Chilkapalli Anasuyamma, a resident of Pastapur village in Telangana’s Sangareddy district, shivered as hundreds of international experts and leaders let out a thunderous applause. As she stood on the stage with her team members in the city of New York with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) award in her hand, her struggles and successes during her drive to plant scores of trees, flashed before Anasuyamma.
“It was a surreal experience for me. I did not, in my wildest dreams, imagine that a girl like me would receive such a prestigious award. Being appreciated and encouraged for a noble effort restored my faith in the society,” shares the 49-year-old recalling the day during a telephonic conversation with The Better India.
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“Congratulatory messages are still pouring in and now, more people are interested in knowing about my work,” she says, her smile audible in her voice.
In September this year, Anasuyamma received the prestigious award on behalf of Deccan Development Society (DDS) for its conservation efforts in Sandareddy district.
Anasuyamma is part of DDS, an NGO based out of Pastapur in Medak. DDS has women’s Sanghams (voluntary village level associations of the poor) that preserve green cover and the traditional ways of agriculture. Most of the members in the NGO comprise of women from the lowest rungs of the social hierarchy.
For the last 25 years, Anasuyamma has been working tirelessly with other DDS women to convert wastelands into lush green forest and so far, she has planted over 2 million plants on barren, unused or neglected lands and has been instrumental in setting up two dozen forests across 22 villages in Sangareddy district, Telangana.
Breaking Gender Norms To Protect the Environment
On a cold morning in November 1993, Anasuyamma woke up to tragic news. The 25-year-old had been deserted by her husband.
“I was in my mid 20s when my husband left me. My parents thought my life is over. Relatives and neighbours cursed me for what had happened. I was devastated but I knew it was not the end of the world,” she reminisces.
Looking for a job was not an option for Anasuyamma as she was not sent to school. With no other option left, she took up menial jobs to support herself and her adopted son.
While she was trying to sort out her life, she was put in touch with DDS through a neighbour.
“Everyone in our village would walk miles to fetch water due to absence of water reserves. The problem could be solved by utilising the empty lands in the village to plant trees. DDS suggested that the trees would help retain the rainwater and recharge groundwater tables. I was moved by the speech and decided to help them improve Mother Earth’s condition,” she shares.
During the daytime, Anasuyamma would go to work and in the night, attend an DDS-conducted informal training session on planting trees.
After a few months, she started spending more time at DDS and gradually, she made afforestation her life mission.
“Through DDS we try to solve environmental issues by mobilising the locals who work with us. We have engaged several women and one of them is Anasuyamma. She has been a tremendous force in executing the plantation activities across villages,” Satheesh Periyapatna, founder of DDS tell TBI.
The initial days attracted the wrath of the villagers who would often taunt her for entering the male territory, “Work like cleaning the land and planting trees are usually done by men. A woman approaching village heads to spread awareness did not go down well with people,” recalls Anasuyamma.
Another common issue that she faced were quarrels regarding the usage of land, “Most of the land back then had no owners. They were considered to be the village property. Convincing the villagers that we were not there to encroach land was very time-consuming.”
Despite all the backlash, Anasuyamma continued to volunteer with the DDS.
After she planted 32 varieties of plants in Pasatapur and neighbouring villages, the NGO gave her the responsibility of training the locals and forming her own team.
As for taking permissions to plant saplings, Anasuyamma and her team would require nods of the village heads only till 2003. With stricter laws on land grabbing, permission from the district collector is mandatory now.
Knowing that merely mobilising people would not work, the DDS recruited locals to carry out the activities. DDS pays anything between Rs 5 to 15 per day depending on the amount of work a person does and every person can plant a maximum of 50 plants per day.
The team follows scientific methodology while plantation drives. “We conduct PRA (Pest risk analysis) to identify which plants suit the land. Tips given by the village elders are also of huge help as they know the land better than anyone else.”
DDS funds the seeds and equipment required to plant the trees. Once the villagers plant seeds, they are free to take the plant output as they believe that the community who plants the tree, owns it. “Community ownership not only gives them the produce for free but also ensures that the tree is well maintained.”
As per DDS and Anasuyamma, the success rate of the survival of plants is 80 per cent on 1200 acres of land that she has covered.
One of the validations, says Anasuyamma, about the success of plantation mission is the presence of birds and animals.
“Bird and domestic animal population increased after the forests came up. They eat the fruits and leave the seeds in the forest. Overtime, these seeds grow into plants. Thirty two varieties of fruits and vegetables have increased to 92. The forests thrive with trees like mangoes, amla, tamarind, neem, jamun and so on.”
Anasuyamma hopes to continue her mission till her last breath. She fondly addresses the planet as ‘Mother Earth’ and believes that if the earth can take care of us by giving food to millions of humans and animals, it our duty to give her back by planting trees.
From being a single parent to nurturing her ‘mother’ (earth), Anasuyamma’s life is truly inspiring.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)