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'When An Adivasi Cuts One Tree, He Plants 10 In Its Place': Simon Oraon

Simon Oraon and his companions collectively protected the forests for years. They deployed four guards for the jungles, who received 20 baskets of rice as monthly wages. A portrait of an extraordinary life, Simon Oraon is an example to us all.

President Pranab Mukherjee presenting the Padma Shri Award to Shri Simon Oraon on April 12, 2016
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The Sadri word ‘sele’ roughly translates to ‘therefore.’ I heard it for the first time, and later repeatedly, from Padma Shri Simon Oraon. When he repeated this word after every two-three sentences in a discussion, the narrative seemed to gel together with clarity and ease. “When the forests are gone, there would be no rain, no water, sele (therefore) forests are essential, and sele we say in our meetings that if you cut one tree, plant 10 in its place,” for example.

This is how I got the hang of sele after meeting him in 2019-20. After that, whenever I listen to an elderly person speaking on the issue of land, water and forest (natural resources), it instantly reminds me of my half a dozen encounters with Simon.

The second thing that I always mention when talking about him is why he at first refused India’s fourth highest honour, the Padma Shri. Simon Oraon told me that once the Padma Shri was announced, his economic problems increased. He said that the Padma Shri could not feed him, and if it has to be given, it should be given to the lakhs of people who stand beside him in his work. This is the argument he made while refusing the award. Later, he finally agreed to accept it after much coaxing by people.

Simon, 87, is in the final stages of his life now, with his memory also failing him. In July, he suffered a paralytic attack that left him bedridden. Popularly known as the ‘Waterman’ in villages, nationally and internationally, his stature is evident from the fact that the governor of Jharkhand came to meet him when he was admitted at the Rajendra Institute of Medical Sciences in Ranchi.

Oraon, who has dedicated his entire life to nature and environment, was awarded the Padma Shri in 2016. The countless honours that he has received before and after that can be seen hanging in the form of commendations and newspaper cuttings on the walls of his house in the village of Bero, about 45 kilometres from Ranchi. He has had a long history of preserving forest, land and water resources. Between 1955-70, he worked together with other villagers to build a number of dams, tanks and wells. His work received acclaim both in the country and overseas, and in 2002 he was chosen by The American Biographical Institute in North Carolina for the American Medal of Honour Limited Stroking.

Oraon hails from the Khaksi Toli village under the Hariharpur Jamtoli panchayat of the Bero block. He faced a lot of hardships in early life. At one point, the family was so poor that they had to divide one roti among four members, he says. He believes that a man’s biggest affliction is hunger and that no solution can be found on an empty stomach. Only when cereals fill up the belly, solutions appear. The agricultural production in the villages of the area was very low, which led Oraon to undertake the project of building reservoirs and wells.

Biju Toppo, a national award-winning film director, who made a 30-minute documentary on Oraon’s work, titled Jharia (Spring),” said that even though Baba (an affectionate title for the environmentalist) is not educated, he is a learned man. It is his contribution and value to the society which has been documented in the film, he added.

Toppo says “He (Oraon) talked to villagers and started digging small pits in the areas where no means of irrigation were available. The land was barren. To seek help, he went to the block office with the locals and asked officials to build dams so that the villagers could farm the land. However, the block (office) did not agree to build the kind of dams they wanted. Then Oraon held fresh meetings and decided to build dams and tanks that would have most of their catchment area in the north-south direction, so that the water flowing from mountain streams could be trapped. In order to ensure that the water reached the fields, Baba first stored the rainwater flowing through the mountains into reservoirs and tanks, and then lifted them up to the wells. Subsequently, motor pumps were used to take this water to the fields. As a result, the seven villages (Hariharpur, Jamtoli, Khaksi Toli, Bair Toli, Harhanji, Khurha Toli and Bhasnanda) - where water sources have been constructed - are able to grow three crops a year and vegetables the year round. Earlier, they would struggle to grow even one crop well.”

Toppo says that later, Oraon’s work was recognised in other villages and cities and officials came forward with government help but by then he had already made history in preserving the natural resources of the area.

Oraon says about his early life that he had begun to run a plough by the age of seven and started building water tanks at the age of 15. By 1970, he had built three dams (Deshvali, Gayghat and Jharia), six tanks and 10 wells. Initially, when he started building dams with the help of locals, government officials would hinder the work. The activist says he even went to jail twice for the movement. However, with the single-minded efforts of the villagers, they were successful in building and managing water sources.

For the last seven years, Oraon has been living in his Bero Bazar house with wife Virginia Oraon (75) and granddaughter Angela (24). The rest of the family, including three sons, continues to live in their ancestral house in Khaksi Toli. Recently, after the community leader’s paralytic attack, his middle son Sudhir Oraon (48) moved to Bero to looks after his father.

When asked about government help, Sudhir says “We had applied for an Indira Awas (government-funded housing scheme for the poor) house, but it was allotted to only one of the brothers. My mother, Virginia, receives the elderly pension, but not my father. My father bore the government’s responsibility towards providing irrigation, reduced their work by half. He dug up a tank on our private land which irrigates the entire village today. Yet he has faced so many hardships.”

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The dire economic situation of the family has been covered by the media several times. Three years ago, his granddaughter was reduced to working as a domestic help in big cities. After this, local administration and leaders – including MLAs - visited Oraon’s house and some help was provided. Virginia began receiving the elderly pension. Within three years, a concrete house was built by the United Bank Officers’ Association next to the Bero Bazar kuchcha house Oraon was living in. These few measures can be listed as help by the authorities. However, Oraon has always been more concerned about the forests and environment than his own poverty. He has routinely criticised the government-backed ‘development’ as a recipe for the devastation of the environment.

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Oraon says that he and his companions collectively protected the forests for years. They deployed four guards for the jungles, who received 20 baskets of rice as monthly wages. The activist says: “God created the Earth, sky, jungle, river and streams and put humans in charge of them. But when the government took the responsibility of protecting the forests, it destroyed them in the name of development. The government does not plant trees to substitute the forests it destroys. While an Adivasi plants 10 trees for each one he has to cut.”

Simon Oraon is held to be the Pahda Raja. As per the Adivasi tradition, the village head is called Pahda in the Kurukh language. Oraon has been designated the Pahda Raja, or the elder that oversees several villages. He chairs meetings that resolve disputes from these villages, as people prefer to go to these bodies rather than police stations or courts. The activist says that without love, all the religions of the world are meaningless. He insists that nobody has stayed rich after getting entangled in court cases, as they are a straight road to ruin. An advocate of collective living and brotherhood, Oraon insists that politics and elections divide people along castes and religions, and thus destroy the peace and brotherhood in villages.

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(Translated from Hindi by Iqbal Abhimanyu)

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