Losing a young child is devastating for parents; it’s a loss that lasts a lifetime. But Shyam Sundar Paliwal from Piplantri village in Rajsamand district of Rajasthan turned his loss into a movement that has transformed an arid region into a green oasis.
When he started work in 2005, Piplantri was an arid landscape ravaged by mining.
Two decades later, his campaign to save water and green cover has made Piplantri a model village where 4 lakh trees have been planted and the water level has risen by three inches. Over 10,000 girls are being benefitted and more than 1,000 acres of barren land made fertile.
“My daughter’s death was the biggest shock for me. It gave a new direction to my life,” says the 57-year-old.
Paliwal decided to honour Kiran’s memory by planting trees. He then thought of extending the plantation drive to the entire village which had become dry and barren.
The dust bowl
Rajsamand is among Asia’s largest marble markets and mining is rampant in the district. Marble mining eats into pastureland for cattle and reduces the area of productive farmland.
Paliwal grew up in Piplantri and got into the marble business and opened his own company. In 2005, Paliwal was elected sarpanch of Piplantri. During that time, the region was hit by successive droughts.
Paliwal got some check dams built to store water but did not have a larger strategy or vision to address the situation till his daughter’s death.
When he planted trees in the memory of his daughter, he came up with the idea of extending the plantation drive to the whole village.
“I thought everyone in the village should plant a tree to honour the girl child. Initially, it was one tree but a lot of land needed to be greened. So gradually the number increased to 111 trees,” he says.
He launched the ‘Kiran Nidhi Yojana’ in which the panchayat opens a bank account in the name of the girl child and an initial sum of Rs21,000 is deposited. The parents have to sign an affidavit affirming that they will not practise female foeticide or marry their daughter before she is 18 years of age and will educate her.
Now it has become a tradition to plant 111 trees on the birth of every girl in the village.
Rajasthan has been among the states with the worst sex ratio. As per the 2011 Census, Rajasthan has 928 females per 1,000 males. The child sex ratio (number of girls per 1,000 boys in the 0–6 years age group) is even worse with just 888 girls per 1,000 boys.
Saving the environment, creating economic opportunity
Initially, Paliwal says he faced a stiff challenge while trying to change the attitudes of people towards the girl child and the environment.
“People were not bothered about conserving water or planting trees. There was large scale encroachment on government land by the mining mafia. It took a lot of effort to make people understand why it was important to save trees, water and girls,” he says.
People were also suspicious. “They thought I had some personal interest or greed and I would usurp their land.”
He would hold long meetings where he would explain the benefits of conservation and how planting trees and conserving water could bring economic benefits to the villagers.
Those who had encroached on government land said they earned money by cutting trees and selling wood. I told them you can also earn by planting trees. “Some were convinced, but some were not.”
Those who agreed were roped in to plant trees such as Sheesham (Indian rosewood), neem, mango, banyan, peepal (sacred fig), amla (gooseberry) and bamboo. Paliwal has also set up a processing plant for gooseberry and Aloe Vera juice, which is sold locally. Aloe Vera gel is also prepared at the plant while bamboo is being used to make furniture.
He worked to ensure that the government and grazing lands were freed of encroachments and water conservation structures were built.
“With the restoration of trees and water, the animals which are part of the ecosystem too returned to the village. The village has been able to weather droughts and has not faced water scarcity for over a decade,” says Paliwal.
“People have realised the value of environmental conservation as it has given them employment and income,” he says.
A model village
Paliwal says a model village is not created by putting up a signboard or making roads or sewer lines.
Paliwal is often asked how he succeeded where others fail.
“I created work ethos that we will not bring anything from home, nor will we take anything home. But we will implement all government schemes properly and link them to public participation,” he says.
“I made sure that the money the government was giving for development was used properly. I tried to plug leakage and corruption and was able to win the people’s trust.”
He says government officials have to show people that they are trustworthy. There should not be leakage or corruption. Then officials will be able to win the trust of the people.
The state government has set up a training centre in Piplantri, where government appointees such as IAS officers, farmers, Panchayat officials from other states come to learn how to implement government schemes effectively, root out corruption and increase public participation.
Paliwal finds motivation in his work and his village.
“I want to work for its development and the happiness of the people. I tell sarpanches (village heads) that this job is not for you to earn money or political clout but to serve people and save jungles, animals and other natural resources.”
His unsparing efforts have won Paliwal several awards including the Padma Shri in 2021, water conservation award in 2018, Maharana Mewar award in 2015, Jal Prahari award in 2019 and Swachhta award in 2007.
“When I went to receive the award, President Ramnath Kovind addressed me by my name and praised my work. The Prime Minister held my hand and lauded me. I felt happy and humbled that my work has been recognised,” he says.
(Urvashi Dev Rawal is a Jaipur-based journalist specialising in development, gender, and political reporting)