Shyam Sunder Paliwal opened the pod and the blood-red seeds sank. Holding it in his palm, he offered the fruit of sindoor shrub for inspection.
The plant, which produces the vermilion powder that Indians often apply to their foreheads for cosmetic and religious purposes, does not normally grow in this region. But it is one of the many types of trees now growing in Piplantri, a set of six connected hamlets in Rajasthan in northwest India.
In 2005, when Paliwal became the Sarpanch, or village chief, the marble mines had exposed the hills; the surrounding land was parched and the foliage degraded. And like most of India, daughters here were seen as a financial burden and devalued compared to sons, who usually help their parents support themselves economically.
Then, in 2007, Kiran, Paliwal’s 17-year-old daughter, died from an episode of dehydration. Heartbroken but eager to honor his memory, his family planted a tree near the entrance to the village in his name. As the leader of Piplantri, Paliwal thought, why not turn this one-off event into a larger program? Soon, other villagers began to follow his example.
Now, every time a girl is born in Piplantri, the villagers plant 111 trees – a number that bodes well for the local Hindus – both to honor her and to regenerate the environment.
“If we can do it on behalf of a girl, why can’t we do it on behalf of every girl?” Paliwal said. The region now has over 350,000 trees, from mango and gooseberry to sandalwood, neem, peepal and bamboo, which grow on once barren land and cover around 1,000 hectares.
In recent years, Paliwal’s simple idea has spread to a larger eco-feminist movement. Along with planting trees, the new parents of girls also sign an affidavit saying that they will not marry them until they are 18 and let them finish their education. Villagers are also helping to open a fixed deposit account for each girl with Rs 31,000 (£ 305) which she can access once she turns 18, either for her studies or to help pay for her marriage. Additionally, the growing Piplantri Forest now serves as an example of how Indian villages can literally go green while improving their water management.
Paliwal’s simple idea spread to a larger eco-feminist movement
Under a canopy of leaves, and with warnings to watch out for snakes and scorpions, Paliwal led me to a small clearing with a single, slender burflower near the entrance to the village. It was the first tree he planted, now surrounded by dozens of others.
Although the villagers plant the 111 trees for every girl born throughout the year, every August during the monsoon, a special tree planting ceremony is held for all the girls born in the previous 12 months. Paliwal estimates that around 60 girls are born each year in this village of 5,500 inhabitants. The cultivated girls who had trees planted in their name now come to knot rakhi bracelets around the saplings, seeing them as brothers and sisters to be worshiped during the Raksha Bandhan festival. In one part of the village, sarpanches and other visiting officials are encouraged to take an oath in addition to a banyan tree, promising to work responsibly and protect the environment.
“Historically, the inhabitants of this region of [Rajasthan] are warriors who have never accepted defeat. And neither do we, “said Paliwal, before reciting the names of the legendary kings the region had produced.” In previous centuries they repelled attacks, now we are fighting disease and pollution. “
As the trees of Piplantri grew, the groundwater level increased and a marked cultural change improved the status of women. Nikita Paliwal (not related to Shyam Sunder), now 14, was among the first girls to have trees planted in her name. Now she hopes to become a doctor and work for the poor. “We also have to stand up,” she said.
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“If you keep working, the results will be visible,” said Shyam Sunder. “And people will join you.”
Of course, you need a village. That morning, groups of women were struggling to prepare the land for planting. Although the ceremonial planting only takes place once a year, the work takes place year round.
Dressed in a bright red saree and a big smile, Nikita’s aunt Nanubhai Paliwal said she had two sons, but as Piplantri started to honor her daughters, she started wishing for granddaughters. . Now she has two, and trees were planted when they were born.
“They used to be seen as a burden. Now we don’t think that way,” she said. “We have no particular desire to have sons.” She then looked around, pointing to all the trees. “It was a small village. We worked hard, we made it special. And that way we also have a job and an income. ”
It was a small village. We worked hard, we made it special
This is a key part of the village-wide strategy: not only to honor the girls or regenerate the environment, but also to leverage reforestation to generate income for local residents. “How can everyone be employed in the industry?” Shyam Sunder asked. “Our approach is to create jobs with natural resources.”
The village has set up women’s cooperatives that create aloe vera products, such as juices, foodstuffs and gels, for sale in the village. In the coming year, they plan to expand into gooseberry, bamboo and honey products, all of which have been planted or cultivated as part of the village’s greening efforts.
“You have to tie everything together,” Paliwal said. “If you plant trees, you need soil and water. Then you attract birds, and more greenery brings more rain.” Villagers also plant 11 trees whenever someone dies. All the plantings take place on communal land spread across the village that had previously been illegally developed. Shyam Sunder pointed to the mountains in the distance, hollowed out and deeply mined, but showing budding vegetation.
“Where there is mining activity, there is degradation,” he said. “We have worked to compensate for that.” Atop a mound filled with stones, green shoots of sugarcane plants burst forth, seemingly out of nowhere.
Piplantri’s water harvesting plan consisted of trapping runoff and raising groundwater levels by building ditches, dikes and dams. Throughout the village, large posters showing before and after photos bear witness to Piplantri’s transformation: from dry and brown to green and verdant. Now clear pools glistened in the distance. Around a statue erected in honor of Kiran, geese were flying, drinking water. While rabbits frolicked in an enclosure, a peacock crossed the road near a building topped with a solar panel.
“I can see a big difference between 2007-08 and now, and it shows you how one person can effect change,” said Nimisha Gupta, the general manager of local bodies in the district. “Government programs, if implemented correctly, can work wonders. But not all villages use budgets well.”
In 2018, the state government instituted a training center here to educate people on the “Piplantri model”. The building is home to engineers, government officials and residents from other districts who hope to replicate Piplantri’s model of water harvesting and tree planting elsewhere in Rajasthan and the country. Up to 50 to 60 visitors come to Piplantri on certain days – most of whom come to attend workshops in the training center – and the village even has a set of chalets to accommodate them.
Part of Piplantri’s environmental success, Gupta says, comes from the visceral connection between the environment and people. “When you tie it to tradition and make trees like family, it makes emotional sense,” she said.
The village’s link with nature is palpable. That afternoon, local resident Prem Shankar Salvi, appeared with his wife and one-year-old daughter, Ruchika, in the center of the village with a cake. Salvi had wanted to celebrate his birthday in the middle of the greenery.
“Doing things this way is special,” he said. “We thought, why not do something different?”
Things have changed
When Ruchika was born, Salvi and his wife planted trees, signed the affidavit, and opened a fixed deposit account for her.
“Let her do whatever she wants once she grows up,” Salvi said. “When she was born, it was as if the goddess Lakshmi had come to us.”
Salvi will enroll his daughter in school, which is free at primary level. In fact, in one of the nine government-run village schools here, the enrollment from girls to boys is 33:19. “No one has given up, regardless of caste or background,” said Giridharilal Jatia, principal of a local school. “For 10 years, we have seen this. Previously, fewer girls were present ”.
Yana Paliwal (no connection to Nikita or Shyam Sunder), who is only two years old, does not yet understand that trees have been planted in her name or that her parents have high hopes for her. Her mother, Sangeeta Paliwal, who moved to Piplantri after her marriage 12 years ago, had little access to education as a daughter, but she is determined that her daughter will study first and think about marriage more. late. Sangeeta used to cover his face out of modesty, following the conservative practice of ghunghat in his own village, but not in Piplantri. Here she was able to complete her university degrees through distance education, she drove and started to work.
“Things have changed,” she says.
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