A few years ago, the arid village of Piplantri, which lies a few hundred kilometres south of Jaipur in the western Indian state of Rajasthan, welcomed a new-born girl baby with the phrase - “Arey mera bhaag phutgaya”, or “Oh! misfortune has struck me”. The birth of a girl was considered not a moment of joy but one of misery, misfortune and punishment bestowed upon a family for bad ‘karma’. This was reflective of the larger gender-crisis trend in Asia where boys are preferred over girls.
Fortunately, that trend has changed, and so has the area surrounding the village. Visibly greener, the village celebrates the birth of each girl as an event equivalent to goddess Lakshmi (the Hindu goddess of wealth) visiting their home to bless them. So, how did this village change its attitude towards girls and at the same time save its environment?
A one-man mission
Piplantri’s transformational journey began in 2006 as a one-man initiative led by Shyam Sundar Paliwal, who was also the village head at the time. Having lost his beloved daughter earlier in the year, Paliwal channelled his grief into planting trees in her memory and nurturing them.
After losing his daughter in 2006, Shyam Sundar Paliwal embarked on a campaign to plant trees and change mindsets.
“The birth of a girl in the village was always seen as a financial burden since parents had to bear the cost of marriage, while the safety of these girls worried them even more,” recalls Paliwal.
After his daughter’s death, Paliwal vowed to make Piplantri celebrate its women. As the village head, he started a campaign to plant 111 trees for the birth of every girl child in his village. He explains that 111 is considered not just an auspicious number, but 1+1+1 represents the coming together of three main stakeholders of this initiative - the girl child, her mother and her father.
An investment for the future
Additionally, for every girl born, the community collects 21,000 Indian Rupees or USD 294 through donations and 10,000 Indian Rupees or USD 140 from the parents, which is then put aside as an investment for when she becomes an adult. The parents also pledge to provide her with an education and nurture the trees planted in her name.
Attitudes towards having a baby girl have changed since the initiative began.
Paliwal says the girls in the village grow up treating the trees planted on the day of their birth as a member of the family.
“Every year we conduct an environment festival where the girls tie a ‘Rakhi’ to the tree (a ceremony where girls tie a thread to the wrist of their brothers who in turn take a pledge to protect them) in the presence of their parents,” he says.
To date, around 100,000 trees have been planted in the name of the girls born in the village and an additional 250,000 trees have been planted under various other environmental initiatives.
What started out as a social initiative has also had a far-reaching effect on restoring the ecological balance of the village and meeting several other needs of the people. The planting of the trees coupled with the community’s water harvesting and restoration efforts has significantly improved the water table in the village. Birds and animals which had all but disappeared are now coming back in rising numbers. Villagers claim that the air in the region also seems fresh, with the trees providing cleaner air to breathe.
Young men and women must now swear an oath to protect their sisters.
Recently, the Earthday Network - India recognised Piplantri as its Earth Day Network Star Village for its unique approach to pressing issues of female infanticide and environmental degradation. "Earth Day Network commemorates its 50th anniversary in 2020. In India, one of the initiatives aims to showcase the efforts of rural communities at the forefront of the climate crisis. Piplantri is one such village recognised as an Earth Day Network Star Village," said Karuna A Singh, Regional Director Asia & Country Director, India.
Globally, both gender equality and environment issues continue to gather strong voices and support from all corners. Piplantri’s approach to addressing socio-economic issues is a unique model that is not only sustainable and commendable but also one which can be easily replicated anywhere in the world.
Text: Rukmini Rao
Photography: Shyam Sundar Paliwal and Earthday India