Feature Image: Bonnie’s tour group sits with the young women who have benefit from Shyam Sundar Paliwal’s gesture of kindness / Photo provided by Bonnie Hinschberger
By Bonnie Hinscheberger, Guest Writer
The saying goes that “it takes a village” to raise a child.
Shyam Sundar Paliwal, the former village chief, plants trees for every girl born in his village / Photo provided by Bonnie Hinschberger
No one in rural India defines this saying more than former village chief Shyam Sundar Paliwal, whom I had the pleasure of first meeting in 2016. I first heard of Paliwal and the village of Piplantri, between Deogarh and Udaipur, after reading an article in a travel magazine. I immediately knew I wanted to have an opportunity to hear his story. Arrangements were made to visit this remote village in semi-arid Rajasthan. Paliwal welcomed us and shared his enriching story with pride and enthusiasm.
In India, like many other parts of the world, the birth of a baby girl is often considered a burden to the family. But in Piplantri, Shyam Sundar Paliwal has transformed the birth of a girl into a village celebration and pledged commitment. After the loss of his daughter, he wanted to do something in her memory to improve his village and the lives of those who resided there.
There were three changes he wanted to make:
The first was to have water accessible to all villagers. His village was suffering from a lack of water caused by marble mining. Initially promising employment to local communities mining has contributed to devasting deforestation, water supplies and ailments, among others.
The second change was to shift the attitude of villagers when a girl was born. Girls are considered a liability to the family due to the dowry that is traditionally given by the bride’s family to the groom’s family upon marriage.
And third, he wanted to eradicate the practice of marrying girls before the legal age of 18 and instead, provide them with an opportunity to receive an education.
Paliwal’s platform was defined by three words, water, daughters, and trees. In 2006, after meeting with his council members and gaining communal support, Paliwal launched his initiative.
Our 2019 tour group. / Photo provided by Bonnie Hinschberger
If You Go
Piplantri is located in Rajasthan between Deogarh and Udaipur. Day tours are not widely available for independent travellers, unless arranged in advance through your travel provider. A few small group tour companies include Piplantri in their itineraries.
During one of Bonnie’s visits a film crew from Argentina was in Piplantri filming a documentary. The documentary called Sisters of the Trees is available at www.guidedoc.tv.
To celebrate the birth of every baby girl, 111 trees are planted in her honour. The family is responsible for caring for the trees and then the trees are given to the girl when she becomes old enough to care for them. Every baby girl receives a “20-year trust” fund, two-thirds raised collectively by the villagers and one-third by the family. The family signs an affidavit and takes a pledge to agree to eliminate infanticide, to provide their daughter with an education, and to not arrange a marriage for their daughter until after the legal age of 18.
Seedlings ready to be planted. / Photo provided by Bonnie Hinschberger
To date more than 300,000 trees have been planted in Piplantri, and the village has transformed into a lush, green, oasis. The water table has increased to levels that are beyond sustainable, providing plenty of water for all villagers. Another opportunity presented itself as 3 million aloe vera plants, planted to combat termites and pests, created a business opportunity of aloe-based products, now a source of income to the women and families who tend to them.
The most rewarding change is how this initiative has improved the lives of girls and all villagers in the community. With a guaranteed trust fund, maturing over 20 years, families are no longer burdened with the expense of a dowry. With girls not marrying before the age of 18, they now receive an education and becoming self-reliant. There are now as many girls as boys in the village school and additional classrooms have been built to accommodate the increase in students.
Piplantri is truly a success story. Paliwal’s initiative has become a model for several other villages in Rajasthan and beyond. While no longer the village chief, Paliwal has become a highly regarded public speaker and now travels the country implementing his platform and improving the lives of girls and women in other rural villages.
Yes, it does take a village, and while Shyam Sundar Paliwal defines this, he has also proven that one person really can make a difference in this world. I have now visited Piplantri three times over the past three years. Each year, Paliwal personally takes the time to welcome us. The women, once very shy, now display self-confidence and a genuine sense of gratitude for the opportunities they and their children now have. Many of the first girls in the program, now in high school, are already making plans to use part of their trust fund for post-secondary education. The men are appreciative too and eager to continue supporting the program. After the farewells and hugs from the ladies, I leave Piplantri knowing that Paliwal’s vision has inspired these villagers to be strong, resilient, and beautiful and for that I am forever grateful.
The signature tree, decorated by the community as a symbol to Paliwal’s daughter and the girls of the community. / Photo provided by Bonnie Hinschberger
Watch the women of the village sing their welcome song / Video provided by Bonnie Hinschberger
Bonnie’s 30+ year career in the travel industry has afforded her a wealth of extraordinary travel experiences. She has a passion for travelling off the beaten path, embracing new cultures, interacting with locals, and exploring the nooks and crannies of destinations. She is the Co-Founder of Broad Escapes – Tours for Women and enjoys enriching the lives of women through travel.