Growing Up Green in Rajasthan: Feminism and Grassroots Desertification Combat in Piplantri Village


To what extent did the Piplantri reforestation succeed in its goal to promote gender equality and empower women and girls in the village? This initiative has been examined on its own, as well as through the lenses of Social Movement Theory, Political Ecology, and Environment and Development, and results have been inconclusive. I found Environment and Development to be the most useful lens through which to study Piplantri, due to the depth of the relevant sources, which lent themselves well to a critical examination of the Piplantri case; however, due to the lack of information on the Piplantri case and the superficial nature of the news sources at my disposal, the examination proved inconclusive. Certain apparent factors indicate that the Piplantri initiative might very well precipitate female empowerment within the community and lead to greater gender equality in the future, but what little quantitative data exists is not particularly promising, and the lack of female involvement in both the decision-making and reporting processes is not encouraging. The Piplantri case may be an ecological success; however, its impact may prove detrimental to its purported beneficiaries.

The Case: Grassroots Afforestation in Rajasthan

In 2006, former sarpanch of the Piplantri village in Rajasthan’s Rajsamad district, Shyam Sundar Paliwal, began an initiative to combat female feticide and empower girls and women, while also increasing the village’s economic capacity and combating the forest degradation that has led to increased encroachment of the Thar Desert into Rajasthan.[1] The death of his daughter, Kiran, inspired the movement, and outwardly it has since been quite successful.[2] Upon the birth of a girl in the village, 111 trees are planted in her honor, donations of ₹21,000 by the village and ₹10,000 by the panchayat are placed into a fixed deposit (FD) account, and the family signs an affidavit promising not to engage in infanticide or marry off their daughter until she turns 18.[3] As long as the parents adhere to the agreement and “the daughters are nurtured, educated and not prematurely married off,” the family will have access to the fixed deposit money after 20 years.[4] Parents are also required to “nurture the saplings till they are mature,” and some have even gone above and beyond these stipulated requirements; Gehrilal Balai, for example, now plants a new tree on his daughter’s birthday, in addition to the 111 planted when she was born.[5] This change in attitude appears striking when one considers this initiative’s participants; in a village of approximately 8,000 residents, 60 girls on average are born each year, about half of whom are accepted with reluctance by their families[6] and are considered disposable, according to Georges Arsenault, head of Unicef India.[7] These girl-averse families are identified by a village committee, and it is these families to whom the proposal is made for a collection to be taken up.[8] If Balai’s change in attitude toward his daughter–that is, his decision to celebrate her birthday by planting a new tree each year, which is not required under the terms of the initial agreement–represents a general change in the attitude of the average family toward its daughters, then the initiative has been at least ideologically successful.

In the six years between the start of the initiative and 2013, according to The Hindu, 250,000 neem, sheesham, mango, amla, and other trees have been planted, along with aloe vera plants to protect the trees from termites.[9] According to Mr. Paliwal, once the village realized that aloe vera was not only useful for protecting trees but also a marketable commodity, they brought in outside experts to train women to turn the plant into juice, gel, pickles, and other goods that could be sold for a profit.[10] The mixed success of the initiative in promoting gender equality and environmental sustainability is visible in two ways: an overall increase in gender disparity, and an overall increase in village health and security. According to the Hindu, Piplantri has “banned alcohol, open grazing of animals and cutting of trees,” and has reported no police cases since 2005 or ’06,[11] though self-reported numbers should be subject to some scrutiny. At the same time, while a 2001 census reported a gender ratio of 1000:1000 females to males, the 2011 census reported a gender ratio of 990:1000 females to males. Though this is still higher than the overall Rajasthan ratio of 929:1000 females to males,[12] it nevertheless constitutes a decline in numerical equity between male and female children, and indicates that Paliwal’s initiative might not have been as tangibly successful as The Hindu, Hindustan Times, and Huffington Post have claimed.

NGOs and Civil Society Advocacy: Social Movement Theory

In an article on household drought coping strategies in Rajasthan, Jai Singh Rathore discusses agro-forestry and tree management alongside migration, livestock- and animal-husbandry, financial-based management, and other strategies. According to this article, farmers in the region have traditionally “maintained trees partly as a form of insurance for use in times of severe droughts, prolonged sickness, and other periods of critical scarcity.” Trees can be cut down and harvested for wood or sold for money in place of crops (which, in cases of prolonged sickness or drought, would be difficult to cultivate). Not only are trees such a lucrative commodity that “during drought years [they] fetch as high a price as foodgrains,” but they also provide a crucial service during rainy years, since “the crop yields around khejri trees and ber bush colonies are often higher than in other parts of the same plots.”[13] In rural Rajasthan,  the critical relationship between farmers and foliage is being undermined by ambiguity regarding the ownership and usage rights of common forest resources which has been caused by land reforms and  property redistribution. This has weakened farmers’ ordinary system of harvest and crop planting and forest usage, and has “adversely affected farmers’ tree management systems.”

The case of Piplantri Village does not appear at first to have anything to do with farming. The initiative was begun as a commemorative act by Paliwal for his daughter. However, one must consider the reasons why Paliwal might have chosen this particular mode of commemoration. As Rathore’s article demonstrates, there is a clear history in Rajasthan of a close relationship between rural communities and trees as a source of life and livelihood, and it seems likely that Paliwal’s decision to commemorate his daughter by planting trees in her honor–and the community’s subsequent adoption of this practice–is the logical evolution of a cultural understanding into an institutional practice.

This cultural understanding of the critical importance of trees and of maintaining forest health is something which Udaya Sekhar Nagothu argues has been entirely ignored by the “researchers, state agencies and conservationists” who contribute to mainstream attitudes of who is to blame for deforestation in Rajasthan.[14] According to Nagothu, it is a matter of convenience for state agencies and other authorities to subscribe to these mainstream views and “exclude local communities from forests and protected areas,” such as the Sariska Tiger Reserve (STR) in Rajasthan, rather than deeply examine the realities of rural communities’ actual land use practices.[15] Non-consumptive land use practices, such as the religious and social valuation of forests, have resulted in “rules and conventions” put in place through systems of local governance (such as panchayats like the one that governs Piplantri, which is partially responsible for the deposit of money into a family’s account). In addition, Nagothu explains that placing the blame for deforestation on rural communities ignores that their consumption and extraction “largely involves collection of dry and fallen wood rather than cutting of trees,” and that while it is true that rural communities are very reliant on wood fuel, their means of obtaining it are not traditionally as destructive as mainstream wisdom declares.[16] “Local strategies,” Nagothu argues, “such as changing livestock composition, regulated grazing patterns, fodder production on private farms and restrictions on the use of resources from temple lands” are just as–if not more–effective than the mainstream top-down approaches to reforestation and the cessation of deforestation in Rajasthan currently practiced by India’s government.[17] Nagothu advocates for a more “culturally appropriate” form of forest management, one which takes the wisdom, practices, and needs of local communities into account, and it is possible that Piplantri’s reforestation efforts and practices could be used as a viable model (though not a blueprint, since each village’s needs and practices differ, and therefore require subtly different approaches) for sustainable forest use policy. After all, Piplantri planted a quarter of a million trees in a six-year period, and found the aloe vera planted in the vicinity to be more marketable than the wood itself. This successful reforestation effort owes its success to community involvement and the empowerment and agency of local people. “Alienating local people from forests over which they previously had access and control can have negative implications for forest management,”[18] and as the Piplantri case shows, communities which have the power to control their land–and feel secure that doing so will provide them with long-term as well as short-term benefits–are more likely to invest in the future, rather than take what they need in the present.

Rajendra Singh, in his chapter on water harvesting in Rajasthan, echoes the sentiment expressed by Nagothu that local wisdom about conservation, reforestation, and other drought-mitigating practices is more effective than government approaches, but this wisdom is usually regarded with disdain or contempt by those who attribute degradation primarily to rural and impoverished communities.[19] Singh’s case study focuses on water conservation rather than reforestation and his home district of Alwar, Rajasthan rather than Rajsamad. But, there are several parallels between his case study and the case of Piplantri. Along with deforestation, one of the other causes of desertification and the encroachment of the Thar Desert into the Aravalli hills region of Rajasthan is the depletion of non-saline aquifers in the region and the inability of the ground to hold water for long enough that plant life has the opportunity to take root.[20] Singh describes how, when he and three others went to the village of Mangu Meena in 1985 intending to find ways to increase prosperity, the situation seemed so hopeless that two of the four gave up and departed. Singh, however, took the advice of a local lower-caste woman named Nathi Balai and began to implement a nearly forgotten water retention system. These talabs–dams which would prevent rainwater from running off immediately and give it time to seep into the soil and become groundwater–caused a swift improvement in the amount of vegetation and rejuvenated the local ecosystem, and was quickly taken up by other villages in the region.[21] By 2009, when Singh’s chapter was published in The Other India, a local NGO (headed by Singh) called Tarun Bharat Sangh (TBS, or “Indian Youth Association”) had turned the idea into an initiative, and 8,600 talabs had been dug in over 1,068 of the Alwar district’s villages.[22]

Singh’s talab case exemplifies several key factors of civil society advocacy: 1) a return to local wisdom and traditional practices, 2) the efficacy of these practices over those preferred by long-standing institutional powers, and 3) the growth of grass-roots initiatives into organizations with institutional power. Singh illustrates the staying power of the talabs by recounting how “during a heavy monsoon downpour in 1988, the people’s johads [described as small reservoirs held in check by earthen dams, not unlike talabs] stood firm while the government built dam at Jaitpura […] got washed away.”[23] A four-man initiative evolved into a district-wide NGO that has successfully brought water to semi-arid Alwar. If given room and time to grow, the Piplantri tree-planting initiative might do the same. Tree-planting is another way to combat desertification, and while it would be restricted to regions that have already built talabs and johads or whose naturally-occurring sources of fresh water are not too strained, the growth of Singh’s initiative into something district-wide provides precedence for the spread of desertification-combatting grass-roots measures. It is therefore conceivable that what began as a village-wide means of investing in girls could, given the chance, eventually spread to other parts of Rajsamad, and possibly even Rajasthan in general.

However, the growth of such initially grass-roots NGOs is not necessarily a purely positive phenomenon; as with any sort of growth, according to a 2014 article by Saurabh Gupta, the expansion of a local NGO comes with drawbacks. Gupta argues that, while grassroots NGOs have the potential to “alter local power relations and caste-based discriminations,” they also run the risk of becoming too bureaucratic if the emphasis shifts toward efficiency and professionalism for the purpose of self-preservation and away from addressing root causes first and foremost.[24] According to Gupta, NGOs in India have become a force for development and real change. They have gone from “’demanding’ development from the state to actually “’delivering’ development” themselves.[25] However, Gupta argues that while NGOs are relying less on the political structure, they are also moving away from their beneficiaries in terms of hiring practices and focus on types of reform.

Gupta identifies two key trends: “the marginalization of the low-paid field-staff” in favor of urban, educated, higher-level professional staff; and the movement away from altering and dismantling power structures in favor of meeting donation targets and “investing in professionalization” through documentation of projects and increasing their accountability to donors. These trends are the root causes and primary barriers to development, as they cause a bureaucratization of organizations, a resulting reduction in their efficacy, and the alienation of grassroots employees from the organization.[26] Gupta concludes that while NGOs in Rajasthan have a history of effectively disrupting power structures and creating tangible change within communities, they are at risk of de facto replacing the original power-holders if they become too preoccupied with meeting targets and quotas, relegate grass-roots workers to the bottom of the organization hierarchy in favor of urban professionals, and prioritize self-preservation over radical alteration of social landscapes.[27] This does not mean that Piplantri’s initiative cannot eventually spreading to other parts of Rajsamad through NGOs. However, we must consider Gupta’s analysis of the effect that growth has had on the socio-political trajectories of other Rajasthan NGOs. The risk that grassroots members of such an NGO would be marginalized in favor of urban outsiders is quite high, a phenomenon that ultimately undermines civil society advocacy and the importance of social movements in effecting real change. However, the case of Rajendra Singh’s NGO demonstrates how effective such organizations can be in promoting local wisdom and implementing these methods on a relatively large scale. The Piplantri initiative’s future might include growing into an NGO, but it is crucial to recognize what pitfalls it might then be subject to and the risks involved with Indian social movements becoming brick-and-mortar organizations.

Political Ecology: Assessing India’s Approaches to Conservation

Reforestation In Rajasthan–and India in general–is not new; India’s first National Forest Policy (NFP) dates back to 1894. The interest in forests has shifted from timber production to conservation for its own sake, and the sake of the species that rely upon woodland ecosystems, but the target of 33% forest cover set by the 1952 NFP–which was confirmed by both the 1988 NFP and the 2006 National Forestry Commission report–has remained the same.[28] The 33% target is somewhat arbitrary, because instead of resulting from an holistic examination of India and its climates, it was based on an analysis of “existing forest cover in various countries and regions of the world” and the reductive assumption that the positive correlation between forest cover and prosperity in other parts of the world was–at least in part–causal.[29] That the target was reiterated as late as 2009 is problematic, as it indicates a lack of self-awareness on the part of the central governing bodies responsible for forest restoration. This failing is exacerbated by lack of understanding in both academia and the Indian central government of the root causes of forest degradation. Articles–even articles critiquing certain aspects of the NFP–are still being published that list “excess removal of non-timber forest products, fodder, [and] fuelwood” as the primary obstacles to the realization of the NFP’s goals.[30] The paradigm expressed by Joshi, Pant, et al., which renders its adherents more likely to advise playing with target numbers than to actually suggest reforming the top-down, centralized approach to reforestation, is outdated and old-fashioned. Its practical implementation is still, however, predominant in India.

According to a paper on Desertification Control and land degradation management (2004), the Thar Desert is expanding toward New Delhi at a rate of half a kilometer per year. Restoration and anti-desertification initiatives were implemented as early as the 1960s by the Rajasthan forest department, and include a 649 km-long canal from the Himalayas to the Thar, “stabilization of shifting sand dunes,” and the “creation of microclimates” through several afforestation strategies.[31] The top-down focus of these initiatives is impossible to ignore. The afforestation strategies relied heavily on the introduction of “fast growing exotic tree species” from the United States, South and Central America, the Middle East, Africa, and Australia, to address the “slow growing” nature of indigenous species. According to Surendra Singh Chauhan, the growth rates of these introduced tree species are “very promising,” and the displeasure of the “desert dwellers” with the introduction of foreign vegetation constituted a puzzling phenomenon. Chauhan acknowledges that the native Acacia senegal “is of great socio-economic value to [desert inhabitants]” due to its high fuel, fodder, and gum resin yield, and also mentions that this particular species of tree is also “somehow linked with the food chain” of the endangered Great Indian bustard.[32] { [add a sentence to tie the recap of this article back to the point that indigenous species > exotic species] Chauhan also reports the success of sand dune stabilization through increased planting of indigenous and exotic desert species with root networks that bind together tightly and prevent moisture from causing soil erosion, as well as the effectiveness of shelterbelts in reducing wind velocity 20-46% and reducing soil loss due to wind by half. Other efforts by the state to combat desertification included aerial seeding (which Chauhan reports was, in fact, less productive than hand-seeding),[33] afforestation of old limestone and gypsum mines, the fencing off of certain sections of land for 5-20 year periods by the Jodhpur and Rajasthan forest departments, and a government attempt to replicate traditional methods of silvipasture (a mixture of trees and grasses) cultivation using fast-growing exotic tree species.[34] Chauhan concludes, unsurprisingly, that “ecological destruction of the desert ecosystem” and desertification is being caused by the “over-exploitation of fodder and fuel wood” by the very people who depend on those resources for their survival.[35]

This entire article drastically oversimplifies the issue of desertification, and is resoundingly tone-deaf when considered in the context of the Piplantri initiative, which began two or three years after the article’s publication. The opinions of the Thar Desert’s inhabitants are relegated to footnotes and afterthoughts, and while Chauhan does acknowledge the contribution of local custom to the silvipasture cultivation strategy, it is briefly mentioned and swiftly forgotten in favor of listing the genera and species of the government’s chosen trees and shrubs. } However, the Rajasthani forest department’s initiatives are no more worthy of immediate dismissal than the hypothetical Piplantri village NGO, and some of the strategies have indeed been effective. While introducing invasive species to a region is perhaps not particularly wise–given the number of cautionary tales and horror stories that have arisen out of similar ecosystem management strategies in places like Australia–it is difficult to deny that such a substantial decline in soil erosion and wind velocity in tree-screen and shelter-belt plantations is impressive. In addition, the mindful cultivation of indigenous desert species whose root systems keep the sand in place and which are sturdy enough to provide fodder and fuel even in times of extreme drought is a potentially life-saving tactic. At the moment, the Piplantri village planting strategy is limited in its scope; it is worth considering that additional planning with regard to tree and shrub species and location of planting might yield even greater benefits for the community.

Chauhan’s neo-Malthusian understanding of the relationship between people and nature is, according to Nagothu Udaya Sekhar, “predicated on the idea that local people [pose] a serious threat to natural resources” and that Garrett Hardin’s understanding of people as rational actors operating autonomously–resulting in a Tragedy of the Commons–is a paradigm that legitimately explains the cause of environmental degradation in rural areas.[36] N. Shanmugaratnam argues that not only is the neo-Malthusian approach too simplistic to be applicable in the context of rural Rajasthan, but it also is inapplicable to CPRs by default, since CPRs are by definition controlled through systems of governance which prevent the Tragedy of the Commons from occurring.[37] Sekhar examines whether or not the Joint Forest Management (JFM) policy, while outwardly a step towards decentralization of environmental protection, might in practice be “an attempt to institutionalize state dominance­” of the STR,[38] and concludes that while the motivation for the new policy demonstrates an understanding of the counter-neo-Malthusian principles that have become more common in discourses surrounding local impacts on the ecology, the JFM policy has not so far led to any practical change.

One of the key reasons for this, according to Sekhar, is the corruption within the Forest Department and its reluctance to relinquish its authority.[39] During a study of the relationship between the Forest Department and local people, it was found to be “not congenial for a dialogue in most villages,” and there was significant tension between the parties which often resulted in conflicts over resource use–conflicts which were usually resolved through bribes and manipulation of the Forest Department’s permit system.[40] Another factor in the JFM’s lack of success is the fact that “the management of common-pool resources (CPRs) in traditional communities was mostly based on common property rights in the pre-colonial period,” and has not changed much since.[41] CPRs are still divided up along geographical lines which don’t necessarily correspond to social and traditional lines, which restricts some communities from land to which they historically had access and grants access to some communities that historically had no right to those resources, which can lead to conflict.[42] Sekhar advises better responsiveness by the Forest Department to local institutions which are already effective in managing CPRs, and a shift in its role from one of “direction” to one of “facilitation.”[43] Ultimately Sekhar concludes that the Forest Department must include local people and traditional institutions in its plans for forest management, but also that the Department cannot be wholly discarded, as it is necessary for the protection of these traditional institutions against outside forces.[44]

In some Rajasthani states, another barrier to sustainable land use is the panchayats themselves. According to Shanmugaratnam, panchayat circles of authority are too large for cooperation and a sense of community to be fostered within them, and that they are prone to regional and caste-based factionalism, which limits their “technical competence” and “political and administrative strength” on matters of land usage and grazing rights.[45] Additionally, Shanmugaratnam discusses the failure of panchayats to effectively reforest the commons under their jurisdiction, particularly in the states of Nagaur and Jaisalmer.[46] Ordinarily these trees have a very low survival rate due to panchayat failure to adequately water the seeds and protect the young trees from grazing animals. “There is not enough revenue,” according to Shanmugaratnam, for panchayats “to plant trees and tend them until they are established.”[47] Examined within this context, the case of Piplantri is particularly fascinating. When Sundar Paliwal began the initiative in 2006, he was still the sarpanch of the Piplantri panchayat, and to this day the panchayat remains a key participant in the collection of funds for and establishment of fixed deposit accounts for the families of the village’s girls. [48] The reason for this seems to be that, while Paliwal was indeed a member of the local government, the methodology involved in establishing the tree planting initiative was grassroots and ground-up rather than a top-down imposition. As a result, participation is not mandatory; girl-averse families are identified and given the option of gaining access to ₹31,000 after twenty years as long as they plant the 111 trees and sign the affidavit promising to educate their daughter and not marry her off prematurely.[49] Additionally, it seems that the collection taken up among community members for the ₹21,000 might be a voluntary donation. Regardless, the success of the Piplantri initiative–given Shanmugaratnam’s assessment of panchayats’ typical reforestation success–appears atypical, and therefore somewhat puzzling. Clearly it is possible that a panchayat can be cohesive enough as a community to engage in long-term development and reforestation initiatives under the right conditions; the question, then, is how those conditions can be replicated among other Rajasthan panchayats that have displayed a lesser capacity for productive and effective land management. Further study would need to be undertaken in order to determine the causes of Piplantri panchayat’s social cohesiveness and conclusively identify the underlying causes for the success of the 111 tree initiative.

Environment and Development: Ecofeminism and Ecocentrism in India

According to Chandan Kumar Gautam and Anand Prem Rajan of VIT Universty in Vellore, while India’s environmental movements have been largely based on ideals rooted in ecocentrism, eco-feminism has been the driving factor of recent environmental movements in India, and women have been “the real heroes” of such movements.[50] The Chipko movement, in which people from several parts of India protected trees by refusing to move out of the way of woodcutting machinery or by tying sacred threads (symbolizing a sibling relationship in Hindu tradition) around trees which were in danger of being cut down, was initiated in the 1970s by women. It was also inspired by the story of a Rajasthani Bishnoi woman named Amrita Devi who, in 1730, protested the felling of a forest by holding onto a tree and “challenging the king’s men to cut her before cutting the trees.”[51] This martyrdom on behalf of the forest inspired her three daughters and many other Bishnoi families to do the same, which in turn inspired the women who would begin the Chipko movement.[52] In the Bihar district city of Muzaffarpur, on the other side of India from Rajasthan, a tradition similar to the Piplantri initiative was begun around the same time that the Chipko movement was gaining traction; it differed from Piplantri in its intention, however, as the trees planted upon the birth of a girl were a practical investment in lieu of bankable liquid assets rather than a symbolic (and tangentially practical) gesture to supplement a bank account.[53] However, both traditions of tree planting in honor of a girl’s birth, as well as the Chipko movement and the tale of Bishnoi self-sacrifice by which the movement was inspired, suggest a relationship not only in the Indian popular imagination between women and trees, but in quite practical terms between women and conservation.

This relationship can be understood through the experiences of Ela R. Bhatt, the founder of the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), in her article on the relationship between women, power, and money; while the discussion takes place mainly within the context of SEWA, the power/money relationship and the empowerment of women by economic means is a common thread. Bhatt identified several challenges to women, including the interrelated nature of economic and social barriers, meaning that women–generally considered second-class citizens, especially within lower castes–face far greater challenges than their male counterparts, and are expected to do more. Bhatt explains it thus:

“Barriers to entry to labor as well as product markets […] are closely connected with gender, caste, and class. Social institutions, social processes, and social structures have a huge influence over economic development. Moreover, social needs such as health, childcare, education, and housing are all linked to economic capabilities as well as to the provision of social security, by markets, and the state. Thus, it is the market and state structures that determine the poverty or well-being of the people.”[54]

Market and state structures, according to this analysis, are the mechanism primarily responsible for inhibiting social movement among women in particular, and breaking the barriers of these structures by financial means can also be an effective means of social empowerment.[55] One of the reasons why communities such as Piplantri have historically been less than welcoming to girls is that, in socio-historical terms, girls have been regarded as a burden on their families. According to Sundar Paliwal, girls in Rajasthan are undesirable especially among poor communities because “marriage is an expensive proposition” which families are often hard-pressed to afford.[56] It was for this reason that the village of Mustafagunj in the Muzaffarpur district began its tree-planting tradition in the 1970s; ten semal trees were planted on the birth of a girl, and these trees could be harvested at the time of her marriage and sold to pay her dowry.[57] While the tree planting portion of the Piplantri initiative is a little less cynical, it likewise involves a practical aspect: the fixed deposit accounts opened by the panchayat for the families of unwanted girls “give the parents a sense of financial security” and tangible financial incentive not to kill their daughter.[58] The trees themselves–or, more accurately perhaps, the highly profitable aloe vera cultivated around them–provide the women in the village with an additional source of income as the daughters for whom the trees were planted grow up and the FD accounts remain closed. According to Bhatt, money and mobility–not just social, but also the literal ability to move around outside the home–are inextricably linked, and a woman with money is a woman with sanction to go where she pleases and more tangibly and visibly contribute to her family’s wellbeing.[59]

Bina Agarwal of the University of Delhi critiques traditional notions of ecofeminism, especially traditional ecofeminist notions correlating oppression of women and degradation of land. Her critiques support Bhatt’s findings with regard to women’s role in households and economies. According to Agarwal, the mere involvement of women in environmental movements–contrary to what Gautam and Rajan imply–does not necessarily indicate a change in gender relations or a practical furthering of their particular interests.[60] Women, according to Agarwal, “have typically been present in a major way in these movements,” but that has rarely translated into a tangible change in social dynamics.[61] The main problem as Agarwal understands it is that environmental movements–grassroots or otherwise–are mostly initiated and carried out by men, though they overwhelmingly impact women. Women are traditionally excluded from positions of government, and while greening movements initiated at a grassroots level may seem outwardly successful simply due to an increase in foliage cover, the practical implications for women’s equity can be disastrous.[62] “Women’s interests are linked […] to the availability of fuel, fodder, and non-timber products” gathered from forests, and when access to these resources is restricted–for reasons from government intervention and fencing-off of protected areas to the autonomous greening initiatives of village men–it is women who overwhelmingly suffer.[63] Agarwal concludes that, in order for the relationship between women and men to be transformed, women’s bargaining power must be enhanced through economic advancement, social support systems through family members and the state, and the dismantling of outdated conceptions of women’s roles and responsibilities.[64] Bearing Agarwal’s analysis in mind, further examination of the effects of the Piplantri case on women’s economic and social status in the village is absolutely required. The initiative was, after all, begun by a man of great power and influence in the community, and while the media has reported the case as a success story, female perspectives are noticeably absent from every news source used in this paper.[65] What do the mothers of the girls born since 2006 think of the new tradition that has them planting over 3,300 trees a year? How has their socio-economic situation improved in the last decade, if it has at all? If this initiative is to be lauded as a resounding success for ecofeminism, much more rigorous study needs to be undertaken into its real, practical, tangible effects on the community, and the female community in particular.

Agarwal’s view is reemphasized by later research undertaken by Dr. Maria Costanza Torri on the contributions of women to a grass-roots conservation initiative undertaken in Rajasthan’s Sariska Tiger Reserve, in which she concludes that “the active participation of women in community organizations and their empowerment is a prerequisite to allow [sic] the woman to become a beneficiary of community-based conservation.”[66] What Rajendra Singh fails to mention in his somewhat self-congratulatory article on the success of his NGO, Tarun Bharat Sangh, in promoting traditional methods of water harvesting[67] is that it was mostly women who were involved in the actual construction of the johads, according to Torri.[68] “After the massive emigration of the men towards the big cities,” women comprised the entire population of the village of Gopalpura; they built the johads with the help and guidance of the TBS, and after the project proved successful, the women of Sariska were “encouraged and motivated” to undertake similar conservation initiatives within the STR.[69] These initiatives include the construction of several thousand more reservoirs, as well as reforestation and ecosystem restoration within the reserve, which–according to the women whom Torri interviewed–has had a positive impact on their daily life.[70] Torri, like Agarwal, clearly emphasizes the importance of encouraging women “to play a major role in the management of the natural resources […] through a process of empowerment,” and like Agarwal, identifies the often contradictory interests of the men in power and the women responsible for the daily functioning of a household–and the prioritization by social hierarchy of the men’s interests over those of the women. This crucial conflict can only be resolved through the dismantling of traditional gender roles and the promotion of women into positions of authority.[71] It is not enough, Torri and Agarwal argue, for conservation to be undertaken and initiated at local and community levels–conceived and realized by male-dominated panchayats; women must be involved in the decision-making process, or they run the risk of being just as severely marginalized and adversely impacted by the results as they would have been under state-led initiatives.[72]


What implications, then, does Torri and Agarwal’s conclusion have for the sustainability and overall legitimacy of the Piplantri initiative in terms of social development and the empowerment of rural women? The Huffington Post lauds the initiative as a “possible antidote to gender discrimination,” but the claims made by Agarwal and Torri call this into question; if women are not in positions of authority, if the social and economic agency of women is not improving, and if–as the statistics provided at the beginning of this essay demonstrate–the initiative has not produced a quantitative balancing of the gender ratio over the last decade, then it is a nice overture toward promoting gender equality, and little more. The economic benefits of the project through the sale of aloe vera may indeed be providing women with extra income, which as Bhatt argues is a crucial step in the process of empowerment. Additionally, the FD accounts established for the Piplantri girls–the eldest of whom are still nine years from legal marrying age–may, once the girls are old enough that their families can collect the money, strengthen their socioeconomic status and enhance their power in that sense. It will be interesting to see, in ten years’ time, what the benefits have been to the financial and social climate of Piplantri as a result of this initiative; while it is possible that it is simply too soon for any real paradigmatic and ideological changes to have occurred and that it will take decades for them to become visible, there is also the danger that, due to the de facto paternalistic nature of the initiative, it may neither indicate nor cause ideological shifts. Given the limitation of the sources and the frustrating lack of in-depth journalism on the case itself, it is impossible at this time to determine anything about future outcomes or even the current atmosphere. Women’s voices are absent, leading me to believe that this has been a male-dominated endeavor in spite of its overtly feminist appearance, and so I can make no claims either in favor or against the legitimacy of the Piplantri initiative as a tool for development.

I do, however, consider the lens of environment and development to be the most useful in examining this case, particularly because it raises more questions than it answers. Political Ecology is–at least in this case–simplistic at best and paternalistic at worst, and it fails to disentangle the complex relationships not only between rural people and the land they need for subsistence, but also between various castes, classes, genders, and other determinants of social hierarchy and political agency. Civil Society and NGOs under the umbrella of Social Movement Theory are useful to an extent, as the Piplantri case very clearly falls within the boundaries of a social movement with the potential to expand into an NGO; but like Political Ecology, the lens of Social Movement Theory also fails to consider the complex interplay between various sets and subsets of society, and Indian NGOs’ history of growing increasingly problematic in their practices over time makes me think that the Piplantri initiative is perhaps better off at its current scale. Environment and development, especially with regard to the social empowerment of women, is most useful for examining this case, as it allows for the greatest degree of criticism, and raises the most questions. Has the Piplantri initiative caused a noticeable change in female decision-making power within the village hierarchy? Has it increased their financial power? Their bargaining power? Have the rates of female infanticide seen a decline since 2006? Why are female voices not represented in the articles on Piplantri, and is this lack of voice through media indicative of a lack of voice in the village itself? Further study needs to be undertaken on the ground in Piplantri, through interviews with the local women both now and in perhaps ten years’ time, when the initial beneficiaries of the FD accounts and 111 trees planted in their honor are old enough to have received the money, and their families have had time to notice a change–or lack of change–in the ease with which women can carry out their daily tasks. Slow change is better than no change at all, which is why further study ought to be undertaken in the future and judgment deferred until then–but no change at all means that the ‘development’ portion of the Piplantri initiative has failed in its goal to empower women, and that hypothetical failure will have implications for whether or not this is worth replicating on any sort of scale, and what changes ought to be made in order to make hypothetical replications viable in the long term.


Elaine Mumford graduated from American University in 2015.

Works Cited

Agarwal, Bina. “Environmental Management, Equity and Ecofeminism: Debating India’s Experience.” The Journal of Peasant Studies 25.4 (1998): 55-95. Taylor & Francis Online. Web. Mar.-Apr. 2015.

Bhatt, Ela R. “Empowering Women — The SEWA Experience.” The Other India: Realities of an Emerging Power. Ed. Rajesh Chakrabati. New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2009. 260-67. EBSCO. Web. Mar.-Apr. 2015.

Chauhan, Surendra S. “Desertification Control and Management of Land Degradation in the Thar Desert of India.” Environmentalist 23.3 (2003): 219-27. ProQuest. Web. Mar.-Apr. 2015.

Dicker, Ron. “Piplantri Village In India Plants 111 Trees For Each Girl Born, Offers Money For Families To Nurture Daughters.” The Huffington Post. N.p., 26 June 2013. Web. Mar.-Apr. 2015.

Gautam, Chandan K., and Anand P. Rajan. “Ecocentrism in India: An Incredible Model of Peaceful Relation with Nature.” Universal Journal of Environmental Research and Technology 4.2 (2014): 90-99. Environmental Journal. Eurasian Publications. Web. Mar.-Apr. 2015.

Goswami, Rakesh. “A Rajasthan Village Which Celebrates Each Girl Child with 111 Trees.” Hindustan Times. N.p., 08 Mar. 2015. Web. Mar.-Apr. 2015.

Gupta, Saurabh. “From Demanding to Delivering Development: Challenges of NGO-Led Development in Rural Rajasthan, India.” Journal of South Asian Development 9.2 (2014): 121-45. Sage Journals. Web. Mar.-Apr. 2015.

Joshi, Aditya K., Pallavi Pant, Prasant Kumar, Amarnath Giriraj, and Pawan K. Joshi. “National Forest Policy in India: Critique of Targets and Implementation.” Small-Scale Forestry (2010. 6 Sept. 2010. Web. Mar.-Apr. 2015.

Nagothu, Udaya S. “Fuelwood and Fodder Extraction and Deforestation: Mainstream Views in India Discussed on the Basis of Data from the Semi-arid Region of Rajasthan.” Geoforum 32.3 (2001): 319-32. ScienceDirect. Web. Mar.-Apr. 2015.

Rathore, Jai S. “Drought and Household Coping Strategies: A Case of Rajasthan.” Indian Journal of Agricultural Economics 59.4 (2004): 689-708. ProQuest. Web. Mar.-Apr. 2015.

Sekhar, Nagothu U. “Decentralized Natural Resource Management: From State to Co-management in India.” Journal of Environmental Planning and Management 43.1 (2000): 123-38. Taylor & Francis Online. Web. Mar.-Apr. 2015.

Shanmugaratnam, N. “Nationalisation, Privatisation and the Dilemmas of Common Property Management in Western Rajasthan.” Journal of Development Studies 33.2 (1996): 163-87. EBSCO. Web. Mar.-Apr. 2015.

Singh, Mahim P. “A Village That Plants 111 Trees for Every Girl Born in Rajasthan.” The Hindu. N.p., 11 Apr. 2013. Web. Mar.-Apr. 2015.

Singh, Rajendra. “Water Harvesting in Arid Rajasthan and Himalaya—A Story of Community Action.” The Other India: Realities of an Emerging Power. Ed. Rajesh Chakrabarti. New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2009. 246-59. EBSCO. Web. Mar.-Apr. 2015.

Torri, Maria C. “Power, Structure, Gender Relations and Community-Based Conservation: The Cawswe Study of the Sariska Region, Rajasthan, India.” Journal of International Women’s Studies 11.4 (2010): 1-18. ProQuest. Web. Mar.-Apr. 2015.


[1] Rakesh Goswami, “A Rajasthan Village Which Celebrates Each Girl Child with 111 Trees,” Hindustan Times, Marth 8, 2015, <>.

[2] Mahim P Singh, “A Village That Plants 111 Trees for Every Girl Born in Rajasthan,” The Hindu, April 13, 2013, <>.

[3] Goswami, “A Rajasthan Village.”

[4] Ron Dicker, “Piplantri Village In India Plants 111 Trees For Each Girl Born, Offers Money For Families To Nurture Daughters,” The Huffington Post, June 26, 2013, <>.

[5] Goswami, “A Rajasthan Village.”

[6] Singh, “A Village That Plants 111 Trees for Every Girl.”

[7] Dicker, “Piplantri Village.”

[8] Singh, “A Village That Plants 111 Trees for Every Girl.”

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Goswami, “A Rajasthan Village.”

[13] Jai S. Rathore, “Drought and Household Coping Strategies: A Case of Rajasthan,” Indian Journal of Agricultural Economics 59.4 (2004).

[14] Udaya S. Nagothu, “Fuelwood and Fodder Extraction and Deforestation: Mainstream Views in India Discussed on the Basis of Data from the Semi-arid Region of Rajasthan,” Geoforum 32.3 (2001): 319-32.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Nagothu, “Fuelwood and Fodder Extraction,” 319-32.

[19] Rajendra Singh, “Water Harvesting in Arid Rajasthan and Himalaya—A Story of Community Action,” in The Other India: Realities of an Emerging Power, ed. Rajesh Chakrabarti (New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2009), 246-59.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Saurabh Gupta, “From Demanding to Delivering Development: Challenges of NGO-Led Development in Rural Rajasthan, India,” Journal of South Asian Development 9.2 (2014): 121-45.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Aditya K Joshi et Al., “National Forest Policy in India: Critique of Targets and Implementation,” Small-Scale Forestry (2010).

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Surendra S Chauhan, “Desertification Control and Management of Land Degradation in the Thar Desert of India,” Environmentalist 23.3 (2003): 219-27.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Nagothu U Sekhar, “Decentralized Natural Resource Management: From State to Co-management in India,” Journal of Environmental Planning and Management 43.1 (2000): 123-38.

[37] N. Shanmugaratnam, “Nationalisation, Privatisation and the Dilemmas of Common Property Management in Western Rajasthan,” Journal of Development Studies 33.2 (1996): 163-87

[38] Sekhar, “Decentralized Natural Resource Management,” 123-38.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Shanmugaratnam, “Nationalisation, Privatisation and the Dilemmas of Common Property Management,” 163-87.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid.

[48] Goswami, Hindustan Times

[49] Ibid.

[50] Chandan K. Gautam, and Anand P. Rajan, “Ecocentrism in India: An Incredible Model of Peaceful Relation with Nature.” Universal Journal of Environmental Research and Technology 4.2 (2014): 90-99.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Ela R. Bhatt, “Empowering Women — The SEWA Experience,” in The Other India: Realities of an Emerging Power, ed. Rajesh Chakrabati (New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2009), 260-67.

[55] Ibid.

[56] Goswami, “A Rajasthan Village.”

[57] Gautam and Rajan, “Ecocentrism in India,” 90-99.

[58] Goswami, “A Rajasthan Village.”

[59] Bhatt, “Empowering Women,” 260-67.

[60] Bina Agarwal, “Environmental Management, Equity and Ecofeminism: Debating India’s Experience,” The Journal of Peasant Studies 25.4 (1998): 55-95

[61] Ibid.

[62] Ibid.

[63] Ibid.

[64] Agarwal, “Environmental Management, Equity and Ecofeminism,” 55-95.

[65] Singh, The Hindu; Goswami, Hindustan Times; Dicker, The Huffington Post.

[66] Maria C. Torri, “Power, Structure, Gender Relations and Community-Based Conservation: The Cawswe Study of the Sariska Region, Rajasthan, India,” Journal of International Women’s Studies 11.4 (2010): 1-18.

[67] Singh, “Water Harvesting in Arid Rajasthan,” 246-59.

[68] Torri, “Power, Structure, Gender Relations,” 1-18.

[69] Ibid.

[70] Ibid.

[71] Ibid.

[72] Torri, “Power, Structure, Gender Relations,” 1-18; Agarwal, “Environmental Management, Equity and Ecofeminism,” 55-95.

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