For over 35 years, Visheshwar Sakiani has worked to bring greenery back to Pujar Village and its surroundings in Tehri Garhwal. With his own energy and meagre resources, Saklani has transformed devastated landscapes into dense forests of oak, rhododendron, chir pine and fruit trees. In recognition of his contribution to the nature conservation, Sakiani was recently given the Briksh-Mitra (“Friend of the Trees”) Award by India’s Department of the Environment.
Yet last year, the Forest Department of Uttar Pradesh launched a case of illegal encroachment against this man, who has done more than most to protect the forest heritage of Garhwal.
Saklani’s crusade is a story of a man fighting mountainous odds. First, he had to face the ridicule and wrath of his own fellow villagers for controlling grazing and fodder collection in the initial phase of Pujar Forest’s revival.
Among the villagers were those who wanted to take immediate advantage of the protected forest. Their hostility knew no bounds and once they even had Saklani severely beaten. “Had my daughter not saved me at just the right time, I would have died that day,” recalls Saklani.
The Forest Department’s ire is that Sakiani did not distinguish between his own land, the village community land, and the land under the Department’s control. To him, an eroded hillside was an eroded hillside in need of “rest” and rejuvenation. Saklani’s attitude once earned him a fine from the Department.
The immediate cause of the suit against Sakiani is a memorial that was placed in Pujar Forest, dedicated to the Indian freedom fighter and martyr Nagendra Sakiani, Visheshwar Saklani’s brother. The modest monument was in-augurated by Chipko leader Sunderlal Bahuguna in 1984.
From the very start, the Forest Department took a very hostile attitude towards this small monument, alleging that it was built on its land. The Department asked Sakiani to remove it. In doing so, the Department firstly did not consider the great service of Narendra Sakalani to the freedom movement. Secondly, it forgot the great service that his surviving brother was doing as a guardian of the forest, at not a paisa’s cost to the Department. The Department officials have made this man, aged and in poor health, keep court dates and go through the whole gamut of legalistic runarounds.
Though old, weak and confronted with these obstacles, Saklani is not about to give up. His love of forests have deep roots that cannot so easily be stilled. He was born to a family which greatly valued the protection of trees. But the inspiration for his future work came when his wife died of tuberculosis and left him a shattered man. Sakiani used to wander about in the neighbourhood forest, stopping at places where his wife had rested. During one such wandering, he fell asleep in the forest. He awoke a changed man, with a determination to devote his life to the forest. Speaking of that moment, Saklani says, “Poetry was on my lips, the restlessness and confusion had vanished.”
Bharat Dogra is editor of the Delhi-based News from Fields and Slums (NES), which provides news features from the grassroots in India.