Reviving nature

A professor heralds hope and greenery into a remote Orissa village to set it free from a web of untouchability, superstition, illiteracy and poverty

Published: Tuesday 29 February 2000

Reviving nature

an ardent follower of Gandhian principles, Narayan Hazary's work reflects the magnanimity and vision of his mentor. Born in Kesharpur, a small village situated in the foothills of Binhagiri in Nayagarh district, Orissa, Hazary, 63, has been working since his late teens to restore prosperity in his village. Today, thanks to Hazary's persistent efforts, the villagers are self-dependent and aware about their rights. They have not only taken up village self-governance but, having realised the immense value of safeguarding their ecology, have embarked on a number of ventures to restore the greenery in and around their villages.

Talking about his motivation, Hazary recalls incidents from his childhood (probably around the early 1940s) when wild animals like leopards and tigers from the dense surrounding forests were known to stray into human settlements. A number of streams also ran down the neighbouring hills. All that changed after Independence. As a youngster, he remembers the swift disappearance of the lush green cover surrounding his village.

Hazary observes that post-Independence, once the people got free access to the forests, felling of trees became rampant as human settlements spread and the need for cultivable land grew. By the late 1950s, the Binhagiri and Malati forests, stretching across 390 hectares, were completely devastated and the villagers had started to grow paddy on the slopes of the hills which had been stripped bare of the rich flora and fauna. Wildlife had also disappeared.

Following the destruction of the forests the villagers, however, faced numerous troubles as soil erosion started to take place and the streams dried up, adversely affecting the crop yield. Worse still, groundwater levels dropped from 6 metres to 18 metres, plunging the village into a severe water crisis. Non-availability of firewood made life difficult for the villagers and there was almost no fodder to feed the cattle and goats. Further, the lack of irrigation facilities made cultivation impossible resulting in a deterioration of the financial condition of the villagers.
The man with a mission At around this time, a young Hazary decided to work with the poor, illiterate villagers towards the development of the village. He founded a non-governmental organisation in Kesharpur called Bhuksha 'O' Jeevar Bandhu Parishad ( bojbp ) and, realising the importance of education, he started the first school in the village in 1954 with the help of elders and family members. The main purpose was to educate the children on the importance of the environment. In 1957, Hazary set up the Despran Madhusadan Library in Kesharpur and also the Pragati Sishu Sangh for children. To encourage people's participation in his venture, Hazary established a Gram Sevak Sangh of volunteer workers for village development.

Hazary courted a lot of controversy with his ideas of social reform. What drew severe criticism from the predominantly Telegu society was his introduction of widow remarriage. "He was boycotted by the Telegu families. In the initial days, Hazary was also pelted with stones for this move and to date they hate him," says Joginath Sahoo, headmaster of the Gopabandhu M E School in Kesharpur. Undaunted, Hazary continued to address several other maladies of his village community. One was untouchability, and in order to drive his point home, Hazary, himself from an orthodox Telegu family, dined with a family of Harijans.

Finally in 1972, Hazary (then a pro fessor with the Utkal University) initiated a mass movement towards the resurrection of the environment under the banner Buddhagram Environmental Movement. Realising that ecological degradation had led to the sorry state of affairs, he took it upon himself to motivate the villagers towards regenerating the green cover in and around the village. Each individual of the village helped to plant trees. So much so, that even the village women stopped passers-by with the request to plant at least one tree. In the neighbouring Binhagiri forest, as the roots of trees were present, special care was devoted to make them grow into trees. But for the regeneration of the Malati forest hills, the villagers had to wait till 1978 for the forest department to provide seedlings for planting in the region. However, within five years the greenery began to show again.

To assist him, Hazary organised around 20 young people for starting work on the development of Kesharpur village. Their services included repairing roads, renovating water tanks, cleaning public places and educating the local people. He also introduced the concept of "village democracy" wherein the affairs of the village are conducted by people elected by the villagers themselves. Towards this end, each family head of the village was asked to nominate seven people from the Kesharpur village -- five for administrative purposes and the remaining two as secretaries. The person who got the maximum votes was elected president or "gramini" of the village committee for a year. The committee produced fiscal support for its developmental and cultural activities by selling the produce from around two hectares of common village farm.
Towards a better future Today, after years of hard work, the village can boast of lower, upper and higher primary schools as well as a middle English school. Plans are also afoot to open a women's college. Financial support for the ventures come from a number of non-governmental organisations ( ngo s) like the Swedish Environmental Development Agency ( seda ).

In 1982, a hospital was also built in the area with around Rs 90,000 collected from 10 villages in the Kalika Prasad Gram Panchayat. But perhaps the most notable achievement has been in the improvement of the status of the village women. Having crossed the threshold of their homes, they now participate in campaigns and play a vital role in the village committee's activities.

With the return of greenery, a number of streams have also reappeared -- the "Jharchandi Khol" has started to flow after 20 years. The streams ensure that water in the village tanks and ponds never dry up. With increase in the number of trees, soil erosion has been effectively prevented and the level of groundwater has risen. A good yield of crops keep the farmers happy the year round and, now that the forests have been rejuvenated, they also don't need to buy fodder for the cattle from the market.

Having laid the initial groundwork for the development work, Hazary took by teaching political science in the Nagaland University. He, however, remains the guiding force behind all activities carried out in the region.

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