06 Mar A Tree Grows in Rajasthan
Decades ago, in the 1970s, I wrote about India’s Chipko Movement, when women across that huge country began literally hugging trees–wrapping themselves around or even chaining themselves to trees–to keep logging companies away. Chipko dates back to the 18th century: for generations rural women had gathered fallen branches and twigs to build their cook-fires, preserving the larger branches and the treetrunks, and those women were still not about to let loggers undo that natural, generational preservation. So again Chipko took root as a protest against commercial tree felling in 1971, inspiring local women to protect trees from the logger’s ax by actually shielding them with their bodies.
Today, I am indebted to Geetanjali Krishna for first reporting on how an unusual ritual led to fewer child marriages, less flooding, a boom in girls’ education–and a cultural transformation in Piplantri, a village in the Indian state of Rajasthan.
“Fifteen years ago, this was barren, dry land,” said Shyam Sundar Paliwal about the area, “Instead of this forest, trees and the clean air you are breathing today, all we had then was marble dust.” In 2007, he and his wife Anita planted the first tree, a tropical evergreen called a kadam, in memory of their 17-year-old daughter Kiran, who died of dehydration due to breathing dust from marble mines.
What Kiran would see is nearly 400,000 trees of various native varieties. Their growth has prompted improvement in the status of the village’s girls and women, and is repairing environmental damage caused by decades of marble mining.
As Shyam and Anita grieved the loss of their daughter over a decade ago, they became painfully conscious that in Piplantri, as across most patriarchal communities in India, people preferred sons over daughters. Anita, who is Piplantri’s sarpanch (elected head of an Indian village), recalls hearing about old midwives who could deduce the sex of the fetus from the pregnant woman’s gait: “They’d administer secret herbs to bring abortion when they suspected it was a girl.”
After the ritual mourning period of 13 days, the Paliwals planted the tree for Kiran. Soon, they were convincing other villagers to honor their daughters by planting trees in their name. “As sarpanch, I began using government funds available for village development to plant and maintain 111 trees for every newborn girl,” Anita explains. “Eventually, as the trees grew, more villagers bought into the idea.”
The approach connects to eco-feminism, which draws a direct correlation between how a society treats women, people of color, and the underclass and how the natural environment is treated.
Prem Bai Rajput, mother to six daughters, embraced the tree planting idea. She and her husband, a marble miner, planted 111 trees around their house, fields and village commons for their youngest three progeny. “My elder daughters were born before this project began,” she said. “Many of our relatives sniggered that I could only bear girls.” But by the time Rajput’s fourth daughter was born, the village community collectively gifted the baby with 31,000 Indian rupees (about US$380) in a fixed deposit account for her education or marriage expenses.
That’s because in 2007, the community also adopted the practice of giving each girl born in Piplantri funds they can access when they turn 18. In turn, the parents pledge to not only educate their girls, but ensure they marry only after turning 18. “It seemed as if the greenery, cleaner air, and cooler temperatures created by the trees planted for our girls, made people realize that girls themselves have value, too.” Rajput observed. “The snide whispers still haven’t stopped completely today, but they’ve definitely reduced!”
Anita says that today, every single girl in the village attends school, in sharp contrast to the rest of the state, which has a literacy rate of 57.6 percent for women (compared to 80.8 percent for men), the highest gender divide in literacy among all Indian states. The reason for this is that Piplantri has two higher secondary schools, so girls don’t need to travel long distances (as they must in other villages) to study.
Kala Devi, who plants and maintains saplings for the village committee, says things have changed dramatically for girls in the village: “We couldn’t even step out of our houses unescorted, but today, not only are our daughters all studying, even many [married women] are working and independent.”
The tree planting drive hasn’t just prompted a cultural shift. The thriving greenery has improved the air, water, soil, and microclimate. Marble mining had left the landscape severely denuded. But today, while neighboring villages are enshrouded in marble dust, Piplantri’s air is noticeably cleaner. Locals attest that groundwater, especially in the forested areas, can be found at 4.5 to 6 meters. Before 2007, groundwater levels had fallen below 152 meters.“Farming had become impossible, forcing locals to migrate to cities or the marble mines for better livelihoods,” according to Anita and Shyam.
In a preliminary assessment of the soil in the forest of Piplantri, Hemlata Lohar, a conservation scientist with a doctorate in carbon capture and sequestration, noted that increased organic matter in the soil has improved its water holding capacity. “This district saw heavier than usual rains this year, but unlike in neighboring stony desert areas, there was no flooding here. This is partly because the trees are aiding water absorption,” she says.
The Paliwals note that all the funds for planting and upkeep come from the government. In 2018, the Rajasthan government developed a training center to educate people on the “Piplantri Model” of water harvesting and tree planting. The plan is to set up women’s cooperatives to sell forest produce–honey, Indian gooseberry products, and bamboo–all of which are now being harvested from the village’s green commons.Economic benefits from the forest that accrue to women can ensure the continued protection of both.
“The trees are flourishing,” Anita and Shyam observe,“Girls, trees, water, biodiversity, village commons–only when they flourish together, can we have hope for the future.”