If you walk into Raanmala village in Khed taluka near Pune, the large number of trees in the area will surely grab your attention. You may be even more surprised to see that every tree has a name on it, and is tagged with the memory associated with it.
The credit goes to Popat Shinde, a retired Zilla Parishad (ZP) teacher who took up the cause of greening the village, which is about 50 km from Pune.
“I started working as a ZP teacher when I was 18 years old. After completing 25 years of service in 1996, I took voluntary retirement to take up social causes,” says Popat.
“It was my partner, also a ZP teacher, who suggested that I take voluntary retirement and dedicate myself to social work. She assured me that our family of five, including two daughters and a son, could sustain itself on her income alone.” he recollects.
“Every weekend after we returned from our school duties, my husband would finish his meal and rush for tree plantation drives or other works. We only had a bicycle then, and to buy groceries, vegetables and finishing household chores along with social work became difficult to manage,” said Mangala, Popat’s wife.
Mangala said many people have single partner incomes and they manage well. “My salary was about Rs 4,000 and we decided to run the family on the same. Many people and close friends objected and also expressed doubts about the decision,” she adds. But she was firm.
With such strong support behind him, and after some reflection, Popat took the plunge.
“The initial issue to address was the stench due to open defecation and sewage water pits in the fringes of the village. I planted some tree saplings to take care of the foul smell and the decomposing human waste,” he said, adding that some weeks later, women from the village volunteered to take care of the tree.
Popat said residents living nearby saw the difference in the air and began to join his cause, but there was still some reluctance.
“Until 2004, I donated many saplings, asking villagers to plant them in their yard or porch. But did not evoke much response,” he said.
Undeterred, the social worker got an idea one day while listening to a song on the radio.
“I realised that people need to have some connection with the tree. I decided to donate saplings with fruit species rather than just native species. I also suggested that saplings get planted on birthdays, after exam results were announced, during weddings, when someone got a job or any good event,” he said.
One of his aides, Suresh Gore, agreed to bear the cost of the saplings, while Popat spread awareness.
Popat said people started taking a note of the saplings after that and agreed to look after them.
“People started putting boards signifying the occasion and the memory associated with it. Some people also started planting trees in memory of loved ones who passed away. One person even planted a tree in memory of his cow,” he said.
Since 2004, the villagers have planted 1. 8 lakh trees in the village, outskirts, entrance and neighbouring three hills, the majority of which have grown into trees benefiting residents.
The villagers have also contributed in donating 14,300 saplings.
On 1 March, 2020, the government of Maharashtra issued directives to replicate the model in other villages of the state and also urban spaces in the city.
“It was the reward for years of hard work and dedication that every villager put in to bring green cover to the village,” Popat says.
The residents of the village, 1600 strong, feel not only did they get pure air, but they also got multiple benefits out of the exercise.
“The village was known to have water scarcity for over three decades. The groundwater recharge capacity increased over four years reducing the dependence on water tankers,” says Ulhas Shinde, a farmer and resident of the village.
Ulhas also added how the shade kept farm soil most, requiring less water for irrigation.
“I have six fully grown mango trees in the backyard. My family donates saplings every year for the green cause,” he adds.
Jayshree Daundkar, another resident in the village, said, “The difference was visible in the environment and greenery in the village. Besides, we also got fruit from trees which is economically beneficial too.”
“We have also imbibed the same values among the next generation to continue with the mission to improve the environment,” she adds.
(Edited by Vinayak Hegde)