IF the economics of the situation is a yardstick, this frail, old woman deserves a decent home and more. A place where she could delight in the unequalled assets realised conscientiously over more than four decades. Sadly, at 70, Thimmakka's cup of woes almost runneth over. Living in a shanty with no one to call her own, with eyesight failing, she has no immediate means of communication and the nearest point of civilisation, Kudur, is four km away. Her village, Hulikal, about 70 km from Bangalore, with its smattering of poor cattle-tending families and a largely arid landscape, lacks even a primary health centre.
Nothing unusual, one would say about the travails of Thimmakka and her village, which doesn't even have the geographical advantage of being located on a national highway. But she is no ordinary village woman. She has an unsurpassed credit to her name—a row of 284 sturdy banyan trees, which she has lovingly tended against all odds, from mere saplings to a sweeping canopy.
Thanks to her unusual labour of love, this illiterate woman is the idol of every environmentalist. She began raising the trees about 50 years ago to atone for her and her odd-job lab-ourer husband Chikkaiah's childlessness. This meant trekking a couple of km daily to find water for the saplings: 400 of them along a four-km stretch from Hulikal to Kudur. Still, over time, about 100 plants fell prey to vagaries of the weather and human avarice.
The capital thus wrought by this "Green Icon" is priceless. "The net value of these trees is about Rs 15 lakh because banyan trees are used either for packaging or as firewood. But if you factor in the cumulative effect on the environment in terms of oxygen output, soil conservation, recharging the ground water, a green canopy giving birds ample space for nests, then they are worth crores of rupees," says Nagaraj Hampole, deputy conservator of forests, Bangalore-Rural. The years of toil have yielded a late harvest. In time, as 284 banyan trees grew tall, plaudits began to pour in. A "living monument of our times" is how the citation of National Citizen's Award, a panel chaired by former chief justice P.N. Bhagwati, describes Thimmakka. Titles like Vanamitra, Nisargaratna, Vrikshasri and Vrikshapremi, an award by Karnataka government, have been conferred on her. In January '99, a $300 award as Reader's Digest's "Hero for Today" was handed over to this woman.
For one who barely set out of her village once a year, Thimmakka now finds her way to Delhi and Mumbai for tree planting ceremonies. Citations now adorn the walls of her one-room hut. But after her husband expired eight years ago, she barely ekes out a living from various awards and a monthly pension of Rs 75. But nothing stops her from dreaming big. She has been seeking the local panchayat's approval for the construction of a hospital. The asset will be realised with the help of funds deposited by Canara Bank and other agencies as awards. A trust has been set up to secure land and for construction of the hospital. "Officials tell me they can't build a hospital here for there's one in Kudur, and that these two should be 8 km apart. But I know how two women went into labour here because they couldn't reach the next town," she says.
And along with battling the insensitive panchayat and red tapism, Thimmakka is busy spreading the message of afforestation. She chose the banyan tree for the species was freely available then. Besides, banyan, or the "bodhi" tree, is revered in India. When the skies opened up, she built a bund to store water for visitors to Hulikal's annual fair. She also fed stray cattle. All this in the hope that she would have a child. But today she says: "I have enough children (a reference to the 284 trees), now you too must achieve punya." Saalumarada Thimmakka (the one who planted a row of trees) has never heard of Sunderlal Bahuguna or any environmentalist. But as she soldiers on with plans of tending to a dozen more saplings around Hulikal, she unassumingly suggests that everybody should leave behind some asset for humanity. If you want to contribute to her crusade, contact Saalumarada Thimmakka, Hulikal-561101, Kudur, Hubli, Magadi Taluk, Bangalore-Rural dist.