There is a reason why Vishweshwar Dutt Saklani, a freedom fighter and conservationist par excellence, was also known as ‘Vriksha Manav’ or the ‘Tree Man.’
Born on June 2, 1922, Saklani began planting trees at the tender of age eight. During his 96 years on earth, he planted an estimated 50 lakh trees in the Saklana Valley of Tehri Garhwal district, Uttarakhand.
Yesterday, on the morning of 18 January 2019, he breathed his last.
Through the course of his life, Saklani converted a barren 100-hectare area surrounding his native village into a flourishing forest filled with fruit trees like guava and broad-leaved trees like rhododendron, among others.
“He lost his eyesight about ten years ago. He had something called eye haemorrhage from the dust and mud from planting saplings,” said Santosh Swaroop Saklani, his son and an official with the Governor’s office, speaking to The Indian Express.
“He started planting saplings when he was a young boy. He learnt the technique of grafting from his uncle.”
However, for Saklani, planting saplings also become his way of coping with personal tragedy.
His older brother, Nagendra Dutt Saklani, who was also a freedom fighter, played a crucial role in the rebellion that led to the merger of Tehri state with the Indian Union.
After he passed away, Saklani spent long hours away from the family planting saplings. Further tragedy struck in 1958 when his first wife passed away, and he again turned to his trees for comfort.
“Trees were his everything. He used to say; trees are my family, my parents, my friends and my world. He did not wish to see the world because for him every tree was a world of its own,” said 80-year-old Bhagwati Devi, Saklani’s second wife, speaking to Hindustan Times.
The forest area Saklani built up from little acorns is now called ‘Nagendra Dutt Saklani Van’ or ‘Nagendra Dutt Saklani Forest’ after his brother.
In the early years, Saklani faced stiff opposition from locals who believed he was encroaching onto their land in the pursuit of regenerating the local ecosystem and conserving the environment. However, locals today see the value of his work, and it was second wife Bhagwati who helped him convince other villagers of this pursuit.
In 1986, former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi awarded Saklani with the Indira Priyadarshini Award for his conservation efforts.
“Though his efforts have largely been confined to the district in which he grew up, the forests that were once dense thanks to his efforts around the Sujargaon village in Tehri Garhwal are slowly being eaten up,” says his son Santhosh, speaking to The Indian Express. One hopes that his passing will remind locals once again the value of conserving these forests.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)