A greener tomorrow: Saplings and girlhood flourishing hand in hand

Shilpa Verma is a GP partner and speciality doctor in Dermatology

I want to share a beautiful, positive experience that I had during my recent trip to India.

I’m no stranger to India and visit there at least once a year to see my family. But this time, I did something different. My husband and I visited my ancestral village home in the state of Bihar. I was visiting my village after 25 years and could see the obvious changes – both the progress and ongoing challenges.

Bihar is one of the poorest states of India and has not been able to improve its rankings due to various socio-economic and political reasons. My grandparents had decided to settle down in this village after India gained its independence and had dedicated their lives to the upliftment of the poorest of the poor caste of people—the Harijans (meaning children of God), also known as ‘Dalits’ or in the past as ‘Untouchables’.

Amongst these elders, I had the privilege to meet a gentleman who is popularly known as the ‘oxygen man’. His work and ideology really impressed and inspired me.

I could easily discern the chaotic urbanisation of the village, loss of the Lychee and Mango orchards, increased noise pollution and smoke and smog from the petrol-run vehicles on the dusty streets. Pretty much everyone had a mobile phone in their hands, but I could also sense the increased vulnerability to misinformation, superstition, vaccine hesitancy, religious intolerance, and conspiracy theories.

The village elders and men holding important positions came to meet us. Ironically, the ladies who were the actual ‘village heads’ had sent their husbands or sons instead for this meeting. I would have loved to be able to speak with them directly, but it appeared that it was still quite taboo for ladies to go out in public and speak in public settings. We spoke about local issues of sanitation, healthcare facilities and access to doctors and medical treatment. It became apparent that such facilities were not easily available to the rural population especially if they were unable to pay the fees for investigation costs and hospital bills; people were still needing to travel to bigger cities if they needed more specialised care. The village heads were curious to know about the healthcare system in the UK and when I explained the structure of the National Healthcare Service (NHS) and general practice along with the crucial role of a general practitioner (GP) throughout a patient’s life, they were in awe. Most were surprised to find out that the NHS is a free service and people do not have to pay regardless of the number of times they avail the services. The idea of a free healthcare system was eye-opening for the locals and they appreciated the values of equal and fair access to medical treatment for all.

Amongst these elders, I had the privilege to meet a gentleman who is popularly known as the ‘oxygen man’. His work and ideology really impressed and inspired me. He is campaigning for a greener and female-friendly society by simply presenting a fruit tree to any new parents who have had a baby girl. He asks the parents to plant that sapling in their courtyard and look after it until the tree starts to yield fruit. In this section of society where the birth of a girl is still not celebrated, the ‘oxygen man’ attempts to abolish this stereotypical mindset and allow parents to associate the birth of a girl with something as worthy as a fruit-yielding tree and look after both the tree and their daughter. The ‘oxygen man’ always gives the gift of a tree whenever he is invited to a party, wedding and such ceremonies rather than gifting more ‘material’ things. He also gifts a fruit tree to any newlyweds and asks them to plant and look after that tree just like they would look after each other in their married life.

I asked him if he received any donations or charity to enable him to do this kind of work; he explained that as he runs a tuition centre where he helps young people (mostly girls) prepare for competitive exams for government jobs, he asks for a sapling as his fee which he then uses to give away as gifts. Hence, he has never needed to ask for donations or rely on charity.

What a wonderful yet simple idea! He was encouraging greenery and planting of trees along with changing the mindset of people about the birth of a baby girl. This idea resonated with me even more because I have been planting trees wherever I have lived as well as for my children’s milestone birthdays. To see those saplings grow into luscious trees has given us huge pleasure.

Girls wanted to know how they could have fairer skin and I was surprised to find that they were spending a good amount of money on ‘fairness’ creams.

We visited the ‘oxygen man’s’ tuition centre which was a rundown shack, with just some rickety desks and benches but full of enthusiastic, happy young faces, eager to learn, upskill and improve their living conditions. I chatted with these girls and boys who had cycled for miles to come for these tuitions early in the morning as the competitive exams were near. I was happy to see that these girls were allowed to cycle. Some of the girls were already married, yet their in-laws were letting them continue their studies and encouraging them to take up jobs. What a pleasant change to see! Just 25 years ago, I would not have seen a single girl cycling in the village and married girls would not have been allowed to pursue higher education or take up jobs. I was really pleased to see that this oppressed section of society is also progressing and rejecting the patriarchal and orthodox ideologies.

We discussed a few different issues, especially health-related problems. Most of them wanted to know how they could put on weight or increase their height as the majority were on the thinner, smaller side. I advised them regarding the importance of a nutritious, balanced diet and regular exercise to help their growth and development. Girls wanted to know how they could have fairer skin and I was surprised to find that they were spending a good amount of money on ‘fairness’ creams. The obsession for fair skin has been an ongoing issue in India, fuelled by Bollywood celebrities being ‘fair and lovely’, toxic advertisements and misinformation spread by marketing companies selling these creams. I tried to discourage them as much as possible from using these chemical-based products and informed them about the potential side effects. I encouraged them to be happy and confident in their skin and look after it by other means and I can only hope they will learn to love and embrace their complexions. I was happy to note that the girls had access to sanitary products but found the disposal of these products challenging due to lack of proper toilets. Furthermore, I sensed that some girls wanted to discuss sexual health but felt awkward and uncomfortable speaking about this in a big group. This is an important topic which I hope to dedicate more time to when I next visit. I will aim to arrange sexual health clinics where they can come and discuss their concerns in a more private and comfortable setting.

Towards the end of my visit, I was gifted with a fruit sapling (lychee tree) which I happily received and planted in my garden. Overall, I found this whole experience and interaction very rewarding. I plan to visit my ancestral village and all the people I met more often and hope to spend more time with them and help out in any way that I can.


Featured Photo by Shubham Kumar Jha on Unsplash

The BJGP is the world-leading primary care journal. At BJGP Life we add multi-media comment and opinion for the primary care community.

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Pallavi Devulapalli
Pallavi Devulapalli
2 months ago

Fantastic article Shilpa, well done for taking the initiative to visit and for writing about it. Environmental health and people’s health are inextricably intertwined- and some people seem to understand that very well. We need many
more such initiatives the world over.

Manish gunda
Manish gunda
2 months ago

This is such a warm and soul nourishing experience and the way you have written it – I can see it happening in front of my eyes
Again coming to this oxygen man – it just shows how people in India can create an opportunity to improvise in tiring circumstances and such stories enrich our lives as well

2 months ago

Well done Shilpa, great initiative! Love to hear more in future. Empowering others is a wonderful effort. Keep inspiring with your efforts, welcome more Shilpas to come forward in near future. Our sincere prayer: let no one be left behind!

2 months ago

This was an overwhelming experience, yet you have consolidated and penned it all beautifully. We can do so much to empower these communities—all it needs is a bit of our time and commitment. All the best for your future endeavours!

2 months ago

Wow Shilpa!! Firstly, thank you for sharing your incredible experience. Definitely, an eye opener for many people. It delights me to know about the progress and advancement and hope it will be followed in other regions also.Superb endeavour from the Oxygen man. Kudos to him and all others who diligently support the cause.

2 months ago

Great article Shilpa. I am really moved by your experience. Nice to know about the Oxygen man who makes such a positive impact to the community. Hats off to you for making the effort to visit there.

Kumar Anshumaly
Kumar Anshumaly
2 months ago

I read through the interesting memoire of Dr . Shilpa on her visit to a remote place of Bihar, which is her native home as well.
Indias health infrastructure cannot be compared to that of the UK. keeping the vast expance of India and the difference in their GDPs into consideration. The NHS manned by a large number of doctors of Indian origin, is definitely far better no doubt. I myself had been a beneficiary of its services when I was in UK a few years back.
I am happy that she has decided to visit her native place every year which is my native home also. If she keeps her words, we would make every effort to make her trips fruitful.

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