“I was born and brought up in Kamalapur, Bellary district – Karnataka. After completing my Diploma in mechanical engineering life has taken me through many paths leading to my current position as a conservator, bird watcher, guide, travel organizer and also allowing me to play my part in the rescue and rehabilitation of various species but mainly snakes.
My inspiration to plant a forest
When I started working with the forest department as a volunteer, I got attracted to tree planting works & the benefits derived from it. During the same time, I was elected as the President of Kamalapur town Panchayat. I observed that in so many functions and events, the opening ceremony started with tree planting and watering of the trees in well-prepared surroundings. However the very next day on visiting the same places, I would notice that the trees have been uprooted, missing or the trees have died a few days later due to lack of watering and care.
No one has ever become poor by giving
– Anne Frank
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I was highly concerned about the impact this made, especially in the minds of children when trees planted in their school would vanish the next day.
This is what made me decide that I had to do afforestation by myself to inspire a change.
I was lucky when Mr Ranga Reddy, the then secretary of the Tungabhadra Board asked me to be a birdwatching guide for him and his family. He was impressed by my wildlife photography and took some of my photos for his office and for exhibition at the Fish Aquarium in his park. Encouraged by his response towards nature and wildlife, I requested him to give me permission to plant and protect a wide variety of native trees in the land adjacent to mine with the assurance and undertaking that I would have no claim over the land or the trees.
When I received the oral permission from him, my work began. I started my work in a wasteland filled with all kinds of debris like boulders, rubbles etc. These were discarded during the construction of the Tungabhadra high-level canal.
My hurdles and my success
The first challenge was to clear all the debris from the area and selecting the right place and the right tree to plant. This was an impossible task for just one person. I had to hire some labourers to help me with clearing the debris and planting the trees.
I took the risk of planting the saplings very close to each other as I was not sure of the survival rate in such conditions. I estimated approximately 2 out of 20-25 saplings would survive and grow in that land. I still had to take that chance.
The next challenge was to ensure a good water supply for these saplings. Here in Bellary district, there are just two seasons, summer and extreme summer. The region also falls in the rain shadow area and has an average rainfall of only about 450-500mm. I also faced the problem of safeguarding the young saplings from the nomadic shepherd communities and their herd who used to pass through my land each year and trample the saplings.
For this, I had to put up a local fence first and guarded the area from sunrise to sunset. I had to hire a few labourers to help in watering them from the canal. My friend K. Manjunath then stepped forward to help by supplying water from his borewell. We laid some pipes and sprinklers and the resulting yield was a success with 90% of the tress growing up to be very healthy.
My visions, dreams and way ahead
To start with it was the very worst barren land. When I started the plantation, I had prayed to God to at least make 4-5% of the trees healthy. I also dreamed to see flycatchers and other birds visiting my land one day.
Now, I am happy to say there are nearly 75 species of birds that are regular visitors to my tiny forest. I’ve also introduced a small water body in this place and added some fishes in this water body. Now water birds, turtles, water snakes etc. are also regular visitors to this small pond. The best surprise was the visit by an Indian Pitta (a migratory bird that is usually seen only in cooler areas) that decided to stop in my farm in November last year for 11 days during the migration. The flycatchers have become regular visitors to my land now.
Till date, I have never used any chemical fertilisers or pesticides in my tiny forest and it is now becoming a butterfly garden also. Beehives have also started forming here.
Now my next initiative is to try and convince other commercial landowners next to mine to allow me to plant trees in their land too, again with no ownership claim over their land or the trees.
I am also in the process of setting up a small stay and interpretation centre in my land where people can come and stay, learn and explore nature along with understanding the impact a small forest like this can also have overall.
Currently, I am investing more than 50% of my income towards the further improvement of this land and forest. That is the reason that over a short span of 3 years I’ve been able to achieve this kind of a change. I wish to further make more impact in the future and I am hoping this will encourage others also to do the same. The planet belongs to all of us and it should be the moral responsibility of each and every one of us to do our bit protect it, particularly now to deal with climate change and global warming.
Apart from work
I am lucky to say that my passions, interests and hobbies are my work too. I am an avid birdwatcher, photographer and a guide as well as a travel organizer. This also helps me to travel to a lot of places and explore nature and introduce them to others.
I am well known as a snake rescuer and this helps me to introduce the students to various species of snakes before releasing the snakes in the wild. This has inspired many young students to come and work with me as interns after their school and college and I’ve also nominated a few of them to go ahead and pursue the naturalist training program.
My photographs have been exhibited in a lot of places and I’ve won a few awards for my photography as well. These images have also been published in a number of newspapers as well.
I had served as SDMC president in Sri Thoppala Channappa Government Model Higher Primary school where I strived towards the overall development of the school and staff motivation to encourage better education for the students.
I’ve also organised health campaigns, awareness programs for pulse polio, blood donation camps etc. I’ve also been actively involved in educating students in various schools and colleges about our environment, wildlife, birds and snakes through slide shows and presentations. This has been very well received by the schools and the students and I am being invited as guest speaker very often to impart this knowledge to the young minds.
With my experience in afforestation, voluntary work with the forest department, rescue and release of birds and animals and as a keen birdwatcher, I try to encourage as many people as possible to experience nature in the most beautiful way.
I also work as a tourist guide and travel organizer in Hampi and introduce my guests to both the nature aspect and the ruins of Hampi.”
In 2013, when Alagarathanam Natarajan installed the first water cooler outside his home in South Delhi, he was shocked to face serious resistance from all of his neighbours. The people who were highly educated and established were offended because apparently “all kinds of people” would be drinking water there. Despite their disapproval, Natarajan did not sway one bit from his resolve. He put an end to their argument by simply saying, “All kinds of people need water.” Fast forward today, Delhi recognises Natarajan as their beloved ‘Matka Man’ – whose pledge to serve the poor and needy sweetens every drop of the water in the 80 matkas (earthen vessels for water) he has placed all over South Delhi.
He triumphed cancer to serve the society
As a young man of 24, Alagarathanam Natarajan left his birthplace Bengaluru for London where he established himself as a successful businessman. “I always aspired to live a life of luxury, surrounded by lavish houses, cars and furniture; and I had achieved my dreams. However, a fateful day in my mid-50s drastically changed the definition of life for me,” he narrates.
At around 56 years of age, Natarajan was diagnosed with colon cancer. “I was eventually cured due to early-stage detection. But, it cost me a major portion of my life’s savings. I had no choice left but to return to India,” he shares.
Upon his return, he settled in South Delhi and established a new identity as an active social worker. “I have served the terminally ill patients in a cancer hospice, volunteered at an orphanage and performed the last rites of underprivileged people to offer them a dignified end,” he reveals. Joining hands with two Sikh brothers who organised langar for over two thousand people every day, Natarajan has served the hungry, homeless and destitute.
“Often, I would be overwhelmed by the pain and poverty they have to endure even in this modern age. I saw penniless patients arriving in the city from far-off places, armed only with feeble hopes to survive. Their plight taught me the real worth of life,” an emotional Natarajan shares his experiences.
How he became the Matka Man
Inspired to find a water cooler installed outside the house of an eminent industrialist, Natarajan initiated the same at his own home in 2013. Within days, he found security guards, labourers and workers in the neighbourhood braving the mid-day sun to drink water and fill their bottles from his cooler. “Why do you walk in this heat and come so far for water?” Natarajan curiously inquired a guard one day. “The man revealed that his employer does not make any arrangements for water. I realised how pure drinking water is also a luxury for these overworked and underpaid people of our society,’’ shares Natarajan, narrating how he became “Matka Man”.
He utilised the traditional water pots or matkas which effectively keeps water cool for a long time and set up three drinking water stands along the main road adjacent to his house. “So many thirsty people were benefitted from this initiative that I decided to launch it on a larger scale. In three years, I have installed around eighty matkas in over twenty places. Nearly two thousand litres of water are supplied each day which quench the thirst of around four to five thousand people,” he informs.
Matka Man, the real-life superhero
Every morning at 5 AM, you will find Matka Man doing rounds in his car fitted with an 800-litre tank, a pump and a generator – to fill up the water pots, accompanied by his adorable pet dog, Snoopy. At some places, he would park his van to serve steaming plates of breakfast to labourers and workers who are about to start another day of hard work. Workers who arrive at the sites by cycling long distances might receive cycle bells and cycling oil for free from Natarajan, who also sells cycle tyres, tubes and pumps to them at very low rates.
Natarajan also distributes around forty to fifty kilograms of seasonal fruits and vegetables to the labourers every week. He himself often invests his time to peel, slice the same and prepare palatable dishes for them.
“I used to see most of these workers bringing their meals in polythene bags and throw these here and there after eating. I felt every human being have the wish to enjoy a decent meal with dignity. So now every month I donate about a hundred stainless steel lunch boxes to these people,” he shares.
He himself bears all the expenses
Most of his expenses for charity come from his own savings and pension. He receives some contributions from time to time, but not regularly enough to sustain his initiatives. In the scorching summer heat of Delhi, demand for water is too high. Yet the dynamic 69-year-old rushes to refill a matka, the moment he receives a call about it being empty. If you wish to know more about Matka Man, you can reach out to his website: http://www.matkaman.com/alag/
The dark side of today’s society
“Most of the experiences of my life are tragic. I remember once I saw a differently-abled man who appeared to be a little unsound, being taunted, mocked and hurt by stones by an insensitive crowd. His frightened expression reminded me of my own sister, who was a doctor and later diagnosed with mental health issues. Immediately, I interrupted the inhuman circus to save him, offered him food and left him some money. But that incident has been deeply etched in my mind to remind me how barbaric and hopeless the society has turned today. So if I can do a little bit to help my fellow humans, I would consider myself fortunate,” Matka Man ends his story leaving us to introspect and reflect.