Dipti Paridhi Kindo, PMRDF at Ranchi Rural
For the past five decades, Simon Oraon, a tribal head of clan, has taught 51 villages in Bero area of Ranchi district to protect their environment using various means. Popularly known as “Baba” (father), also as Jharkhand’s Anna Hazare, he is working towards better rainwater harvesting and conservation of the natural flora.
Khaksitoli in Bero block, a small village situated 34 kilometres from Ranchi, has given a new life to the farmers nearby after leading a movement for conservation of rain water, primarily for use in irrigation. In 2009, when drought led to the prowling of government food stores in Jharkhand and turned much of Jharkhand into a wasteland, Bero area was an exception. Farmlands here stood in severe contrast as rain-failure forced many to flee their homes. Bero people enjoyed a golden harvest in spite of the drought.
Simon grew up seeing his relatives and neighbors’ growing a mono crop of paddy that too with frequent failures. The forest cover had been lost to felling of trees. In the post-monsoon period, most villagers would migrate to distant areas in search of jobs, leaving behind the old and infirm to fend for themselves. When monsoon failed, drought caused hunger and even death. Soon after leaving school as a Class IV dropout in 1961, Simon wanted to set things right. He felt compelled to resolve the problems of deforestation and water crisis.
During the rains, Oraon walked miles in the opposite direction of the streams’ flow to trace their origin. Once there, he mapped the contour of the rainwater falling from top of the hills. In the undulating terrain, water gushed out creating ravines. He thought if a dam is built somewhere near the foothills, water could be blocked and used for irrigation with the use of canals on the plains.
Soon, with the help of fellow villagers, he constructed the first dam of earth near Gaighat in Bero in 1961. The dam however got washed away the next monsoon. Undeterred, he reconstructed the dam. This time too, it failed to withstand the strong current of water. Then the state water resource department intervened and increased its height and width. This worked so much so that the dam has not developed any crack till date.
Later, without any help from the state government, Simon led his fellow tribesmen to build one dam each at Deshbali and Jharia and five ponds in the villages of Hariharpur, Jamtoli, Khaksitoli, Baitoli and Bhasnanda, linked to the dams. The dams and ponds trapped rainwater at the start of monsoon by diverting streams. That water was channelized through canals to the fields.
To ensure that soil erosion did not affect the water bodies, Simon planted more than 30,000 trees of Jamun, Mango, Sal and Jackfruit. People scoffed at him when he first presented the idea. Officials were apathetic and villagers were not ready to part with an inch of land for submergence in the water of the dam. He won them over by using his own land and by ploughing the barren land of others who lost the land in dams.
Thanks to his initiatives, 1,500 families now reap three crops of vegetables besides paddy every year from nearly 2,000 acres of land. Migration has become a thing of the past. In addition, Bero also has a mandi from where 15,000 tonnes of vegetables are transported to Ranchi, Jamshedpur, Hazaribagh, Bokaro and Kolkata every month.
Due to Simon Oraon, villagers are leading a comfortable life and their children are going to school. Simon has no formal education or technical training but used his “great native intelligence” to tame rivers and streams and use water during the monsoon season.
Every year, the tribal chieftain plants more than 1,000 trees, a mission he began in 1961 on his 4,000 square meters of ancestral land. As time passed by, neighbors saw how his methods had helped conserve rainwater and allowed him to plant trees all across.
Simon Oraon realized that irrigation water was what his native Chotangapur region needed the most. He works selflessly to encourage people to live in harmony with nature. Oraon’s knowledge of nature as well as his leadership skills have won him the respect of Hindus, Muslims and various tribal groups in the state. I hear he has been nominated for Padma award.
Simon Oraon has been elected Parha Raja (tribal chieftain) without interruption since 1964. He is also the only Christian tribal chieftain in the state and his popularity has earned goodwill for Christians.
Visitors to Oraon’s house are first struck by the sight of a prominent crucifix. Pictures of Jesus, Mary, the Holy Family and Blessed Teresa of Kolkata also adorn his house along with certificates of honors he has received over the years. Oraon says he inherited his environmental skills from his parents and elders. “Big people come to see my work. They call me ‘engineer,’ but I am not an engineer. I am an illiterate man,” he said.
He had launched a people’s movement to fight deforestation as head of Khaksitoli village due to experiences in his childhood. “As a small boy I had seen trees in our forests cut and carted away in trucks. Later, I understood the importance of forests in our lives,” he explained. He said by 1960, vast areas of forest had disappeared and he decided to call a meeting in his village. He spread his movement to other villages after he became chieftain of Bero area.”With great struggle we managed to stop deforestation and launched the re-forestation movement,” Oraon said. Water from all sources should be preserved and used, instead of being allowed to drain away, Oraon’s efforts to save rainwater has won him all-round praise.
“We have a meeting every week in the village to discuss future plans. We sow the seeds, and later, replant together. Once a week, we volunteer to build the roads and the canals by clearing the wild growth in the neighborhood. We surveyed the area and made the locals understand the work, and everyone contributed. And, with their help, we have been able to achieve this,” said Simon Oraon
Simon has formed a 25-member committee in each village to look after the forest of the area and on every Thursday he calls a meeting of the committee members to monitor the affairs. Explains Simon, “Usually’ the meeting lasts for three hours and whoever is found guilty for laxity in his duty is fined Rs 15 which could go up to Rs 50 depending on the seriousness of the slackness.”
Urmila Devi, Mukhia of nearby Panchayat at Jariya, pays tribute to Simon Baba for his initiative. “He has worked with all his might for the opulence of the villagers. He has joined the various canals with openings at different ends which leads to proper irrigation even in the off-seasons” said Urmila Devi.
Simon Baba says, “As long as I have the energy, I will work and tell everybody that a green revolution can be ushered anywhere in Jharkhand by harvesting rainwater.”