The man who talks to trees

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Om Prakash Vidyarthi

Om Prakash Sharma, or ‘Vidyarthi’ as he is popularly known among the writing fraternity, is one of those few people who not only make their passion their profession but also do exceedingly well at it. An admirer of nature from the very beginning, Vidyarthi has not only done commendable work regarding awareness and conservation about the forest flora of Himalayas, Shivaliks and medicinal plants, but has also written extensively on the subject, going as far as winning the second highest literary honour of the country, Sahitya Akademi Award for his contribution to Dogri literature. Working non-stop to spread awareness about preservation of the environment, through his mission “Tree Talk”, Vidyarthi’s life story makes for an interesting read.

Born and brought up in Ramnagar town of Udhampur district, Vidyarthi, as Om Prakash Sharma is known, was inclined towards nature and its beauty since his childhood, coming from this beautiful place. “Ever since my childhood, I used to spend time in flowery meadows and woodlands, plucking blooms of splendour whenever I happen to lay my hands on them. Winter Flax Reinwardtia indica called Basant attracted me around Basant Panchmi in early spring and I use to collect them as bouquets along with my friends. Stellate Tulip found growing in wheat fields and fallow fields along with other tiny blooms like Krishan neel Anagallis arvensis, Chhota Takla Silene conoidea and Vetchling Lathyrus aphaca, along with trees like Semal Bombax ceiba, Coral tree Thubb and parrot tree called Palash or Palaah also fascinated me as a youngster,” shares Vidyarthi. His attraction to nature and its elements soon found its voice in Vidyarthi’s words who was a fairly know poet during his college days. But his first work was Chananni Di Kanso, a collection of poems in Dogri that got published in 1984, the same year Vidyarthi qualified Kashmir Administrative Services.

Vidyarthi followed Chananni di Kanso with two more books that came out in next two years, in Jaram Rog, a short story collection and Duggar di Vanaspati, a scientific book explaining the flora and fauna of Jammu region. In 1985, Vidyarthi qualified Civil Services Examination and joined Indian Forest Services (IFS) in 1987. It is very rare to come across people who were fortunate enough to have found professions similar to their hobbies and Vidyarthi is one such man. “I wrote my first book in 1984 and ever since then, I have published a book, almost every year. My passion towards Nature found new opportunities as I joined Indian Forest Services. The subject of my writing totally shifted to forests and environment afterwards and it has remained so till now,” he says.

According to him, the flora and fauna of the state make for one of unique kinds in the whole of the country. He cites it with an example, “When I used to visit my maternal uncle’s home at Ratahal in Ramnagar, Red Rhododendron, when laden in brick red blooms, used to be my first love. These trees have unparalleled visual beauty but no fragrance. This is attributed to a very interesting reason as explained by folk tales. As per a folk story, these trees used to have beauty as well as fragrance before Lord Rama cursed it as the rhodo gave no polite answer to Rama’s query about lost Sita.”

Having grown up as an admirer of nature, his words echo his mission towards a better environment. His writings, figuratively, take one to a clean river flowing, a cool breeze blowing, a bud blossoming into a flower, the chirping birds flying to a rising sun. Vidyarthi’s commitment and dedication towards preserving environment saw him climbing many ladders, both in his profession as well as in his writing stint. As a writer, he expanded his writing to Hindi and English, in addition to Dogri. Since then, Vidyarthi has penned down a total of 38 books in these languages, in the form of poems, short stories and scientific journals. He has been able to coin near about 6000 scientific terms for flora and fauna found in the three regions of the state. His books have been written on Forestry and Non-Forestry subjects. The most notable among them are ‘Trip Trip Chete’, ‘Jungle Hassya Ae’, ‘Cheed te Chinaar’, ‘Kudrat de Rang’, ‘Duggar De Jeev-Jantu’, ‘Aungal fadi Basanta Ne’, ‘Kagaar pe Khadi Zindagi’, ‘Dard Jungle Ka’, ‘Roghaar Paude’, ‘Plants of Parks and Garden’, ‘Wild flowers for Ecotourists and Naturalists’, ‘Wild & Cultivated Plants of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh’, ‘Ecotourism Destinations – Gurez, Gangbal & Gulmarg’ and ‘Forest Flora of Kashmir’. His one of the most significant works came in 2003, when Vidyarthi compiled the Trilingual Dictionary on Biodiversity in Dogri, English and Hindi, giving the names to thousands of plants, trees and flowers in the state.

Besides being a writer, Vidyarthi is also a qualified forester with an experience of around 29 years, working in administration in the state government. In 29 years of service, Vidyarthi has served in various capacities which include D.F.O. Research, D.C.F. Communication & Extension J&K Social Forestry Department, D.C.F. State Vigilance Organization, Regional Director Pollution Control Board, Joint Director J&K State Forest Research Institute, Conservator of Forests Working Plan, Conservator of Forests Vigilance, Chief Conservator of Forests (Ecotourism) J&K Wildlife Protection Department, CCF Settlement and Demarcation, CCF Central and is presently serving as Director, Ecology, Environment and Remote Sensing, Government of Jammu and Kashmir. He has, recently, been promoted to the level of Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests.

His greatest achievement as a writer came in 2002 when his book “Trip Trip Chete” was given the Sahitya Akademi Award, the second highest literary award of India after the Jnanpith Award, given by the Sahitya Akademi, India’s national academy of letters, to one writer every year in each of the languages recognized by it. “Trip Trip Chete” was Vidyarthi’s travelogue to three regions of the state, Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh and comprised of the experiences he had with the environment of these regions.  On popular demand, Vidyarthi also translated the book in Hindi, which was published by the name “Boond Boond Smritiyan” in the year 2009. . He has also contributed three scientific papers published in various journals of repute.

Vidyarthi, who considers himself still a student, writes with the same pen name. His writings reflect his skill of making complex concepts understandable to common masses and this, he considers as his greatest weapon to connect with his readers. He reflects his concern, “In past 6 decades, our state has lost almost half of the forest cover. Forests and Environment are not a piece of decoration, but an essential, of which we have no alternative. This is a life-sustaining system without which we cannot survive and hence there is a dire need to work for the conversation of the environment and to replenish the forest cover. Clean water to drink, fresh air to breathe in, and good quality soil to grow our food, is the bare minimum we must preserve from all that nature has given us.  Otherwise, the day is not far, when we will be totally dependent on factories and technology to get water, air and food. And for it we need to aware the common masses,” he warns.

“With the changing times, the approach of people has changed from community-centric to individual-centric. Today, no one cares about anyone else but only for themselves. Another thing that has happened is the vanishing of popular beliefs among people. Mansar Lake still exists because of the belief locals had about it. Similarly, in Chandigam in Lolab valley in Kashmir, such popular belief has helped to protect the forests of the area for past 120 years, without any fencing or forest guards,” he explains.

In a bid to strengthen his mission for forest conversation, Vidyarthi started a weekly environmental awareness program ‘Tree Talk’, an innovative setup where he tries to let the people come close to nature in its rawest form. He explains the thought behind this, “The outreach of my book was always going to be limited, no matter how much copies I publish. To overcome this, I thought of starting a setup where more and more people can be engaged into my mission and this is how ‘Tree Talk’ happened. This includes no formality, no compulsion, no stage and no conference hall. We go out in nature and talk about nature, every week. Anyone and everyone can come and join us, be it a common man or a minister, as we all breathe the same air.”

Ever since its inception on 19th of December, 2010, Vidyarthi had so far held 445 ‘Tree Talks’, the last one being held at Panchvakhtar temple at Residency road. Vidyarthi hopes to go on and on with his mission and is confident to seeing a better future.

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