How 3 Simple Words Are Changing an Indian Town

Daughter, water, trees.

Fellows 2015

By Jill Filipovic

January 06, 2016

Also published by Cosmopolitan

Shyam Sundar Paliwal is a tree hugger. He pets trees as he walks by them. He points out the ones for which he holds particular affection. Ask him for a photo and he immediately wraps his burly arms around the nearest trunk.

Where he lives, in an Indian village called Piplantri, that's easy to do — there are trees everywhere: lining the roads, cascading down the hillsides, shading every walkway. This little green oasis is unusual for India though. It sits in Rajsamand, a district in the state of Rajasthan almost 40 miles away from the nearest train station, which is in Udaipur, in western India. The villages around Piplantri are largely dusty and deforested by Rajsamand's recent emergence as one of Asia's largest marble markets. Unlike its neighbors, Piplantri is lush and verdant; you notice the difference as soon as you enter town. It's also more prosperous. The school is in a well-maintained building, students wear neatly pressed uniforms, and the main room houses four black desktop computers.

In 2005, Paliwal was elected as sarpanch, or village head, here in Piplantri. That's when he began putting pieces of a plan in place that, a decade later, make this village so different from its neighbors. That plan, Paliwal says, comes down to three words: "Daughter, water, and trees."

Paliwal was born in a village a little over a mile away from Piplantri, called Morwad, the youngest of the six boys his mother had before giving birth to his two younger sisters. According to Paliwal, his mother died of a snakebite when he was 6 and his littlest sister was just 2 months old. He dropped out of school when he was 11 or 12 to work on the family farm, and eventually started working for one of the many marble companies in the region. Once he learned the marble trade, he opened his own small marble company. In the meantime, he got married and had children, two daughters and a son.

One of those daughters, Kiran, died when she was 18 of severe dehydration — a largely preventable ailment that remains a leading cause of death for children in India and sometimes kills adults too. Paliwal was distraught. An environmentalist long fascinated with the outdoors, he decided to embrace nature to honor her memory.

"I want her name to be remembered by the generations to come," Paliwal says through a translator. "So I planted some trees. It takes 10 to 12 years for a small tree to become a big tree, and a big tree remains for thousands of years. "

At that point, in 2007, Paliwal had already taken some steps to improve the environment in Piplantri. The land was dry and barren when he was elected, so he built a few small dams to create water reserves. After Kiran's death and planting the memorial trees, he had another thought: Maybe more trees would mean more water. And maybe fostering an emotional connection between the villagers and the trees would mean more trees.

"First, I did this for my daughter," Paliwal says. "Then I thought, why can't we do it for all the daughters?"

Since 2007, villagers in Piplantri have embraced Paliwal's "daughter, water, and trees" ethos by planting 111 saplings every time a girl is born. At first, Paliwal had to press villagers to help. Now, he says, it's automatic: People here plant trees for everything — to commemorate births, deaths, and other major life events.

It's not only an environmental strategy but a feminist one. Celebrating female babies is one way of encouraging families to have and raise girls in a country where there are 35 million more males than females, largely because families prefer boys and have sex-selective abortions to avoid raising daughters. In Rajasthan, there are 928 women for every 1,000 men (in the United States, by contrast, there are 1,031 women for every 1,000 men). The child sex ratio is even more extreme: For every 1,000 boys in the state, there are just 888 girls.

Economic depression coupled with cultural biases toward boys makes sex-selective abortion common across India, as well as in the part of the country where Piplantri sits. The tree-planting initiative seeks to address a complex and often toxic mix of social, environmental, and economic challenges facing this little hamlet, of which sex-selective abortion is just one part. Depleted soil and lack of economic opportunity made local agriculture jobs unappealing years ago, and working-age men and their families were leaving the village in droves, heading to big cities where they hoped to find better work. That kind of urbanization is happening across India, with 90 million new city residents added between 2003 and 2013. Paliwal hoped the income from the plants themselves, coupled with the increased profitability brought by more fertile soil, would encourage more villagers to stay in Piplantri.

Demographic data for this tiny town is unavailable, but Paliwal and other villagers say that anecdotally, the "daughter, water, trees" three-part plan seems to be working. Promoting gender equality and bettering the environment, they say, has transformed the village, improving villagers' health and finances, and turning it into a model for development in India and an icon of eco-feminist innovation outside of it. Local volunteers, most of them women, plant the trees; they receive a small stipend from the government for their efforts. Today, bright forests flank the village, and some of the crops, like aloe vera, have been remarkably profitable. Soil quality has improved, rendering difficult-to-farm land increasingly tenable.

As villagers and local business owners have a little more extra money from the crops they plant, they increasingly donate to funds Paliwal and his nephews set up for a handful of local girls born to poor families. They start with 21,000 rupees, just over $300, and put it in a savings account in the girl's name, to be used for her education or to offset the cost of her dowry when she marries. They fund seven or eight girls every year, and hope they can pool more money to expand.

Paliwal is something of a local celebrity in Piplantri, waving to passersby from his silver 4x4, humming as the vehicle jerks and heaves over potholes and unpaved roads. Outside the village itself, paved road crumbles into dirt, and driving means dodging packs of cows and the women in bright veils herding them. Slabs of dusty white marble sit in huge stacks along the road. Rajsamand town is a few miles from Piplantri, and with its population of nearly 70,000 boasts stores selling shoes, cellphones, and food, but Piplantri itself is tiny and tidy, with looping roads and simple but well-kept cement homes, each with a detail that is both unusual and lucky in this area: indoor plumbing, including a tap with running water and a toilet. Villagers can afford that, many of them say, because of the money they're able to make and save from crops that grow on their newly fertile land.

Today, teachers at the local school in Piplantri report that there are just as many girls enrolled there as boys, and that having women plant the trees got them out of the house, gave them a little money, and fundamentally changed the village landscape.

"Earlier, women were restricted to their homes," Leela Rao, the Sanskrit teacher at the local elementary school, says. "Now they plant trees."

As a result, Rao says, women and girls in the village seek out education, increasing school attendance and retention among girls here. Some women raised outside of Piplantri who moved because of marriage have sought out more education for themselves, since that's the norm here. As Rao talks, four adolescent schoolgirls in navy dresses, their hair tied in red ribbons, click away on desktop computers.

"The girls are excited," Rao says. "They are happy to see the trees grow up and know this tree is in her name."

Every year, during the Hindu holiday of Raksha Bandhan, usually celebrated in August, it's tradition for girls to tie a rakhi, or string bracelet, around their brothers' wrists, symbolizing the love and bond between brothers and sisters. In Piplantri, the girls also tie rakhi bracelets around their trees.

Now, Paliwal is expanding his model. He started close by, just down the road from Piplantri, in an arid village called Tasol. There, on a morning in October, a dozen women are tilling a wide hillside field, placing saplings in the soil. One part of the hill is leafy and green; the other brown dirt. That's the part Paliwal and the women of Tasol haven't gotten to yet.

Paliwal's partner in this particular expansion is Anurandha Vaishnar, a quiet and thoughtful 21-year-old who, while in her second year of university in February, was elected as the sarpanch. Vaishnar was elected, she says, because she's the only person in the village with more than a 10th grade education. When she was elected, Vaishnar and Paliwal talked, and Vaishnar decided to see if the "daughter, water, and trees" model could work in Tasol too.

Like Paliwal did in Piplantri, Vaishnar wants to increase gender equality, stimulate the local economy, and improve the environment. With Paliwal's assistance, she began working with larger government bodies to fund the purchase of trees and seeds, and paying local women to work in the fields planting them.

"Since there is a lot of discrimination against girls, this is sending the message that girls can work as much as boys," Vaishnar says through a translator. Her own position in the village, she says, "promotes the message that girls can do anything boys can."

It also shifts the village priorities. Vaishnar, like Paliwal, is concerned about the migration out of the village and into more urban areas, but she also thinks about things like the protective value enough money for good sanitation could bring — when women don't have toilets in their homes, they have to go out alone at night, often leaving them vulnerable to sexual assault and rape.

"As a woman I look at all the changes women face in a society," she says. "A woman understands a woman."

More than 25,000 trees have already been planted in Tasol, and other villages, Paliwal hopes, will follow. The Indian government is dedicating more and more money to development endeavors, and both Paliwal and Vaishnar make sure women and men in their villages get a piece of it by applying for various local government schemes that put cash in villagers' hands for planting trees and embracing environmental sustainability. Despite the government's embrace of Paliwal's plan, challenges remain, particularly from a mining industry that has little use for acres of trees. They have more money and more resources, but Paliwal says he isn't worried.

"No work can be bigger than this work," Paliwal says. "An industry man can come here and employ two or three thousand people but it hurts the environment and can shut down any time. This work will last centuries." 

Jill Filipovic was a 2015 International Reporting Project fellow in India.