Simon Oraon, popularly known as Jharkhand's waterman, is something of a celebrity amongst the farmers in the Bedo block of Ranchi. The 83-year-old dropped out of school in the fifth grade and has been tackling one of the largest problems plaguing farmers in India ever since--drought.
At the time, his hometown had been suffering from acute scarcity. People were dying of starvation, and the ones who survived left before their lives could be claimed by the drought. His village was falling apart before his eyes, and he decided to dedicate his life to helping the cause of water and forest conservation.
As a young 28-year-old, his desire to solve the water crisis in his area only grew stronger. He got together with some of his like-minded friends and began constructing check dams that would allow tapping of rainwater. This was a long, hard process, and they learnt from their mistakes through trial and error. The group had constructed the dam using mud and limited resources, as a result of which, the structures could not withstand the rains that followed but he was determined, so he decided to approach the government for help. With a lot of perseverance and patience, he was able to convince them to provide the assistance he needed for a concrete dam.
Oraon's goal was to help solve the village's water crisis, and he knew that the dam alone wouldn't solve their problems. Alongside, he launched a massive tree plantation drive as a measure against soil erosion, and dug wells and ponds to keep rainwater from draining away. He also ensured that those around him understood the importance of what he was doing. Over the next five decades, he educated 51 villages in Ranchi about the importance of environmental conservation. With time, conditions in the village changed.
Water levels increased, barren waste lands turned cultivable, and water levels became sufficient enough to grow more than one crop a year. In 2009, when drought struck Jharkhand leaving most of the state a mere wasteland, Bedo thrived. The people of Oraon's village enjoyed a golden harvest, while farmers in the surrounding regions were forced to flee.
Today, Bedo, the land that was previously struggling with scarcity, has now become the agricultural hub of Jharkhand. Thanks to Oraon's initiatives, 1,500 families now reap three crops of vegetables besides paddy every year from nearly 2,000 acres of land, and much of the produce is supplied to various districts in Jharkhand, and neighbouring states such as Bihar, Odisha and West Bengal. Fifty-five years have passed since he first set out to tackle his village's water crisis, and even today, he remains dedicated to his cause. The 83-year-old man still plants at least 1,000 saplings every year.
On Monday, February 8, the government decided to recognise his efforts and honour his five-decade-long hardwork. The president’s office announced that Oraon would be awarded the prestigious Padma Shri for his contribution towards environmental conservation. Oraon, lovingly known as Baba by his villagers, was surprised by the news. “I had no idea about the award until a friend from the media called up this afternoon to congratulate me,” he said. He hopes that this award helps inspire the rest of the country to fight their own war towards environmental conservation.
Words: Krupa Joseph