There is a huge gap of information and availability in the afforestation process. Tracking the botanical names of fodder species the village community is so confident about, is a task in itself.

The story simply begins when you see the barren hills in the area of Bhimtal, District Nainital, Uttarakhand. There are no options. They need greening.
It is rare for an “outsider” to have an opportunity to meet nearly 15 women village chiefs together. That is when we met an inspiring lady, Parvatidevi, Gram Pradhan (Village Chief) of Songaon at the time. She was the first to take the proactive steps ahead, when discussions around a pilot for home-based participatory tree planting started.
The understanding was people would receive exactly what they wished for. Many said they had never been asked which trees they wished to plant. The detailed list was a judicious mix of mainly fodder trees. In leaf-fall season, women trudge long distances collecting fallen leaves. Trudging back carrying huge bales. For the rest of the year, they buy fodder.
Chandan heard about these conversations and asked: “What about trees for our village, Bilaspur?” Another village meeting and one more dynamic person, Jeevan Paladia, Gram Pradhan of a neighbouring village then. The Bilaspur village list had a mix of fodder, fruit and some trees that people said were becoming extinct but were traditional favourites.
In the case of village Thapaliya Mehragaon, people asked only for fruit trees. In the past, they had been involved in large-scale oak planting around the Naukuchiatal lake, which later became a huge oak forest. Now they were looking for “income-earning” trees.
Then began the rounds of officials. Forest department in the capital, at the district level, and influential senior ex-bureaucrats. The forest department was provided the detailed village lists. The big concern was the demand for fruit trees, technically not under their jurisdiction. The forest department was very reassuring and even offered to take care of the delivery to the nearest road-head of each village.
On delivery day, there was an unexpected turn of events. The saplings had not been segregated village-wise in the truck. One lot of saplings were randomly downloaded at the village Songaon road-head. None matched the wide-leafed fodder trees requested for. We rushed to catch the second point at Bilaspur. A few people were standing around and Jeevan Paladia was himself off-loading the saplings.
We immediately heard murmurs. The saplings did not match the village list. As we enquired, the conversation became sharper. It was clear no one was going to plant these trees on their land – they had no use for them.
Jeevan Paladia was visibly concerned how this situation could be retrieved, if at all. He chatted with us for a while. It was decided that since saplings had come, they must not die. They must be planted. He assured us that they would be transported to a suitable site near his home in a neighbouring village, where they would all be planted and cared for on village land.
Ahead was the off-loading at village Thapaliya Mehragaon. Within minutes, there was mockery, laughter and disdain. People repeatedly spoke of how “they [the forest department] had sent thorny species that we weed out from the forests”.
Seeing the discord, a local person, a forest guard, said that if we could arrange to cover labour costs, he would arrange to have the planting of at least the suitable saplings done on the village forest land (van panchayat land).
A few days later, Ramesh Brijwasi informed us that the pits were ready. The first stop was the primary school to pick up the children for planting. The head had not been informed and had no clue of our plans. After a patient hearing, she readily agreed and lined up the children to go for planting. It was a great trek up to the van panchayat land.
The children really enjoyed the idea of naming the saplings and performing a traditional ritual around each of them. It was cute to hear the names—probably that of their best friends…Babita, Ayush, Bhumika, Mehul…
A few days later, Jeevan Paladia said he was ready to have the saplings planted in his village. He was confident of an ad hoc way of “catching children on the way home from school”. He managed to do that in his capacity of Gram Pradhan. The children took the saplings, did what was to be done and went their way.
Meanwhile, Jeevan Paladia said, to save face with the community, we should try and get at least some of the previously promised saplings. There were no two questions about that. In comes Puranchandra Joshi, a highly motivated nursery owner.
Puran had a similar experience in spite of his own great expectations of “Guruji”, who was unable to provide the wish-list. Puran went into a spin contacting people far and near to access the maximum possible. He could not get everything.
Finally, only 1,628 saplings were planted. Less than half have survived. Not even a drop in the ocean. The lessons learnt were huge.
There is a huge gap of information and availability in the afforestation process. Tracking the botanical names of fodder species the village community is so confident about, is a task in itself. These species are not easily available, are becoming extinct or are growing / not growing in different locales / heights due to climate change.
There is a total disconnect of the Department of Forests with the people. Successful afforestation needs a shift from concepts of large-scale plantations to developing micro ranges around each village. Local knowledge cannot be taken lightly or brushed aside.
Puran had said that CAMPA Funds (Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority) are not just under-utilised but a huge scam. In 2019, The Minister of Environment & Forests had said, “…we will ensure that CAMPA Funds of about Rs. 47,000 crores will be utilised efficiently for green India”. Who is thinking and who is doing what…

Neelima Mathur is an India-based Executive Producer, Researcher, Writer, Mentor and Trainer for documentary and NGO films. She is also Festival Director of the Lakeside Doc Festival.