This 84-year-old man, a Padma Shri awardee, has transformed the lives of thousands of villagers in Jharkhand with his massive tree-planting and water conservation efforts.
Little has changed in Simon Oraon’s daily routine in the last 60 years. At 84, he gets up at 4.30 in the morning, goes to the fields, diligently checks the saplings he has planted around the village, takes a round of the forest he has grown all on his own while facing great odds, and traces his steps back to his house in time for lunch.
Simon Oraon, popularly known as Baba in his area, is also referred to as ‘Jharkhand’s Waterman,’ by the media.
He has changed the lives of thousands of villagers with a massive tree plantation drive and has organised a well and pond digging initiative to store rainwater as well.
Simon Oraon is a resident of Khaksi Toli village, which comes under Bero block, about 35 kms from Ranchi. He has been working in 51 villages of Bero to protect natural flora for decades and was awarded the Padma Shri recently.
Ironic as it may seem, Jharkhand, known for its lush green forests, is reeling under severe water scarcity. Indiscriminate deforestation and erratic weather patterns are playing havoc in the state, causing crop failures. Faced with all these calamitous conditions, Simon is nonetheless undeterred from his mission of water conservation and forest plantation. His earlier efforts are still alive today. The residents of these 51 villages owe him the agricultural prosperity he brought them through simple water conservation efforts.
Today, his village is one of the state’s agri-produce hubs, supplying more than 25,000 metric tonnes of vegetables to various districts of Jharkhand and nearby locations.
Simon’s journey started in 1961 after he dropped out from school to help his parents in the fields. The monsoon had failed and drought had gripped the hinterland where Simon lived with his family. Water shortage brought desperation and hunger to his land.
The tribals in the area had traditionally always grown a mono crop of paddy (that too with frequent failures) and were oblivious to the harm being done to the environment by the felling of forests. Every year, after sowing paddy, Simon’s father and uncle would leave for the city to look for odd jobs. Simon started taking care of his family, as well as the farming work.
He grew up with the vicious cycle of poverty and saw how, after the crops failed, the old people and infants became victims of hunger. Young Simon saw this cycle of life and death year after year.
When the TBI team reached Simon’s village, we found he had left for his routine rounds of the forest. But we met after a few hours and Simon’s introductory words touched us: “As a child, I had seen trees in Bero cut and transported in huge trucks. I was even initially fascinated by these huge machines. But I realised after several years, when a severe drought in 1961 caused total crop failure, how much harm this deforestation was causing. I took the lead, called all the villagers of Khaksi Toli village, and urged them to stand firm against the mindless cutting of trees.”
“We initially started with only our villages. But then word spread and more villages joined in the mission against wood smugglers. It was a tough task but we did it and stopped forest mafias and wood smugglers in our areas. It was all team work with the support of the villagers,” adds Simon.
His efforts took time to show results but paid off finally. In addition to afforestation, Simon has also ensured the year around supply of water to all 51 villages of his block. This magic happened due to his creative ideas.
He did a great job with water conservation, through rainwater harvesting and building dams to check the flow of seasonal rivers.
He constructed the first dam near his village in Narpatna in 1960. The dam, however, was washed away during the next monsoon. In the starting phase, several dams failed to withstand the monsoon water. Then, after the water resource department intervened, the size and width of the dams were increased and the concrete strengthened.
These dams have not faced any cracks since. In addition to constructing dams in Jharia , Narpatna and Kharia, Simon and his team also built dams in Gaighat, Deshbali and a few other locations in nearby villages. All ponds are linked with dams, which act as water reservoirs, ensuring continuous water supply to meet the needs of the villagers.
“We have worked hard to reinstate our forests. It is because of the blessings of the forest gods that more than 1600 families here now reap three crops besides paddy every year, from nearly 2100 acres of land. Migration has declined. Additionally, we are now supplying vegetables to Ranchi, Jamshedpur and Kolkatta. We are able to do so because of our forest and water conservation steps,” Simon shared with TBI.
When we asked Simon about his selection for the Padma Shri award, he smiled and said: “I had no idea about the award until a friend from the media called up that afternoon to congratulate me. Whatever I have done is due to the support of the community. How can I take the award alone? It’s a Padma Shri for all those who made my mission succeed.”
Jharkhand’s ‘waterman,’ Simon Oraon, will now be working on creating awareness among the people of his state about the importance of water harvesting. He will be motivating farmers to work hard to preserve rain water to sustain agricultural activities.
The ‘waterman’ has now been appointed brand ambassador of the watershed programme by the Rural Development Department, Government of Jharkhand.
When asked about his new responsibility as brand ambassador, Simon said: “This is a very big responsibility for me. However, I am elated. The Minister of Rural Development said that I speak well on these issues so I should be invited to meetings and conferences to talk about water-harvesting. I have accepted the offer as it is a chance to work for the state.”
Simple living and high thinking is the best way to explain Simon Oraon’s lifestyle. Nothing has changed in his life. He lives in a small house and continues with his mission to plant 1000 trees every year. “As long as I have the energy to walk and work, I will keep planting trees. These trees give us life and it’s our duty to protect them. We should make trees our partners for a green revolution and development,” he concludes.
First published on The Better India