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VD Saklani, Tree Man Who Kept Himalaya Healthy, Gets His Due in Death After Years of Neglect

Vishweshwar Dutt Saklani, who planted several lakh trees in his lifetime, died on Friday at 96 in his ancestral village in Tehri Garhwal, Uttarakhand.

Hridayesh Joshi |

Updated:January 20, 2019, 2:44 PM IST
VD Saklani, Tree Man Who Kept Himalaya Healthy, Gets His Due in Death After Years of Neglect
Vishweshwar Dutt Saklani, who was also a freedom fighter, was accorded state funeral on Saturday.

It is quite tragic and ironic that a man who spent more than 70 years saving the environment and planting trees in the Himalayas, remained almost anonymous and unrecognised all his life.

Vishweshwar Dutt Saklani, who planted several lakh trees, died on Friday at 96 in his ancestral village in Tehri Garhwal, Uttarakhand. Most of the people knew about his demise through posts by his friends and relatives on social media. Besides receiving just one honour Vriksha Mitra (friend of tree) in 1986 by then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, Saklani wasn’t bestowed with any awards by any government all these years.

“Nobody recognised him, but he wasn’t bothered. He believed in action and drove all the pleasure from planting the trees and watching them grow,” Santosh Swaroop, Saklani’s 46-year-old son, told News18. “Today, we see people getting awards for nothing they do on ground, but our father remains largely unsung despite the work he did.”

However, on Saturday, the state government tried to make up for its negligence towards the Vriksha Manav. Saklani, who was also a freedom fighter, was given state honour at his funeral; salutes by policemen in the presence of Speaker Premchand Aggarwal at Poorananda Ghat in Rishikesh.

“Alas, they never thought of honouring him when he was alive and working hard to keep the lungs of Himalaya healthy,” said one of Saklani’s relatives who were present at the funeral.

Born in 1922, Saklani is believed to have planted his first sapling when he wasn’t even 10-years-old. Later, he planted trees in the memory of his elder brother and freedom fighter Nagendra Dutt Sakalni who had died along with comrade Molu Bhardari while participating in a rebellion against the Raja of Tehri in 1948. Since then, planting saplings became his passion and he dedicated his life to the cause.

Amar Shaeed Nagendra Dutt Saklani Smriti Van, the forest in the memory of his brother, kept growing just 50 km from state capital Dehradun. It helped revive several forest streams, including the river Tons, an important tributary of Yamuna.

“So many people today claim to revive forest rivers and water sources but I have seen his efforts with my own eyes. Today, Dehradun survives because he made serious efforts to recharge the rivers which flow in that direction,” said Congress leader Kishore Upadhyay.

Saklani’s family and friends say he planted more than 50 lakh trees, a claim that seems on the higher side but encapsulates the Tree Man’s love for nature. The family associates this love with the dowry received by Saklani’s ancestors. “Some 200 years ago, we received 100 devdar (cidar) saplings as dowry in one of the marriages. It is believed that the inclination to plant trees in our family is related to that,” said Santosh.

This love for nature drove Vishweshwar Dutt Saklani to several agitations after Independence. The small farmer participated in the anti-mining movements in hills and also became part of famous Chipko movement in 1970. He belonged to Sarvodayi stream of politics, where all the leaders were inspired and driven by Gandhian philosophy. He worked closely with leaders like Chandi Prasad Bhatt and Sunder Lal Bahuguna.

Dr. Shekhar Pathak, an expert in environmental history of modern Himalaya, compares Saklani with other activists from Uttarakhand like Damodar Rathore and Jagat Singh ‘Jangli’.

“When he was given Mitra Vriksha award in 1986, the forest department registered cases against him for planting trees in forest land without permission. This was a strange situation where a man was facing charges not for cutting but planting trees,” says Charu Tiwari, an activist who knew Saklani and his family closely. “The cases were alive till 1991. Later, prominent Communist leader and writer Vidya Sagar Nautiyaal fought his case in lower court and got all charges quashed.”

Uttarakhand has suffered massive migration from the hills to plains in the last few decades. Instead of providing employment, environment friendly road structures and good health and education facilities, the government and planners have foisted large dams and big development projects on the mountains. It has resulted in loss of ecology and biodiversity, and didn’t help the hill folks. The intention of Saklani’s work was around the philosophy of ‘Himalaya Basao’, a slogan raised in Uttarakhand during 1960s and 1970s.

“He not only fought in several movements to save natural resources and protect people’s rights, but also demonstrated by erecting a rich and vast forest that it can be done without any help or funding from forest department, government or any NGO. He knew that trees are important not only to save the forests and mountains, but they have an intricate relation with people and society,” says Dr Pathak.

Today, there is a need to protect the jungles of Kumaon and Garhwal to protect biodiversity and rivers. Saklani made that effort quietly and continuously.

“People with such devotion are born once in a lifetime. Whenever I heard his name, it was in the context of plantation and forest conservation, yet he neither boasted nor desired any award,” said Sacchidanand Bharti, who has been working for decades in the area of water conservation in Garhwal.

As Saklani departs, the forests he left behind him are endangered and fast fading. Youth of Uttarakhand will have to rise and fight against the might of powerful if the legacy of the ‘Tree Man’ is to be preserved.

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| Edited by: Nitya Thirumalai
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