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Telling children how not to go the dodo way


By Amena Jayal
Published: Friday 31 December 1993

-- ANY ATTEMPT at promoting awareness of the interdependence of humans and the environment is a welcome step. This is especially true of the need to tell children about the harm that has been done to the once-good earth by generations of Homo sapiens -- the only species that is mentally and physically equipped to either destroy or save it.

The Centre for Science and Environment has taken one such step with its recent launch of the first four of ten books on the environment for children. The series aims at making children aware that without committed nature-people interaction, all life on earth is doomed to go the way of the dodo.
Actual events Each of the titles -- Naina's Village, The Raindrop, Within The Well and Chipko! -- is based on actual events, but names have been changed to protect identities. The story-book style of presentation in no way misrepresents or underplays the importance of conserving our limited natural resources because regional, cultural, historical and developmental authenticity has been meticulously researched and maintained.

From the plethora of text-credits -- Priti Jain, Feisal Alkazi, Martha Farrell, Kaushalya Ramdas and Shveta Kalyanwala -- authorship of each of the books is seen clearly as a joint, rather than individual, effort. This, too, speaks volumes for the sincerity of purpose behind the project.

The first book in the series, Naina's Village, is based on the study of an actual village that lies south-west of the Alaknanda river. Peeda (the name given to the village) is home to Sunny (a.k.a. Ram Lal), a 13-year-old Pahadi boy who hero-worships actor Sunny Deol (hence the unlikely name!). Sunny meets and befriends Anusha and Abhay, a teenage brother and sister from Delhi, who are on their way up to Badrinath with their mother and grandmother.

As the story unfolds, we learn how the winds of change are affecting the day-to-day lives of the simple pastoral folk who have lived for centuries in this remote mountain region. "Taking the sheep so far away into the Himalayan pastures and leading pilgrims on the road to Badrinath had been a source of livelihood for them, part of their annual cycle that balanced the needs of animals, man and nature. But now...the mountain man had become unimportant, his job had become one of only catering to the needs of the city dweller, selling firewood like Sunny.... How things change suddenly! And for no fault of these people..."

The Raindrop is the true story of Sukhomajri, an arid village at the base of the Shivaliks. "For over a hundred years there had been war between people and nature creating vast wastelands...there were only a few fields left for kheti-bari, the boys had to take the goats to graze to the far mud gullies, as grass for grazing was becoming less near the village...Change had to come."
Water crisis And what triggers it off is the "looming water crisis" that threatens Chandigarh -- just 30 kilometres away from Sukhomajri. Mishra, "a kind-hearted man, who firmly believed that each tree is a poem", heads a team of soil and water experts who are given the responsibility of finding a solution to Chandigarh's water problems and a cure for the silting up of Sukhna lake, the "pride and joy of the city".

Their search leads them to the eroded hillsides and arid fields of Sukhomajri, where "with barely one crop and hardly any water, firewood or fodder throughout the year, life is becoming more and more difficult". The way in which the city dwellers and the village folk work together to tackle their common problem provides the fabric of the story of the miracle of Sukhomajri. Today, this once-barren village is a bountiful, living legend and an inspiration for many of the villages in other parts of the country.

Jodhpur provides the setting for Within The Well. The main protagonists of the story are Suraj, Vikram, Nandini and Himmat, a group of college students, and Salman, a young Mehrasi or traditional folksinger of Borunda. The narrative centres round the reclamation of the old well at Bhimji-ka-mohalla, Tapi Bavdi, from which they and several young college students are helping to clear hundreds of truckloads of accumulated garbage and debris.

Salman tells Himmat and Nandini, "Ever since I remember, Jodhpur has had a water shortage. It was always a question of no rain or a little rain" -- the result, it was believed, of a sadhu's curse. Wells like the Tapi Bavdi at one time had been the only source of potable water. But when piped water first came to every home in the urban municipal area, the bavdis were neglected and forgotten until in one of the worst droughts in the region, the taps ran dry and "ghadas rang out hollow sounds." Out of sheer desperation, two wells had been cleared and proved to be a life-saving source of clear groundwater. Now Tapi Bavdi, too, would serve the city of Jodhpur with clear, clean water as it had done for more than 400 years.

Legends, folklore and tales of days gone by weave in and out of the central theme of this book, in perfect harmony with the individual real-life experiences the four friends share with each other, until the time when, their work accomplished, they go their separate ways.

The fourth title, Chipko!, tells the inspiring story of how the brave villagers of Gopeshwar in the Garhwal Himalaya saved their ancestral forests from the contractors' axe by hugging the trees.

Bachao! Bachao!
Save them from that terrible axe,
The pine, the rhododendron, the oak...
...The only answer now -- Chipko!

In 1970, "the deafening roar of swirling angry waters had echoed amidst the world's highest mountains". The Alaknanda river in the Himalaya burst its banks in a flash flood that swallowed "trees, homes, bridges, buses, animals and people, leaving behind a trail of destruction".

Three years later, four young friends -- Lala Ram, Nandi, Bhaga and Gopal -- were up with the rising sun to look, as was their wont, for herbs in the meadow at the edge of forest, high above their village. "Do you realise that in search of these small plants, we now have to walk higher up these hills?" asks Gopal. Nandi replies that with so many trees being cut by contractors from the plains, they had to walk further and higher in search for the fuels and herbs.

The story tells how the villagers handle this and other allied problems to save their mountain home from further destruction, blended with vignettes drawn from the interlinking of their lives with the survival of the trees that sustain them.

The activity sheets provided with each of the books make an attractive and interesting addition to the series -- one that is likely to turn budding naturalists into ardent conservationists by involving them in simple, achievable and positive environmental action.

If there is one fault, it is Reenie's unnecessarily acerbic cartoon style of illustration in Within the Well, Chipko and The Raindrop. These neither flesh out the characters convincingly nor fully exploit the picturesque milieus in which the action takes place. Stephen Marrazi's colour illustrations in The Raindrop and Nita Gangopadhya's more graphic illustrations for Naina's Village come much closer to doing both.

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