A students’ response to the Ecological Crisis of the Earth
We began: Back in 1988 when very few people discussed environmental problems on a serious note, high schools students from several schools came together under the banner of Leadership Training for Service (LTS), a students’ leadership programme. A Jesuit Fr. Robert Athickal addressed them on the growing menace of the ecological crisis. The students under the leadership of Anindo Banerjee, a IX Class student from the local Loyola High school decided to take out a rally to spread awareness on the environmental problems. The director of LTS, Fr. Jose Chirackal gave the necessary support and a massive rally took off on 1 Oct 1998.
The LTS students later sat down with Fr. Jose to evaluate the rally and Anindo suggested that they formed a separate forum to carry on the ecological campaigns. This was met with total support. Anindo suggested the name, Tarumitra meaning “Friends of Trees.” The group organised a few programmes in the same year and Fr. Robert Athickal guided the students through a period of groping for moorings and soul searching.
The Turning Point : The newly born Tarumitra began with a few activities which included a five day workshop on ” How to paint trees, fruits and flowers”. Then Fr. Robert was transferred to Kodaikanal in South India and got disconnected with the group for a year.
However, the turning point of Tarumitra occurred in Aprl 1989. Four Loyola High School boys, Anindo Banerjee, Vijay Mathur, Sanjay Pandey and Jayant Chatterjee, decided to organize a cycle-survey of North India from Patna to Delhi. On their way, they planned to meet the ordinary people in the villages and gather first hand information about the condition of the environment in North India.
With the blessings of the Cyclists’ Association of Patna, they set out to Delhi, via Jaipur and parts of Himachal Pradesh. On reaching Delhi, they presented their findings to Dr. Shankar Dayal Sharma, the then Vice President of India, who granted them an hour-long audience.
While on their way back, they halted at Agra because Jayant fell ill probably due to strenuous cycling. Anindo, Vijay and Sanjay rushed him to the hospital, but it was too late, the doctors declared Jayant dead on 22 April 1989. Jayant’s untimely demise, shocked not only his parents, who had lost their only son, but also all the members of Tarumitra, L.T.S. and those associated with them.
After they recovered from the shock, Jayant’s companions in Tarumitra made it their sacred duty to tell others of the honest commitment of their comrade. His willingness to undertake an arduous journey in order to tell others to protect the Earth and the supreme sacrifice of his life has provided a soul for Tarumitra. Since then, Tarumitra has grown around his sacrifice. In fact, Tarumitra named the first environmental painting competition after Master Jayant Chatterjee.
Growth: Invigorated by the spirit of the late Jayant Chatterjee, Tarumitra grew up with the assistance from Sr. Gita SND, Principal of Hartmann High School, Fr. George Manimala S.J., the then Principal of St. Xavier’s High School and Bro. Geo Pulickal, his assistant, who went out of their way to establish the organisation firm footing. Through their efforts, the headquarters of the movement was inaugurated inside St. Xavier’s School by the Collector of Patna, Mr. Arvind Prasad on February 20,1991. The strength of TARUMITRA also increased rapidly. The girls of the local Hartmann High School under the leadership of Sr. Gita SND and Sr. Roshni SND gave the initial fillip needed for any new organisation. Units after units of Tarumitra sprung up in various schools in and around Patna. Many college students, social activists and journalists have also joined Tarumitra in its crusade against the destruction of the environment of India.
Branching off: When the students of Hartmann High School planted hundreds of trees in the school campus as well as in the local Christian Cemetery, people approved of the gesture. But nothing more for a while!
One day some students reported to the headquarters that hundreds of trees in the local Gandhi Maidan were nailed with hundreds of ads using 5-6 inch nails, the tree lovers among the students sprung up. When a few hundreds of them descended on the historic Gandhi Maidan grounds to pull out nails and advertisements from the 200 plus trees, there was controversy and discussion in the city. The papers Times of India, Hindustan Times, Navbharat Times, Hindustan covered the event with front page photographs. The Tarumitras were learning their ropes in community education. Controversy was not after all something to be shunned! Judiciously they enmeshed themselves in “controversies” as a way of highlighting issues on environment.
The unwarranted felling of trees in and around Patna has also been effectively thwarted by the activists of Tarumitra. On August 9, 1991, the young `friends of trees’ foiled an attempt by the Freedom Fighters’ Association to cut down a 125 year old Rain-tree or Kala Shrish on the Serpentine Road. The tree was being cut down to make place for statues of freedom fighters. Tarumitra students prevented any damage to the tree by forming a cordon around it and putting back the soil that had been earlier cleared from the roots of the tree. The students also filed the case in the Sachivalaya Police Station under the Environment Protection Act. The students also got assurances from the State Minister for Forest and Environment in this regard that the trees would be spared.
A fortnight later, Tarumitra activists had to spend their Sunday guarding about fifty trees along the Danapur-Arrah highway, which had been marked for felling by the Road Construction Department to broaden the road. Two old trees were already cut. The students guided by A.K Chatterjee IAS and Dr. R.N Trivedi, lodged the first F.I.R. in the police station against the felling of trees. The P.W.D. officials finally succumbed to the pressure from the children and unilaterally decided to stop the felling of those trees.
In January 1993, a tree called Tabebuia spectabilis or Vilayati gal gal was cut down in front of the Sahyog Hospital at Patliputra Colony. The tree was the only one of its kind in the eastern region of India. Also known as the Flowering Queen of Asia, this tree used to be filled with yellow, trumpet shaped flowers during its peak flowering time in mid-April. The deeply offended children of Tarumitra did not hide their anguish at the loss of their `old friend’. On February 3,1993, hundreds of students carrying branches of the tree held a tearful `funeral’ procession and buried it near the hospital.
Hoping that the tree may be revived, Tarumitra activists took good care of the stump with the help of local residents. A month later, the sprouting of two bunches of yellow flowers delighted the students. Awakened by the children, the State Forest Department decided to send experts to find ways of saving the tree. Since the tree was not a native of the State, inquiries were also made from botanical gardens of Lucknow and Calcutta in a bid to procure saplings to replace the dying tree, which had been brought from the Calcutta Botanical Gardens.
A renowned journalist and tree lover, Ms Shruti Shukla joined the students and taught them the primary lessons in green journalism. Came along also Shailesh Kachap, an ace organiser who took Tarumitra far and wide. Vinay Kumar, Ramnath, Richa Ojha, Rajani Joseph, Shailesh Robert, Pankaj, Rahul Kr, Vivek Swapan, Devendra, Suman Kumar and Dr (Sr) Anita Horsey are some of the early leaders who brought in plenty of energy and enthusiasm.
Tarumitra got involved in Tree Plantation Campaigns from 1991. The State Forest Minister, Mr. Sonadhari Singh launched Operation Green Kurji in August, 1991. Students from various schools and colleges planted over 1000 saplings supplied to them by Tarumitra’s own nursery at Danapur. They also arranged for iron tree guards to protect the plants and convinced the shopkeepers to adopt one plant each. The students also distributed pamphlets highlighting the need to plant more trees to maintain the ecological balance.
On February 16, 1992, a door-to-door campaign was launched by Tarumitra, in which precious plants were distributed to families off Bailey Road, Shanti Nagar and other neighbouring areas.
Campaigns for roads: Tarumitra did not limit its activities only to trees. It also launched campaigns for better roads and a cleaner environment on November 28, 1991. Patna roads in in the nineties were notorious for their holes and craters! The students said that bad roads meant more pollution and loss of precious petrol and diesel.
As part of their campaign they organized a “badminton match” on the stretch of the road near Digha market. The idea was to spread the word that the roads were good for everything except traffic. The “mixed doubles” match attracted a crowed of over 10,000 people. As a result, the children managed to block vehicular traffic along the road, whose repair had been neglected for the past 12 years.
In their campaign for better roads, the children collected 3,000 signatures and submitted it to the Chief Engineer of Roads. On February 21, 1993, Tarumitra organised a `Cycle Marathon for Better Roads’ in which 400 students covered some of the worst roads in Patna on their bicycles. Tarumitra also organised a mass contact programme to create an awareness among the people of Patna about the hazardous roads by putting up a street play called `Jahannum Express’ Later they organised a six kilometer long human chain in which students from 32 schools participated. The word got spread. The Carmel and De Nobili students in a far away town in Dhanbad and Holy Cross students in Bokaro organised ‘protest repair’ of roads in which they repaired the affected stretch of the roads with the help of parents and friends.
Re-interpretation of feasts: The attempts made by the students to reinterpret National and Religious feasts to have an ecological connection are noteworthy. For instance, on Independence day Tarumitra organised `Freedom Run for Trees’ from the Botanical Gardens to Gandhi Maidan.
Children could be very creative. In an unprecedented move Tarumitra did not celebrate `Earth day’ on April 22, 1992, because one of the students asked ” How can we celebrate earth day when the land is reeling under the hot summer sun?” Instead, Tarumitra celebrated `Earth Week’ in August, after the rains when Mother Earth looked lush green. The celebration began with a colourful programme at Sanjay Gandhi Zoo on August 1, 1992. Throughout the week quiz, debates, discussions on problems facing Bihar’s environment, two exploration camps and two intensive tree plantation campaigns were organised. The Earth Week celebrations concluded with a two day visit to the Hazaribagh National Park, where 35 members of Tarumitra planted over 15 Kg. Seeds to give back forest cover to the park, which had suffered from excessive felling of trees.
Some religious festivals like Holi took heavy toll on environment. Hundreds of trees were cut to organise the traditional Holi Bonfire. Tarumitra activists took out a procession and observed a two minute silence at various spots where branches were collected for Holi bonfire. They also carried placards exhorting people to burn garbage instead of trees for a better Holi.
A number of feasts were given an ecological content. The popular festival of Rakhi when sisters tie amulets on hands of their brothers, Tarumitras started a novel celebration of tying colourful rakhis or amulets on the “tree brothers” way back early nineties This custom has been fast catching up with the students across the country. Today the Chief Minister of Bihar joins his officials and friends to tie amulets on trees in a ritual way.
Garbage Disposal through ‘Earth Tax’: The commitment of the students for a cleaner environment is so well known that the Educational Guild of Bihar deputed Tarumitra to ensure general cleanliness at the Annual Patna Book Fair on November 15, 1992. On this occasion, Tarumitra members hit upon a bright idea to undertake the daunting task of creating a sense of cleanliness among an approximate three hundred thousand people, who visited the Book Fair from dawn to dusk. They decided to issue `Earth Tax Coupons’ costing Rs. 3 each to any person who littered the grounds. The campaign was an unprecedented success. Every book fair since then had Tarumitra earth tax for cleanliness. As part of the proper disposal of garbage, the students of St. Paul’s school started the first roadside garden on the Boring Canal Road. Other schools joined by building roadside parks elsewhere in the city. At one time the students maintained 31 gardens called “oxygen belts” in the city of Patna; unfortunately many of them were swallowed by the road-widening process today.
Sacrifice of Pankaj: Pankaj was a devoted college student who carried the burden of the treasurer of the University wing of Tarumitra known as ‘Study Circle.’ While on a campaign to raise funds for the gardens, the group put up a Spring Fair in Patliputra colony on 28 Feb 1994. Unfortunately some anti-social elements entered the Fair grounds and created trouble. One of the drunken men all of a sudden whipped up a pistol and shot Pankaj point blank. Pankaj died right there in the fair grounds to become the second ‘eco-martyr’ of the movement. Amidst the widespread protests, the students raised funds and with the help of the Rotary Club constructed “Pankaj Park” in a period of three months as a homage to late Pankaj.
The Bio-reserve: One of the sustained campaigns of Tarumitra has been to promote bio-diversity. The genetic plant nursery started in 1989 needed further expansion and consolidation. When the Jesuit Fathers offered a sizeable plot of land in Digha, Patna, the students proposed a ‘bio-reserve’ on the spot. His Excellency Dr. A.R Kidwai, the Governor of Bihar laid the foundation stone of the bio-reserve on 3 November 1996. As a demonstration spot on bio-diversity, the place since then has developed in leaps and bounds. Sr. Sarita SCN, a veteran environmentalist looks after the development of the centre. She raised funds to build a number of adobe huts and a large dormitory for students to stay for overnight camps.
Today the Bio-reserve also has a solid commitment for Organic Farming. Hundreds of students volunteer to work in the fields to cultivate crops of Rice during the monsoon rains and later chick peas and vegetables for consumption during the eco-camps.
Though some tractors are hired to plough the fields, generally no hired help is solicited. Ms Margaret Molomoo who had had studies in Japan and USA on Organic Farming co-ordinates the cultivation. From transplantation to harvesting and threshing, almost every work is done by high school and university students.
Interns from Zamorano, Honduras: Interns who arrived every year from Zamorano University, Honduras made the Organic Farm an exciting place of fellowship. Small groups of Interns hailing from Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, El salvador and Panama have shared fellowship with the Indian students to shed their sweat on this Gangetic soil!
Solar Campaigns: Since 1996 there has been a concerted effort to promote the harnessing of solar energy. The traditional cookers and water heaters were not acceptable for the people. It was then that a Jesuit and engineer Fr. M.M. Mathew SJ came forward with interest on the subject. He studied under a Swiss Physicist Wolfgang Scheffler and fabricated the first ever parabolic Solar Community Cooker in Patna. After an initial exhibition in the town, he started fabricating them for those interested. In spite of the fact that there was no subsidy available, Fr. Mathew and his team were approached by social minded institutions. He put up 28 units of solar devices in 1996-98 period. A solar pump was installed at the Bio-reserve along with a battery back up system for lighting as well as a solar dryer for vegetables and fruits.
Networking: Getting connected with like minded groups started in the nineties. Tarumitra as an organization has been networking with local groups of activists on issues such as water, organic farming, vehicular pollution, green belts, conservation of bio-diversity etc. There was an existing network of over 100 organizations co-ordinated by Prativesh, Patna.
Special bonds of fellowship and support existed with the Patna Jesuits, Holy Cross Sisters, and the Sisters of the Charity of Nazareth.
Every effort was made to join hands with the Governmental departments, both nationally and locally. Several departments of the Government of Bihar have extended active support to the students.
Tarumitra has been part of a national network called Kids for Tigers (KFT), an assembly of over 800 schools spearheaded by a topnotch ecologist Bittu Sahgal and team from Sanctuary Asia (www.sanctuaryasia.com).
Tarumitra students also net work internationally. There is a wonderful partnership with Caritas family of activists (www.caritasindia.org).
Caritas Switzerland (www.caritas.ch) was the main funding partner from 1991 to 2014. Tarumitra stopped receiving project funding with the understanding that the students could sustain their activities with their own funding sources in the educational institutions.
The Millennium Development Goals (MDG) formulated by the United Nations has fascinated the students over the years. The Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) of the United Nations has granted the much coveted Special Consultative Status to Tarumitra from Jan 2005.
Student delegates have participated in the UNEP sponsored international conferences in England (2000), USA (2004) Japan (2005) Malaysia (2006) Norway (2008) Indonesia 2010 and Brazil (2012). While one of the Tarumitra students, Yugratna,13 addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations in 2009 her companion Shweta Marandi presented her campaign at the Rio Summit in 2012. They also regularly participate in the meetings of the Commission for Sustainable Development CSD) of the United Nations.
Tarumitra volunteers Tresa Abraham, Sr. Philo Morris MMS, Celine Paramundayil MMS, Teresa Kottooran SCN and T.A John have been our special representatives and friends at the United Nations New York. Prof. William Hunter from University of Le High along with a committed team of students represented Tarumitra at the United Nations since a few years. Presently students of Le High university, Mikayla Cleary-Hammasrtedt, Robert Smith and Angie Rizzo along with Prof. Bill Hunter continue the work of representing us.
Some important environmetal organizations links
Group for Environmental Monitoring, South Africa
Environment Literacy Council, United States
Sulabh International, India
UN Environmental Programme Industry Centre (UNEP, IE)
Eco-logic Forum, India
Earth Day Site, Uruguay