A tribute to P R Mishra

Gandhi's vision of self-sufficient villages in India still remains a distant dream. Community participation and decentralisation seem nothing but, oft-repeated rhetoric from our politicians. But few individuals do try to rise against the tide and show a ray of hope. Parasu Ram Mishra who died on March 25 this year was one such hero. This protagonist of Sukhomajri's success story was a leading soil conservationist at the Central Soil and Water Conservation Research and Training Institute ( cswcrti ). He single-handedly transformed the denuded hills of Sukhomajri into forest wealth, to be protected by its people.

Sukhomajri, in the Panchkula district near Chandigarh was yet another dry village in the foothills of Shivalik. In the 1970's it was in the grip of severe ecological problems. Although it received 1,100 mm of rainfall, its groundwater levels were very low. It was a cyclic story of woe. The condition of the soil made vegetation sparse which in turn led to severe erosion and runoff. Due to scarcity of land caused by economic insecurity, villagers had started clearing hill slopes to bring them under the plough. While this yielded little, it reduced the land's water retention capacity and fertile topsoil, which got washed away during the rains every year.

By 1976, barely 13 years after the artificial Sukhna lake was created, 15 kilometres from Sukhomajri more than 68 percent of its storage capacity was reduced as it got filled with sediment. The cswcrti , team was sent to survey the catchment of the lake to probe the cause of the high sediment rate. It was soon discovered that, acute degradation had occurred in the hills near Sukhomajri. Barely five per cent of the slopes had any vegetative cover.

As agriculture was in the grip of uncertainty, the villagers traditionally kept herds of livestock to minimise risk. The cattle were allowed to graze in the hills adjoining the village. Uncontrollable grazing with no respite led to severe erosion, and low grass production. The economy of the village was in shambles. Houses had nothing but poverty and malnourished people.

This was the scenario in which soil conservationist P R Mishra entered Sukhomajri. In his own words, he only saw "naked hills and naked people'. Mishra and his team