincerely hopes well-wishers from the USA would come forward to lend their support towards greenifying India through SayTrees.

For Kapil, personal struggles have always taken a backseat when it comes to his firm resolve to save the planet, particularly his beloved garden city – Bengaluru.

“Look at Bengaluru today. My city is suffering from severe water crisis, erratic weather patterns and a brewing concrete jungle.”

“United Nations has given us 12 years to control climate change and I am trying to make sure that there are no loose ends in my efforts. My struggles can never be even slightly close to what nature is suffering. So, I would always put nature as my priority, above and beyond everything else,” shares Kapil.

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It's not how much we give
but how much love we put into giving.
- Mother Theresa Quote

MyStory: “Two Months After I Joined IIT For My PhD I Was Diagnosed With TB”

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A person suffering from Tuberculosis (TB) not only battles the ‘Mycobacterium tuberculosis’ bacteria inside his lungs but also from the stigma attached to the disease. It weakens the patients in many different ways in their fight against the dreaded disease.  

My fight with TB was also filled with stigma. I joined IIT Kharagpur for my PhD in January 2015. Two months later, in March 2015, I was diagnosed with TB. I had to take sick leave from March 2015 that eventually lasted till June 2016. Initially, I did not respond well to medication. Further tests revealed that I had multidrug-resistant TB (MDR TB). This meant that the type of TB I had was resistant to two or more of the antitubercular medication I was taking.

About a year after the intensive phase of my treatment, I felt better and applied for readmission to IIT in July 2016. A prerequisite for rejoining was that my faculty members had to verify my application. With the formalities completed, I resumed my education, but I felt that something was amiss. 

My guide indicated that he did not want his work to suffer on account of my illness. I also heard from a senior colleague that my guide had said that I would spread the disease like an ‘infested animal’. I was disheartened at being subjected to this indignity by my supposed mentor.

However, my primary concern was defeating TB, so I didn’t dwell on it. Today, as I reflect on it, I realise the reasons behind the stigma were ignorance as well as fear.

Even among the educated, there are misconceptions about TB. People think all forms of TB are contagious. Others believe the patient is infectious for the entire length of the treatment. Some even believe that TB spreads through touch. This breeds the fear of contracting the illness.

As we know, people stigmatise and discriminate when they fear. I felt the impact of the stigma on two levels – in my professional life and my personal life.

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Emergency funds sent to 250 families

Professionally, the reluctance of my supervisor to mentor me and his discouragement affected me. I could not decide whether I should wait for the IIT authorities to tell me to leave or drop out. That decision was made for me by luck when I found out that my CSIR grant application was never processed. 

This meant that I would have to pay for my education. Given the expenditure on my treatment, this was unaffordable for me. This was the final nail in the coffin. I was forced to drop out and could not go back to completing my PhD.

What I faced was not technically illegal. I was discouraged from doing my PhD, but it was still a form of stigma. The external stigma I faced led to depression and isolation. 

Eventually, I realised I had to fight. The treatment for TB is difficult, requiring strict compliance and the management of side effects, and these demands resolve. I began motivating myself. I began following a proper diet and completing my treatment to ensure I could recover. I also turned to books as they transported me to other worlds and helped with my isolation. I also focused on reviving my old relationships.

Gradually, things improved. I could not proceed on my desired career path, but I am an educator now. I constantly realise that I have a role to play in shaping young minds. 

Workplace stigma has tangible consequences. It affects an individual’s career, financial opportunities and their right to work with dignity. So what can we do to address this stigma? 

First, we need to sensitise people by educating them about TB, and the impact stigma has on patients.

Another measure is group counselling involving the patient, the employer and the immediate supervisor. Informal versions of these sessions happen in the workplace in the context of illnesses like cancer. Why should it be any different for TB? 

The goal of this session would be to ensure that the patient is in a supportive environment. 

Finally, at a systemic level, there needs to be a workplace policy on stigma mitigation and a mechanism where the patients can anonymously register their concerns about stigma at the workplace.

A person’s career or job is often their calling and a provider of financial security. Workplace stigma creates a hostile work environment, affecting a person’s ability to do their job and their financial security. Financial insecurity and stigma make it harder for the patient to fight TB both in terms of means and motivation. Therefore, addressing stigma in the workplace is critical to patient well-being and recovery but also to their right to work with dignity.

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Quote
It's not how much we give
but how much love we put into giving.
- Mother Theresa Quote
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