From arid to green: What world can glean from Vijayapura's learnings this Earth Day

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From arid to green: What world can glean from Vijayapura's learnings this Earth Day
Much has been written about how Bijapur, now Vijayapura, known for its aridity and brutal summers, is slowly blossoming into a green paradise. It had two things going for it: political will as well as push from people.
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Karnataka's large and medium industries and infrastructure minister M B Patil, when he was the irrigation and water resources minister, did two things that set the ball rolling in 2015. He got the irrigation department to fill the tanks and lakes in the district with water and the forest department to hand out saplings to people at the same time, ensuring a higher survival rate for the plants. Meanwhile, NGOs began motivating people to do their bit for the '1 crore plants in five years' dream aka 'Koti Vruksha Abhiyan'.

In less than 10 years, nature lovers have a lot going for them in Vijayapura. The district is now home to one of the largest urban forest plantations - over 600 acres planted with 60,000 and odd native species of trees. In all, over 1.30 crore saplings have already been planted, and with drip irrigation powered by solar, it was possible to achieve a 98% survival rate for plants, according to Society for Protection of Plants and Animals (SPPA), an NGO that oversaw the effort.

The question worth asking this Earth Day: Can Vijayapura be replicated in other parts of Karnataka, perhaps even other parts of India?

"It is a monumental task, but it can be and should be replicated," said Patil in an exclusive interview to PTI.

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According to him, the biggest problem is that, typically in a government-run project, various departments work independently, even if they have a common goal.

"But it has to be a coordinated effort. If you ask me, a project like this can be a success if a deputy commissioner, CEO of district panchayat and the forest department get involved and talk to one another," added Patil.

In the case of Vijayapura though, Patil said he personally ensured that the project ran smoothly.

"To be honest, I circumvented a lot of bureaucratic processes. For me it was simple. Say, if somebody wanted access to water so that they could maintain the plants, I ensured that they got it. So, I guess, in Vijayapura it was a bit different from how the situation would be elsewhere," said Patil.

When he walked into this, Patil said he simply wanted to increase the forest cover. He said he wanted to do something when he heard that it was a dismal 0.17%, the lowest in Karnataka. In his mind, he said, he was thinking how difficult it would be to distribute saplings for people to plant.

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"Then I realised that it was not that simple. In the first year, we did not have enough saplings. That's when we started growing them in nurseries. Now, we grow different kinds of native species that are beneficial to farmers in more than 20 nurseries. That was valuable learning for us," said Patil.

His son Dhruv, professional wildlife photographer and president of the NGO SPPA, said, initially, they also thought that farmers would be happy to get saplings cheap - they had to pay only 10% for it.

"But they were not interested at all. It took us a while before it hit us: instead of giving them the available saplings, we have to give them what they want. When we started giving them what they wanted - mostly red sandalwood, but also mangoes and other fruit trees - they started coming back for more. That's when we saw the whole agro-forest movement take off," said 21-year-old Dhruv, who is studying in New York University.

According to him, it is thanks to agroforestry that the movement really caught on.

"I would say creating awareness was the other important goal for a project this ambitious," added Patil.

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This is where his NGO stepped in, said Dhruv. "We called the campaign 'Koti Vruksha Abhiyan. We worked together with forest department officials. We held events in schools, held marathons, pretty much did everything so that people would invest in green and lush Vijayapura," said Dhruv.

People really chipped in too, said the minister. "They did their part as an employee, as a citizen... You know, gram panchayats really took me by surprise. A lady from a gram panchayat planted nearly 5,000 saplings and took care of them. That could not have been easy," said Patil.

Dhruv said today young people are so into it that they even gift saplings instead of bouquets for weddings and birthdays.

"It is not hard for people with passion to mobilise people. What happened in Vijayapura can be a model - a passionate group of people can form a trust and bring in all the stakeholders together," said Dhruv.

The impact that the project, a combined effort, brought forth, exceeded the expectations, he added.

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"Two weeks ago, when the rest of Karnataka was facing high temperatures, we had our first showers of the season. That cannot be a coincidence. Also, I have personally documented over 185 species of birds in these block plantations, increasingly more migratory birds like flamingos and bar-headed geese are heading to Vijayapura. That can't be a coincidence, either," Dhruv told PTI.
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