Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Starting with One

I read about two people recently who undertook tasks that seem to require the patience and courage that's beyond most ordinary citizens. Imagine creating a whole forest! Imagine being an extremely vulnerable self-appointed guardian of a forest!

That's what Hara Dei Majhi is. She guards a wooded hill called Kapsi Dongar in Sinapalli, Odisha. According to a magazine profile of the brave woman, Majhi took on where her husband, Anang, left off. He had started planting trees on a barren patch at the foothills, even at the cost of foregoing wage labour or income through forest produce. He was too busy nurturing and patrolling the forest. He was killed by timber smugglers in 1995.

Ever since, Majhi has been protecting the forest herself, though in later years she also began to involve other villagers through the Kapsi Dongar Vana Surakshya Samittee.

The second story was about a man called Jadav Payeng from Assam. He created a forest, starting from scratch in 1979. According to another article, Payeng had witnessed the aftermath of flood as a teenager, and decided to do something. He began by planting bamboo on a sandbar, brought red ants to improve the soil, then introduced other plants. Wildlife followed naturally. The forest is called the Mulai woods and is reportedly home to birds, deer, rhinos, even elephants.

What both stories illustrate is that change – public change – often begins with an individual. Nothing ever gets done unless something shifts within one human soul. Somebody decides to do something by becoming a person who is not afraid to be the only person doing this, whether it is planting trees on an island or fighting off timber smugglers.

Who wants to risk their life if there's nothing in it for them? But that's exactly what some people do. Others may join the campaign, driven by a sense of communal duty. Or the awareness that everyone benefits from their efforts.

So much of our common benefits are owed to a few people who are fighting to give us whatever little forest cover India has. They gain little themselves, except what everyone living in the area might gain. And yet, most of us are too thick-headed and short-sighted to do our bit, even though it is in our own best interests.

A recent World Bank report has said that the cost of environmental degradation in India is about Rs 3.75 trillion a year. That would be about 5.7 percent of India’s GDP (gross domestic product). The degradation would include not just air pollution – though that is the most obvious contributor to the damage – but also water and soil, as well as forest and cropland degradation.

We pay the price with our health (not to mention hospital bills). Still, most of us do nothing to reverse the damage. We neither plant trees nor fight to save them. And this ought to surprise us. An illiterate woman, armed with nothing but a stick, can save a forest. A teenager can create a whole forest. Why is it that our college degrees, our awareness of World Bank reports, our relative affluence – none of it arms us with courage or initiative?


Perhaps the difference is that Majhi and Payeng acted as individuals, doing whatever needing doing. Courage and passion are not mass emotions, after all. A 'system' or a government can only reward initiative or bolster courage where it already exists. If only there was a way of teaching ourselves how to be more self-centered when it came to taking responsibility for change, rather than just focussing on how much we suffer because of nobody else will work towards this change.

First published here

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