What inspired Premji Patel to leave city life behind and spend the rest of his life nurturing nature? A story of an African shepherd who accidentally planted a forest on barren land!
Premji Patel longed for his hometown in Gujarat. Though a trader in Mumbai, he was unimpressed by the skyscrapers, the fast life and the ambitious people scurrying around to make a name for themselves. The city life wasn’t exactly his cup of tea.
Often, it takes a strong dose of inspiration to push us to make an important life decision. For Patel, it was a story about an African shepherd. The shepherd, he read, had accidentally planted seeds along his regular path and ended up converting barren land into a lush forest! This story, from a distant land, was instrumental in changing the course of Patel’s life. From a trader in the busy city of Mumbai, Patel would go on to earn national recognition for transforming the districts of Rajkot, Gondal, and Mangrol of Gujarat into a dense forest.
Patel had received the book with the story emphasising the amazing efforts of a shepherd as a gift from his son in 1967. On his next trip home, in Rajkot, he started asking the senior citizens about flora and fauna in his hometown. It was eye-opening for him to know that the land that had lain barren for all his life was once teeming with green life—a forest ranging from Gir to Dwarka for a distance of about 285 km!
The journey toward a lush forest begins with a seed:
“Bapuji did not remember the small book of a few pages, but he remembered the lesson and started collecting seeds and made a consortium of seed collectors and suppliers across India,” says Yashodhar Dixit, referring to 86-year-old Patel. By the end of the year 2010, Patel had sprinkled 550 tons of seeds of various varieties (Local) and covered nearly the entire districts of Rajkot, Gondal, and Mangrol of Gujarat state.
“Through several projects, he planted nearly one crore trees and his work had been acclaimed by Late Dr APJ Abdul Kalam,” Yashodhar informs, The Better India.
Although Patel’s achievements are massive, he began with a very simple idea. Every village has a temple that its devotees frequent. He started planting trees around the temples, a place with a relatively low risk of people cutting them. He had hired a person to buy seeds and plant them. The process took time, but it was an experiment worth waiting for.
As soon as Patel realised that his efforts are bearing fruit, he planned the next step.
It wasn’t long before he formed a network of seed collectors, buyers, and sellers, knowing all too well that even if a fraction of his seeds survived and grew into trees, a considerable amount of his land would turn green again.
The Vruksha Prem Seva Trust (VPST), which Patel started in 1968, records that he collected 550 tons of seeds of trees like Prosopis Julliflora and local varieties like aawal, grass seeds, karanj, neem, palash, etc. For three decades, Patel dedicated all his efforts to planting and taking care of the trees.
Patel’s vision, however, towered above the gigantic trees that he had spent a large portion of his time fostering. The aim was not just to increase the green cover over Gujarat’s Saurashtra and Rajkot. Instead, it was to solve or at least reduce the water woes of the local farming communities.
“Along with trees we started well-recharge projects, and for the same, cement, and pipes were supplied to farmers to bring water from wells to the farms. This was done in the 1980s, and there was no looking back from here. The Gujarat government started check dam program in consultation with Vruksha Prem, and till date, we have constructed more than 2,500 check dams across Saurashtra region,” Dixit, a trustee of VPST says.
Making Rajkot drought free:
Few can understand the value of water more than a farmer. One month of monsoon too early or too late spells doom for thousands of farmers who have spent their entire year caring for the crop. Scanty or excessive rainfall means the farmer has nothing but his savings to survive on for the following year. And as rains diminish year after year, so do the financial condition of the poor farmer.
With a parched land, a sky devoid of clouds and crops dying of thirst, many farmers find no other solution but to resort to extreme, fatal ways out.
Noting how urgently the farmers needed someone to provide water to cultivate their crops, Patel began his crusade.
Back in the 1970s, Patel had brought about 18,000 hectares of land in 54 villages under a watershed development programme to help the farmers secure their water needs through natural, non-invasive and inexpensive ways.
According to the Central Ground Water Board of India (CGWB), “These projects involved the construction of 21,600 dams covering 1,500 ha land benefitting around 5,500 families. Before this, the trust had undertaken the activity of well recharging in six districts of Saurashtra wherein 50,000 feet lengths of cement pipes were distributed among the villagers.”
What VPST has achieved so far:
- 6,250 hectares of land so far provided with water to ease farmers woes.
- As a result, 2,100 families were directly benefited.
- 30,000 trees were planted around the dam areas to balance the ecology of the region.
- Overall, these initiatives have provided a secure income to the families and in most cases, even increased their annual income.
- Tells Dixit, “The Gujarat government has also invited various NGOs for Roof Top Rainwater Harvesting projects, and VPST is awarded the highest number of houses for being given this facility. Till date, we have completed 4600 rooftop rainwater harvesting projects giving benefits to nearly 20000 people directly.”
The Better India tried to get in touch with Patel but he was unavailable for a talk due to health reasons. But his work speaks for him- the work that has him invested for over three decades now.
Back in 2012, he had told The Telegraph, “For 25 years, I have made planting trees a mission of my life. When I die, no wood should be used for my agni sanskar. I cannot see the trees which I planted being chopped for my funeral.”
(Edited By Saiqua Sultan)