Rambhai Charan, a 62-year-old retired primary school teacher in Gujarat’s Sabarkantha district, has single handedly planted more than 5 lakh trees in his village. While he is largely self-motivated, he goes about inspiring other people to follow his lead, using rather unique tools — letters and postcards.
“I got into the habit of writing a letter every day to my closest friends and relatives, and I continue to do so till today. At the end of each letter I would sign off by praying for their good health, requesting them to save water, and requesting them to plant one tree,” begins Rambhai.
Rambhai’s habit of signing letters with those three sentences started in 1985 after he attended a talk by Ramlal Parekh, former Chancellor of Gujarat University, at the Gujarat Vidyapith. During that talk, Prof Ramlal mentioned it was important to pray for the good health of human beings as well as nature.
“The same day, I purchased a postcard for 15 paise and wrote the first letter to my sister who was living in another district. It was a general letter to enquire about how she was, but I signed it with those three lines. And I continued the practice,” says Rambhai.
Over the years, Rambhai began to write letters and send postcards to complete strangers in the district.
“I’d scan the local papers and if there was an ad about a birthday celebration, or a wedding announcement, I sent them a postcard urging them to plant a tree in celebration. If I saw an obituary, I’d write to the bereaved family members offering my condolences and gently request them to plant a tree in memory of the departed soul. I am a known face, so the publisher would share their addresses with me, making my job easier.”
Till date, Rambhai says he has written to more than 50,000 people, and continues to send postcards or letters to at least 20 people every day. “Even though 90% of my postcards never received any response, I continue to do this for the 10% who did respond, and kindly agreed to plant trees,” he mentions.
Rambhai began his journey of growing trees when he was 10 years old, when his mother gave him a neem sapling, and informed him that he was responsible for the plant.
“That one neem tree gave me a strong sense of responsibility, and when I watched it grow along with me I was ecstatic. Even today, that neem tree stands strong outside my home,” says Rambhai.
During high school, when he learnt that the forest department nurseries provide tree saplings for free, he took an oath to plant 100 trees every day.
“I would go around my village, and plant trees near my neighbours home, around schools, playgrounds, and farms. I knew I could not look after all those saplings by myself, so I reached out for help from the people of Sabarkantha district. My neighbours and friends agreed to nurture at least 10 saplings around their area for one year. After one year, the tree is self-sufficient to grow on its own,” says Rambhai.
In 1982, when he started doing this around farms, villagers were worried about losing their farmlands to all the trees he was planting. But worry turned to happiness when they found out that he had planted trees such as guava, lemon, and mango which became another source of income for the farmers.
In the early 90’s, Rambhai joined the NS Patel High School, as an environmental education teacher. At this school, he was made the head of the eco-club and soon went on to become district head for eco-clubs in Sabarkantha.
As part of club activities, Rambhai ensured each student planted one sapling, watered it daily, and fed a handful of grains to birds.
“We conducted a tree plantation drive for all the eco clubs in the district. More than 15,000 students and 250 teachers were present to plant more than 5 lakh saplings. The fruit-bearing trees were planted along the river canals, streets, and schools. The non-fruit bearing trees were planted along the river embankment, which protects the village from flooding. The saplings were nurtured by volunteers who were living near that area,” says Rambhai.
Manish Soni, a resident of Himmantnagar in Sabarkantha District, has known Rambhai Charan for the last 20 years. He says, “Rambhai ji is solely responsible for all the mango trees growing in Himmatnagar. Many years ago he conducted a campaign to plant 100 mango tree saplings that he had procured from the Forest Department Nursery. Today, these trees provide fruits during summer, and shade round the year. He has also inspired me to sign letters with a request to plant trees, along with my name. Even letters written to government officials are signed with a request to grow more trees.”
Apart from that, he would take students to the nearby Jambughoda forest for overnight nature trips to understand wildlife and their dependency on forests. Rambhai took full responsibility for the safety of the students, and also provided them with food and shelter. In the late 90’s he held a cycle-rally to support the construction of the Narmada dam. He led a team of 35 students and cycled across 270 km in 10 days.
While he retired in 2017, Nalin Kant, the teacher who replaced him, has ensured that his legacy continues.
Nalin says, “Rambhai started a great mission, and I will ensure that it continues for as long as possible. The students of the eco-club are taking care of one plant each, and today the school campus has 5000 full-grown trees which were initially planted by him. He also visits the students once in a week, and encourages them to inspire others.”
Image courtesy: Rambhai Charan
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)