Every time Ashok Chache walks down Juhu Tara Road, he smiles. “There are two banyan trees there that I saved,” he says. They were cut illegally 10 years ago, leaving only three inches of trunk above the ground.
“With some help and advice from my seniors, I used iron rods to strengthen their roots and now they are alive and healthy. Every time I see them, I grin.”
Chache, 56, has been a tree pruner with the BMC’s maintenance department for more than 36 years. Through those decades, he has seen green cover vanish and tall, old trees wither amid the pollution and unregulated building, digging and concretisation.
One thing has not changed, though. Monsoon is still the busiest time of the year, and the most stressful. Rains for Chache mean extra work and fielding questions from seniors in case of tree-falls and mishaps.
“We try our best. But it’s not like you can look at a tree and tell if a branch is going to fall. The falling of a tree too is a natural calamity. I wish the public would understand this,” he says.
A Class 9 dropout, Chache joined the BMC in 1976, at a salary of Rs 320 per month, following in the footsteps of his father, a gardener with the maintenance department.
A garden labourer in Juhu for three years, Chache became a permanent BMC employee in 1979, with a salary of Rs 590 a month. Already a husband and father, Chache tended gardens inside private bungalows and housing societies after his BMC shift to earn extra money for his family.
Today, things are better. Chache earns Rs 22,000 a month and owns a two-room chawl home in Jogeshwari, where he lives with his wife, two sons, daughters-in-law and two grandchildren.
Chache starts his day at 4 am. After a bath, he prays at a nearby Shiv temple, attends a family pooja at home and leaves his house at 7.10 am, after a quick breakfast of tea and parathas. At 8 am, he marks his team’s attendance at a department chowkie in a BMC garden in Andheri and takes the day’s assignments over the phone, from his senior officer at the K-West ward office.
His 17 men supervise all the gardens and about 3,500 trees across the ward.
Until lunchtime at noon, Chache and his men walk down designated roads, armed with scissors, spades and axes, pruning bushes and inspecting and trimming trees. At lunchtime, they gather at the chowkie and eat their home-packed tiffins. At 1 pm, it’s back to work for another four hours.
In case of emergencies, of course, the routine changes. Sometimes the men must rush to the site of a mishap and quickly clear the road of a fallen tree or branch and ensure that traffic is not disrupted.
“The cases of human fatalities are the worst,” says Chache. “It is heartrending to see such deaths.”
His favourite part of the job, he says, is pacifying agitated children.
“Some of them march up to us and angrily ask why we are cutting a tree,” he says, chuckling. “I am always touched by concern for the environment and I always explain that the tree needs to be trimmed so that it can stay healthy and live long.”
Usually home by 6 pm, Chache plays with his grandchildren, aged six and two, has dinner at 8.30 pm, then watches TV and goes to bed.
“My happiest moments are teaching my grandkids to cycle or play cricket and seeing their big smiles,” he says.
(This weekly feature explores the lives of those unseen Mumbaiites essential to your day)