Sunday, July 10, 2011


"I wish I had woken up from my sleep 10 years ahead,” 83-year-old, ‘BAPPA’ as he is popularly known by one and all, reminisces Premji Bhai Patel of Upleta, district Rajkot, Gujarat. Even at this age, his passion and physical demeanour was really hard to believe, when I met him in April. Incredible is his resolve and passion to save the poor farmers and provide succour to one and all by spreading greenery through his plantation drive. He is the only man among 1.2 billion Indians, who have been honoured with National Award by President APJ Kalam twice, once for Rain Water Harvesting and Conservation of Water, and the second time for planting more than 1 crore plants.

Greenery in fields even in the Summer months...

His dedication, devotion and passion to do something for the nation and the poor farmers in particular has seen him doing the unexpected by using simple technique. Action speaks louder than words, is true in Bappa’s greatness! However, this simple man recalls how it all started with a smile, “I was in Bombay and was in the Textile business and also was into explosives trading (closed it in 1977). It was in the mid 50s when a farmer from my village came to me and said there is no water in the well because of drought. I gave him some explosives and said use it. He came running to thank me and said now there is water with the depth of the well increased to another 10 feet.” The same farmer approached Bappa for three consecutive years with his water problem and each time, few sticks were given and the water level kept increasing with the depth of the well.

Bappa revealed, that farmer changed his life once for all. He left his business in Bombay at the age of 56 years (he says, "I took voluntary retirement from service to devout my life for the sake of poor farmers") to pursue in what he believed strongly, increasing the ground water table of the area. From 1962 to 1968, he was talking to villagers about rain water harvesting and conservation of water and how they could refill their respective wells with simple technique. However, people including his best friends thought he was a fool to talk all this nonsense. “It was tough because people thought I was mad. No one believed me and my own friends were making fun of me,” he recalls the early years of struggle. It did not deter the spirit of Bappa, who knew 'if I can do it, so can others'. So he started work from his own well with great success. When he made his house in 1973, he dug three feet of soil to fill it with pebbles and sand around his house compound, the simple technique to harvest rain water in an effective manner.

At the backdrop 2000 Neem Trees planted by Bappa...

“Whenever it used to rain heavily, while you can see everywhere water logging, my house compound was completely dry because water was soaked by the sand to push inside the ground and the water in the well became sweet too!" This unusual thing (for others) was noticed by many of his friends, friends who had made fun of him earlier. In 1983 he left Bombay once for all to start work in his village. “It took me three long years finally to convince one fool like me in a village, who believed in what I said. And since then, we have never looked back,” recalls Bappa. Slowly farmers gathered to share his vision and those who did not join in, felt left out, when the united farmers were reaping fruits of the check dams by irrigating their fields to get three crop cycles yearly. In 1987, Gujarat was under severe drought – Depha Kaal (drought year in Gujarati) and Premji Bhai Patel developed the VACCINE FOR DROUGHT!

Premji Bhai Patel - BAPPA ... The Visionary Man of Upleta

He says with great confidence, “If we can tap even 15 inches of rain water every year, no one will face water problem in India and even in the driest region, it rains more than 15 inches per year. Planting trees to increase the green cover is the most important aspect to get more rain in any region. I wondered how to save trees and realized Babul did not require much water and is considered a useless tree, which villagers can use as firewood – the fuel to cook. This way, other green trees will be saved from being chopped off for firewood. So I bought 45 tonnes (collected from all India seeds traders) of babul seeds and planted everywhere.” Bappa is responsible for creating the babul revolution in a way in India. He must have planted more than 5 crore (billion) trees but he was awarded by the President of India for planting just 1 crore, which itself is a record in its self!

BAPPA means Father figure in Gujarati language... for villagers he is their father fugure

He remembers with fondness, “Kalam sir was very interested to meet the person who had planted 1 crore plants, so when I was called upon to meet him in person... he was shocked to see me. Shocked, because he had earlier awarded me for water conservation projects and was very happy to meet me again! He spend more than 30 minutes trying to understand how I managed to plant so many trees. I told him, I invented a seed gun, which is used to throw seeds far away in all direction to achieve this (Bappa used to travel on the highway from midnight 0000 hrs till 5 in the morning to plant the seeds with his two dedicated staff). I feel really honoured, for the President is a very busy man and he spent 30 long minutes with an old man like me to understand the technique. APJ Kalam sahab is truly a gem of a person!” His passion even at this age is incredible and unparallel in all aspects.

Check Dams have solved the problems of irrigation for the farmers of Saurastra Region...

When I visited Bappa, he kept tab on my journey and kept guiding me like a loving doting grandfather would. He even got angry for delaying my arrival but I was shocked to see him standing right in front of the door (even before the door of the bus was opened) to receive his long lost grandson. Touching his feet was like returning home to meet the grandpa... it was the most wonderful moment of the whole trip... from 4.30 pm to 7.30 pm he took me to various villages and showed me various check dams, 2000 Neem tree plantation with his new technique of using minimum water and sharing every little nuances of rain water harvesting and water conservation. The passion at this age was giving me the inspiration of the lifetime. I didn’t even see him yawning even once from 4.30 pm to 1.30 am till we went to sleep. AMAZING!

Once we reached home, everything was arranged for my bath already and then we went to have dinner at a nearby restaurant, while talking all the time about rain water harvesting and plantation. Unlike other NGOs, Bappa’s Vruksha Prem Seva Trust has just two and a half staff. I was surprised, so he revealed, “I have two dedicated staff and at this age, I am the half!” His sense of humour was outstanding!

From 9.30 pm to 1.30 pm, he was talking about his happy and bitter experiences about achieving the unexpected... it is sad to know that near about 3.70 crores is still pending with the Government Office of Gujarat... he minces no bones to say, “The new official wants a kickback of 15 %, which I am not ready to give to him all my life. Let the money remain with the government. I have spent enough money of my own since the last 27 years... maybe if I had bought gold by all that money that I had invested on check dams and plants, I would have had more than 6 kilos of gold... imagine how much money it would be worth now (laughs). But I am content that God has given me enough to live a simple life, and living for others is the joy that I shall always cherish.”

The next day, Bappa woke me up with a hot cup of tea and said, “I can only make tea and rice. Come on young man, let us have breakfast.” After bath, Bappa took me to his office and the simplicity of this young man is truly so infectious and loving. He said, “I always keep an Atlas and a Dictionary with me, so that when I see (on TV) or read (in newspapers) about any happenings, I immediately refer to the Atlas to see where it happened (he showed me in a fraction of a second opening the huge World Atlas Fukushima, Japan) and when a new word crops up, I find out its meaning. Knowledge is very important.” Baapa’s kindness is known to all schools, where he gifts World Atlas and Dictionary worth thousands of rupees every year.

My loving grandfather and grandmother - Mr. and Mrs, Premji Bhai Patel 

I shared some beautiful moments with Bappa’s wife, my loving granny (he calls her his Home Minister), who is love personified. Later, we had lunch and with their blessings I left Upleta with a promise to meet my loving grandfather and grandmother soon. Bappa always travel all over India when he reads about any water conservation projects being done in an effective manner by any individuals like him. The dedication, the devotion and the passion to live for others of BAPPA is truly-truly worth sincere SALUTE from every single Indian and citizen of the world. I feel blessed to meet him and share two lovely days of great learning.

Below are some information I collected from:

Vruksha Prem Seva Trust has implemented Ministry of Rural Development sponsored 30 watershed Projects covering since1995 in talukas of Jamkandorana and Gondal in Rajkot district. A total of 25,000 - 30,000 hectares land has been brought under the watershed development programme. These projects involved construction of 21600 check dams covering 15,000 ha land benefiting around 5500 families. The Trust also undertook the construction of 500 underground tanks for rain water harvesting in 30 villages. The community owned and managed watershed intervention carried out using indigenous and low cost technology has been replicated in 16 more villages. The community participation in the project had positive impact on creating ownership for the project and this is evident in beneficiaries generously donating a part of their land to increase the width of the existing check dams for enhancing their water storage capacity. The paper focuses on the need for community participation using indigenous and low cost technologies in watershed management programs.

The Vruksh Prem Seva Trust was started by well-known environmentalist Shri Premjibhai Patel in 1968 in the backward area of the Upleta taluka, Rajkot district, Gujarat. He had the burgeoning natural vigor to work for conservation of nature that made him quit his government service to usher in his noble idea of mitigating water scarcity through watershed development. The Vruksh Prem Seva Trust, under his leadership, has been instrumental in launching a campaign for ground water augmentation through well recharge. The most phenomenal achievement has been the initiation of the community contribution for well recharging activity which was as high as 65%.

Premji Bhai is also a fast learner. While the government has been deliberating upon the merits of the semicircular check dam design, Premji Bhai tested it and also replicated it with some location specific improvements. Innovations in check dam designs have become almost a rule with him, rather than an exception. Till date he has built 1,500 check dams for which he has given the complete financial support and 400 other dams for which he has provided the cement. He has also been instrumental in laying out 50,000 feet of pipelines for recharging underground wells. Even at 70, he does this work with fantastic levels of enthusiasm and zeal.