Tree’s company

Clean-air activist Jai Dhar Gupta is building a forest away from toxic Delhi
Tree’s company

In the tiny lanes of Buggawala village in Uttarakhand, Jai Dhar Gupta is known as the ‘gannewale sahab’, thanks to his penchant for chewing on sugarcane through the day. This Delhi-based entrepreneur and clean-air activist—he got AAP to implement the Odd-Even Rule in Delhi and is ironically running a successful business of air purifiers thanks to Delhi’s toxic air—is building an alternate world, or what he calls, his “Plan B” through the Rajaji Raghati Biosphere, India’s first private reserve in the buffer zone of Rajaji Tiger Reserve, bordered by the Raghati riverbed. Why Plan B? “Well, we have lost the Plan A plot of a world which only runs on money,” he rues. Little wonder that the 51-year-old ecophile spends the better part of his day rewilding his pet project away from the city chaos.

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“I want to grow a forest with native trees in a carbon-free atmosphere and live and work on climate change, away from Delhi NCR’s toxic airshed,” he says, walking around the 32-acre expanse of the budding biosphere. The move to the forest was not sudden. In 2013, while training for the Athens Classic Marathon, he collapsed with a loss of 40 per cent lung function. As he nursed himself back to health over the next few years, he realised the toxic world he was living in needed to be left behind.

Gupta headed to the forest. When he acquired the land, it was devoid of native vegetation and had been under cultivation for several decades, leading to loss of microbial life in the soil. The determined entrepreneur tapped into his sources and retrieved the geological data of the land going back 40 years from NASA. “I got rewilding expert Vijay Dhasmana, known for the transformation of a 380-acre mining site in Gurugram into the Aravalli Biodiversity Park, to help me with the process,” says the Wharton graduate, who confesses that the Aravalli Biodiversity Park, followed by the Delhi Gold Club, are his two favourite spots in Delhi NCR.

Soon, lost native species started finding a home in the biosphere. But it was easier said than done. Gupta knew he needed local knowledge and help. With help from a team of 32 forest guards, four naturalists and a junior ecologist, he set about the Herculean task of turning a flat land into a naturally furrowed landscape. “We went looking for types of trees that were dwindling and collected seeds of long-lost species,” he says. With local help, they zeroed in on trees Gupta hopes “will heal the land and sustain an ecosystem.” Soon, trees such as Sal, Saj, Haldu and more began taking root in this new environment. To ensure that the air in the biosphere remains as pure as possible, only electric vehicles are allowed in the area.

But his fascination for an ecological heaven has also earned him the “mad man from the city” nickname from the locals. “They can’t understand why I would invest in land and not use it as a farmland or build a resort,” he says, as he talks of his plan of building a couple of “really small houses using only local material and sans any cement” and inviting ecologists from around the globe to collaborate with him. “I want to learn about butterflies, bees and fungi. I want them as part of this forest. I want this place to be a living jungle,” he smiles.

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When Gupta talks of his budding forest—the area today has over 4,000 saplings of around 80 different tree species—it’s almost as if he is already living in the future. “I know each and every blade of grass in this area. Each time a new leaf sprouts, it fills me with happiness. I have seen them grow over the years. It gives me immense pride. My DNA is there in this biosphere. My ultimate dream is to have this land completely claimed by the forest,” he says as he lovingly caresses a shrub.

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