Back in 2017, when Pradeep Kumar Rath retired after serving as a Deputy Chief Labour Commissioner in the East India division, he knew his path wouldn’t be a conventional one.
“My conscience told me that after serving the country for so many years, it was finally my time to give back to the environment. I knew I had to do something for nature,” he tells The Better India.
So, Pradeep started an NGO called ‘Paribesh Suraksha Sbhijan’, under which he has planted more than 60,000 trees in rural parts of Odisha. He has incubated nearly 40,000 women and children from rural backgrounds who sow and preserve the trees.
“Initially, I reached out to many of my retired friends, but no one turned up. I remembered the famous song which goes ‘Jodi tor dak shune keu na ase tobe ekla cholo re’ that means if there’s no one with you, then start walking alone. And so, I started small, contacting nearby nurseries and schools, where I could reach out to kids who could volunteer,” the 66-year-old recalls.
He conducted seminars and planted trees at various schools near Bhubaneswar like St Xavier School, DAV school, and Central School in Puri.
“Then, I thought of a new concept. I wondered why is there just ‘corporate social responsibility’ (CSR); there should be ‘individual social responsibility’ (ISR) too. So, I decided to spread the ISR message in schools, as students are the future of the country and would serve as environment soldiers,” he says.
All along, Pradeep constantly posted his work on Facebook, which attracted many volunteers.
Reaching out to rural Odisha
Initially, his operations were limited only to urban areas, which changed when he met a friend, also a former DG of the forest department, Sidhant Das.
“He shed light on the fact that people in rural areas are practically unaware that the environment is in danger. They don’t know the importance of nature conservation. They link climate change consequences to the gods and not to human actions. That day onwards, we moved our focus to rural areas,” says Pradeep.
He decided to involve school-going kids because educating the younger generation would be as good as educating the future youth.
“To our surprise, headmasters and teachers welcomed us. Even the students admired our work and were really responsive and enthusiastic. We would conduct awareness sessions and then sow trees. It turned out to be a great success,” he says.
“But, we realised that the survival rate of these new trees was only 70 percent because they were neglected after the planting activity. To find a solution to this problem we approached the village women and Self Help Groups (SHG). We provided them with one fruit-bearing plant like guava, lemon, mango etc and asked them to plant and take care of them. The result was great, all the trees survived,” he continues, “There’s no denying the fact that women are more caring than anyone, which I think is the reason for their success.”
He further says, “In Odisha, neem trees are used to make idols of Lord Jagannath and are called Daru Brahma. So, I used divine stories to explain the importance of nature; it worked. Soon, we collaborated with another organisation and spread the message, ‘One tree for the lord’. We convinced the priest also and hence, this was also a successful run.”
Pradeep has conducted many awareness programs and rallies. He has planted trees in Kakhadi village, Chuladhara village, Satyabhamapur, Cuttack district, Puri district, Jagatsinghpur district, Balasore District, and Sambalpur district.
The motivation to keep going
“Of course, like most senior persons, retirement seems good, but it was not my calling. I knew from the start what I wanted to do. I retired in 2017 and within just a few weeks, I started this work,” he says.
Talking about what keeps him motivated, Pradeep says, “We go to the villages with an aim of identifying our environment soldiers who will carry our mission forward. We even encouraged grandmothers to plant trees in the name of their grandchildren. They would tell me that they were happy to see the tree grow, knowing it would bear fruits that their grandchildren will one day consume. Such things keep me going! We do not have fundraisers — it is all pensioners’ and volunteers’ money.”
“The happiness of seeing a tree, that you planted, grow gives immense pleasure. The day the ‘individual social responsibility’ becomes ‘community social responsibility’, and people come together as one to save the environment, I will rest easy, and my job will be done,” says Pradeep.
If you wish to volunteer or donate to Pradeep’s cause, you can reach him here.
Edited by Pranita Bhat