Every year, at the Jasnath ji fair in Bikaner’s Sri Ganganagar district, thousands of devotees turn up to pay obeisance to the founder of the Jasnathi community. They offer coconut, sweets and dry fruits but take home an unusual prasad. The devotees are distributed saplings of roonkh, a woody desert tree that also provides fodder for cattle. The practice of giving roonkh began in 2017 and since then lakhs of people have planted these saplings in and around their houses, helping promote greenery in the desert district.
Some young people of the area have also started a novel wedding ritual. They now take one phera around the khejri (state tree of Rajasthan) sapling, which is then planted. The return gift is also a sapling. So far, these plants have reached over a thousand families in Bikaner, making the area green.
These community initiatives were started by sociology professor Shyam Sundar Jyani, who has been leading a green movement since 2006, planting one million saplings in the desert landscape. His efforts have almost doubled the green cover in the arid Bikaner district.
Jyani’s student Nimish Narayan Gautam, a research fellow at Central Arid Zone Research Institute (CAZRI) in Jodhpur, downloaded the satellite imagery for November 2010 and November 2019 for Bikaner City. The earlier data, when Prof Jyani had initiated his green drive, shows few green patches. In less than a decade, photos taken in November 2019 show a significant spread in the green cover.
Prof Jyani believes his efforts have been successful because he was able to inspire villagers to adopt the practice of 'familial forestry', which promotes treating plants as family members. He has linked 5 lakh families in 400 villages of Bikaner division, which comprises four districts, with familial forestry.
Given his sociology background, he wanted to involve the society and urged people to plant fruit trees that are native to the area and use less water.
Sanwat Ram Saran, a former sarpanch of Ajeetsar village in Churu district, says that influenced by Prof Jyani, he started the familial forestry fair in his village in 2017. “In one day we got 84,000 families to plant 1 lakh saplings in 173 villages and 213 schools. About 90 percent of the plants are thriving,” he says.
Sunil Ghintala, 27, a law student who has worked with Jyani for the past decade, says it is necessary to keep the people motivated. “In Bikaner’s hot climate with temperatures touching 50° Celcius, 60 percent of the plants will die. We have to motivate people to replant them. They are slowly becoming committed to the cause,” he says.
“Prof Jyani has made people’s thinking green," says Saran
Rohitash Kumar, 33 recalls that when he entered the premises of the senior secondary school in Kikarwali block of Sriganganagar district in north Rajasthan in 2015, the lush trees there brought back happy memories from a decade ago when he was part of the green drive where trees were planted in several schools under the guidance of Prof Jyani.
“There used to be hardly any trees in the hot, arid area when we planted the saplings. When I was posted in the school and saw the trees blooming, I was filled with a sense of pride,” says Rohitash, now a geography lecturer.
It can be noted that The India Forest Report 2019 states that forest area has increased in infertile regions of Rajasthan as a result of plantation and conservation activities. The report says Rajasthan has some of the best afforestation practices along the Indira Gandhi canal which flows through the north-west part of the state.
Over the years, Prof Jyani has spent his entire salary on buying saplings and travelling to villages and educational institutions to talk about the benefits of greening the environment. He would hand out saplings of lemon, lasoda, amla, jamun, guava, pomegranate, drumstick and kinu to the villagers and his students free of cost.
In the government Dungar College where he teaches, the professor has converted 5 hectares of land into an institutional forest where 93 varieties of trees have sprung up in the last seven years. He has also developed a ‘people's nursery’ from where anybody can take free saplings. He has given out around a lakh saplings in the last seven years.
In a unique tribute to Mahatma Gandhi on his 150th birth anniversary last year, Jyani launched the ‘Familial Forestry Gandhi 150’ campaign under which Gandhi fruit forests were developed in 150 schools in 150 villages in Bikaner division.
Trees such as imli, anar, sitaphal, ramphal, arjun, neem, belpatra, which grow easily in the sandy soil of the area, have been planted. Jyani says ‘green sensitisation’ of children is important so they develop respect towards the environment.
“My idea was that apart from green literacy to students, the fruits could be added to the mid-day meal and become part of their diet which would help address the issue of nutrition.” As per the Comprehensive National Nutrition Survey report 2019, in Rajasthan 40.9 percent children under five years are underweight and 44.4 are anaemic.
He's also experimented with in-situ budding which he says can convert the arid desert land to fruit fields as it doesn't need irrigation. The concept involves grafting the bud of a fruit tree on a local plant. The graft then grows on the plant and draws its water requirement from the plant and does not need additional watering. He has grafted Thai apple on the local nummularia bushes with in-situ budding. The graft grows without the need to water it and its fruit is sweeter and leaves are thicker than the original plant.
The reach of his work is spreading outside Rajasthan too. Three teams from the Forestry Training Institute in Himachal Pradesh have met Prof Jyani to understand the concept of ‘familial forestry’ and propagate it in their state. He was also invited by an NGO to Bihar to demonstrate his concept of familial forestry.
Prof Jyani’s persistence over the years is fully paying off. Apart from the increasing green cover, people have become aware about conserving the environment. Former US president John F Kennedy famously said 'One person can make a difference, and everyone should try it'. Prof Jyani has just proved that saying right.
(Mona Singh is a Rajasthan-based freelance writer and wanderer)