|Premjibhai Patel. Telegraph picture|
Ahmedabad, June 16: Next time you tell a wayward friend not to dig his own grave, think of Premjibhai Patel. It might help save a tree.
Patel loves trees. He loves them so much that he even dug his own grave — literally — to save them from being cut for his funeral.
The 81-year-old Saurashtra-based green crusader, who is said to have planted 10 million trees and built some 1,700 check dams in the arid, drought-prone region, wants to be buried. So the grave.
“For 25 years, I have made planting trees a mission of my life. When I die, no wood should be used for my agni sanskar,” says the widower, better known as Premji Bapa. “I cannot see the trees which I planted being chopped for my funeral.”
Patel’s son-in-law Yashodar Dixit says the old man had declared 10 years ago that he didn’t want to be cremated according to Hindu rituals. “After his death, he told us, we should take his body to his four-acre farm where he has dug the grave. His orders are clear: not a single log of wood should be used for the final rites.”
Patel lost his wife six months ago and lives alone in Upleta, a village 100km from Rajkot. His son Rayji, a businessman, lives in Ahmedabad. Dixit stays in Surat.
“I know I will not survive long — maximum five years,” Patel says. “I need to prepare for my last journey and I have to ensure that woods are not used for my cremation.”
Will the trust he founded carry on his fight for trees after his death?
That’s a difficult question. But Patel is confident that his “wish” — to be lowered into the grave he has dug — will be honoured.
“We have been told the pit should be filled up and used for farming again. Crops should be grown on this grave and it should be treated just like a part of the field,” Dixit says.
So what prompted Patel’s mission?
It’s a long story that goes back to 1987. Patel, a successful businessman who handled the distributorship of a leading corporate house in Mumbai, had returned to his village.
Dixit, who has been associated with Patel’s initiative from day one, says they conducted a survey in the region and found that trees were being “chopped for fuel”. So many trees had been cut that the forest cover from Gir to Dwarka had almost vanished.
Patel then embarked on his mission and founded a voluntary organisation, Vruksh Prem Seva Trust (VPST), which started a number of water-harvesting and tree-planting projects in Rajkot.
The drive — a “vaccine against drought” as he described it — called for a bit of innovation, too. Patel re- designed his motorcycle into a seed-sowing machine. It won him an award from former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam in 2010.
Patel bought tonnes of neem and babool seeds with his own money and sowed them in the entire arid region of Saurashtra. With local farmers, he spearheaded a movement for building check dams — small dams built across minor channels — investing his own money. Later, both the state government and the Centre pitched in.
In 2008, Patel was honoured with the National Water Award by the Union ministry for water resources for projects with community participation.
His VPST is now building underground water tanks in the coastal regions of Saurashtra to harvest 10,000 litres to 50,000 litres of rainwater.