Mission green

Declined a government job, Shashi Kumar Kesri was sarcastically told to go farming. He did and turned a vast barren rocky land into a forest. Haroon Mirani meets the green champion of Doda.
In 1970, Shashi Kumar Kesri was an aspirant for a Food Inspector job with JK government. As per merit, he says, he deserved the job, but was dropped to accommodate someone else. An officer sarcastically told him to “go back home for farming”.
Dejected, Kesri burnt his certificates and returned to his native town, Doda, to do exactly what the officer said. His land was high up in mountains, with no water available for irrigation. There was not even a road leading there. But Kesri took the challenge head on.
Thirty years down the line, Kesri’s mini forest in Krantipuram Doda stands in contrast to surrounding barren mountains. By now, he has produced around 15 lakh trees out of his nursery and distributed two lakh saplings among farmers.
Kesari inherited 25 kanals (around three acres) of rocky mountainous land, where local residents say nothing could grow. He started growing root sucker plants. His attempt to get water for his land failed repeatedly. First it was opposed by people living downstream. Then a water supply scheme disappeared in corrupt hands. After ten years of struggle water kissed his barren land in March 1980, briefly, as some people stole the supply pipes laid after ten days. It took four more years for the land to taste water again, this time from another spring, which became its lifeline.
Then there was no looking back. Species after species of plants grew under magic hands of Kesri.
A year after in 1985, the district administration labeled his garden as an ecosystem and awarded an olive plantation project on its 15 kanal patch. Now he has 200 olive plants. This year, Kesri expects olive oil production to touch 6 quintals. A litre of olive oil sells at Rs 1300 per liter.
His success at olive production encouraged other farmers to start farming from stem grafts taken from Kesri.
There are 50,000 trees of different species in his garden, now spread on 100 kanals (around 12 acres). These include walnut, pear, olive, weeping willow, poplar, willows, rubinia, dhaman, bheemu, kali, aloe vera (medicinal), kemru, cyprus Italian, conifer, geranium, strawberry, khoobani, lassino and others.    
A team of European horticulture experts who visited Kesari’s farm in nineties estimated income of such an eco system at Rs one crore per year. They said that Rs 50 lakh would come from fruits, Rs 50 lakh from Olive oil plus other income from sale of fuel, fodder and saplings if the farm produced at its full potential.
The ecosystem also attracts wild animals. Wild fowls are regulars and a leopard with her cubs also frequents the place to escape the heat of rocky and barren mountains.
Kesri isn’t just content with growing tress on his farm. He is active campaigner for afforestation. He goes to schools and colleges and asks students to plant a tree on their birthdays. “It has worked as about ten thousand trees have been planted by these children on their birthdays alone,” says Kesri beaming with pride.
He also supplies plants to various government departments like social forestry, horticulture, fire service and others. Even army and other security agencies prefer to get plant saplings from Kesri.
He has planted trees in DC office Doda, Girls and Boys Higher secondary Doda, Xavier Convent School Jammu and number of other institutions.
Kesari contested for Parliament in 1998. More than political rhetoric, he would distribute saplings during campaigns. The limelight of electioneering “I thought would be good for my cause.” He adds that garnering votes was not his priority. He lost his security deposit.
He is disappointed over the state of forests. “If the official-smuggler nexus continues, our state will soon turn into a desert.”  
He says that Social Forestry gets crores of rupees for plantations each year. “If they had utilized even a fraction of that amount, our Doda would have been full of greenery,” he says.
Instead, in 2002, the Social Forestry Department uprooted 1100 trees planted by Kesri on a nearby forest land accusing him of trying to occupy state land.
His work has earned him enemies too. On his tip, forest officials once seized a the official vehicle of a local police officer used for smuggling timber.
Dr. Ventavali of European horticulture delegation that visited Doda in 1992 wrote in his official comments “land in Doda is not good but man behind land is good. If he would have been in Italy, he would have been awarded to hoist national flag but I don’t know how things work in India.” Dr Jonathan of Italy named him as “Governor General of ecosystem.”
In 1994, the then Deputy Commissioner Doda Sudhanshu Pandey declared Kesri as Impossible Resistant Napoleon for growing fruit plants in an area with unfavorable climate. He also recommended Shram Ratna award for Kesri which he had to decline due to security reasons.
This year, on January 26, he was awarded as an outstanding environmentalist. “I want to use the fame to propagate my experience in the rest of the state,” says Kesri.

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