India: Greeting Daughters With Fruit Trees

A small, nondescript village in Bihar may have found a way to ameliorate the appalling slaughter of baby girls while tackling global warming and climate change at the same time with a simple solution that incorporates tradition as well as knowledge of farming.

The flood-ravaged districts of eastern Bihar, one of India’s most poverty-stricken states, present a scenario of abject poverty and poor development. If the rest of India were any gauge, their daughters should be missing. According to a recent report by Unicef, as many as 50 million girls and women are missing from India’s population because of systematic gender discrimination. There are fewer than 93 women in India for every 100 men in the population, against 105 female births for every 100 males across the rest of the world. Many of India’s girls, between birth and the age of 5, are killed. The UN estimates that 2,000 girls are aborted every day in India.

But the village, Dharhara. is an exception. Some 20 kilometers from the district headquarters of Bhagalpur, the village is one of the greenest pockets of the region. That is due in part to the fact that for years girls have been welcomed into the world with the local community planting at least 10 fruit trees, traditionally mangoes, in celebration. New daughters here are treated as avatars of the Goddess Lakshmi and stand to inherit these fruit trees as they grow up.

Because of the tradition, the village – which is surrounded by the Ganges River to the south and the unpredictable Kosi River in the north-east – is nestled in the midst of more than 20,000 fruit-bearing trees. Sukriti, the young daughter of the village chief, Parmanand Singh, says: “Even as the world is frantically discussing how to deal with issues like sex-selective abortions, global warming and the carbon footprint, planting trees when girls are born is our simple solution to all these complicated problems.”

In the highly prejudiced Bihari society, where girls are generally seen as financial burdens, dowry deaths that were once common here no longer make the news. Planting trees to celebrate the birth of a girl child is essentially a move to build an asset base for her, which can eventually be used by the family to finance her education and future development. The former pradhan (village chief), Pramod Singh, puts it this way, “She inherits the trees and over the years the fruit not only helps support her family it also helps them bear the expenses of her wedding. We plant the trees at birth because as our girls grow up, so do the trees.”

Pramod planted 10 mango trees 12 years ago when his daughter, Niti, was born. Niti now goes to school and neither her father nor other family members consider her school fees a burden since the money comes from selling the fruit from her trees. Her very traditional mother, Rita Devi, has taken to planning for her marriage already and sees Niti’s trees as an asset in that context.

The unfortunate social practice of dowry may take many more years, or even generations, to overcome, but Madhurani, 20, who got married a couple of years back and is a proud mother of a three-month-old daughter, chooses to be optimistic, “Of course we know we cannot completely remove the practice of dowry from our social system, but at least having some assets in their name have given our girls and their families a better life.”

Adds Gul Afsan, an activist with the NGO ‘Her Initiative’, which works for the empowerment of poor women through entrepreneurship, “Although the purpose of planting these trees is to build an asset for the future of local girls, it has also helped them develop a sense of ownership – rare among women of this region.”

For now, the 8,000 villagers of Dharhara, including scores of young girls, are enjoying the fruits of their labor. In Bhagalpur, a district well-known for mangoes, a tree takes four to five years to mature and then, with some care, start yielding bumper crops every season. While the greater part of the produce is sold, some of it is kept aside for the children to enjoy.

Planting mango is also profitable because once the trees become old they can be felled for wood, which is in great demand in the low-cost furniture market. “We cut the trees over a period of several years for the wood and all the furniture that is customarily presented to girls during marriage is made from this,” says Nirmala Devi, a mother of three.

Nivedita Singh, 20, who recently got married to a schoolteacher working in a nearby village, explains, “Another reason for this trend is that the amount of labor needed to work in orchards is much less. One only needs to be patient for a few initial years and then it only gets better.” Her parents, too, did not have to worry about money for her education or marriage, as her trees were there to support them.

The trees have also impacted cultivation patterns in the region. Notes Parmanand Singh, “People in our village have been tilling land as a means of livelihood for generations. But, of late, there has been a shift from conventional farming to fruit tree plantation, as it pays better.”

While the mango is still the preferred tree for fruit plantation, they are not always easy to maintain and sometimes they are not cost-effective either. Therefore, many farmers here are now opting for guavas, litchis and papayas since they are cheaper to grow and take less time to mature.

Shatrughan Singh, an octogenarian, has planted more than 600 trees in Dharhara for his daughters, granddaughters and other village girls. Most of his trees are mangoes, but even he has taken to planting litchis over the past few years. His daughters are now married, and his two granddaughters, Neha and Nisha, go to school. Both are excited at the prospect of owning 20 trees among them once they grow up.

Trees for girls is an innovative practice and one that can potentially check the decline in Bihar’s child sex ratio, if the idea catches on in other parts of the state. According to the 2011 Census, at 933, the state’s child sex ratio may be better than the national average of 914, but it has dropped sharply from the figure of 981 that the state had registered 30 years ago.

The success story of Dharhara has caught the attention of the Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, who has visited the village to plant trees and ensure that a girls' school is built there. During a public meeting in the village, some years ago, he said that the Dharhara residents’ age-old practice of planting trees to mark the birth of girl child is worth emulating at a time when the gender ratio in the country has been on the decline. He added that local people have, in their own novel way, addressed two concerns with this one move: Environmental conservation and gender justice. A girl child can be a blessing and trees a bank deposit.

(© Women's Feature Service)