Sporting a long beard and unkempt hair, Verhaen Khanna guides a bunch of children to climb an old banyan tree at Lodhi Garden. It is not usual for a 27-year-old to attempt to revive the practice of scaling trees which was a popular hobby in old times but soon got lost in the process of urbanisation. He is not exactly a green activist, but certainly looks like a modern age nature campaigner.
Khanna is a trained commercial pilot with 260 flying hours, who is concerned about the ills brought by concretisation. If a tree is being chopped in any part of the city, it is most likely that he will be informed about it and he will reach the spot in no time.
He laments that in big cities, children or even their parents have never scaled or felt trees. He chooses to call this phenomenon in urban areas, ‘tree blindness’. “People have this habit of ignoring the presence of trees around them,” said Khanna, who lives in New Friends Colony with his parents and younger sister.
“I want to cure this. Only last week a perfectly healthy shehtoot (mulberry) tree was felled in Saket to construct a parking lot. In the permission letter, the authorities had stated that the tree was dangerous, but that was not the case,” he said.
He started out his campaign with a Facebook page. A quick search on YouTube throws up many videos offering quick lessons for nature enthusiasts such as ‘WTF Quickie’. The New Delhi Nature Society (NDNS), which he set up last year from his home-cum-office, conducts workshops, events and camps with children as well as adults, connecting them to environment. Participants aren’t given boring lectures, but are encouraged to get involved in fun activities such as picking herbs for tea, making a fire, documentaries and counting stars at night.
While there is no fee for the activities and Khanna arranges for tents and other equipment, participants are requested to bring their own food.
“I give clipboards and colours to children to draw while they are relaxing on the branches. Once they experience the energy and feel, they refuse to come down!” he said, who does light painting to earn a living.
He also has safety measures ready to keep climbers safe while they are up. “I set up crash pads (mattresses) below every tree to cushion a fall,” said Khanna, who also climbs rocks.
The activities and campouts are mostly held in city forests and gardens including Sanjay Van, Jahanpanah, Lodhi Gardens and Asola Bhatti Wildlife Sanctuary. There are a number of old native trees here, he said, while most people cannot even recognise the most common peepal or banyan tree.
“In rural areas, one still might come across children climbing the mango trees,” he said, as he tells the group to hug the trunk to climb up and look for a Y or V-shaped branch to house themselves comfortably.
Khanna wakes up at 4.30am every day to listen to the chirping of birds. He then gets on to designing courses for various workshops for schools, colleges, corporate as well as RWAs. Initially, when he started out, he gave up alcohol and non-vegetarian food and adopted an austere lifestyle. He has made a compost pit at home and planted a variety of trees at his garden. His family, too, has joined him in his endeavours.
“At times, my friends call me ‘baba’ or Jesus Christ, as they think I have moved out of regular life, but I tell them that this is actually going back to the most normal and natural way of living,” he added.