This septuagenarian barefoot ecologist turns grey landscape into green.

Express News Service

HONNALI (UTTARA KANNADA): Her day starts early morning. She leaves her house with a pot in her hand, walks barefoot and reaches a water body. After filling her pot, it is not homewards she heads to, but towards the saplings which are planted recently and need nourishment. Clad in a traditional Halakki community attire with black beads and corals adorning her neck, this septuagenarian’s next task is to plant saplings, which she does talking softly to the plants and often smiling. She is Tulasi Gouda, who has recently won the Padma Shri award for planting hundreds of trees on the roadside. She is often compared to Salumarada Thimakka,  who planted trees near Magadi in Bengaluru.

Over a half century ago, then young Tulasi Gouda had no other alternative after she was left to fend for herself — her husband Govinde Gouda died when she was hardly 17 years of age. This was the second jolt to her after she lost her father at an early age. The death of her father deprived her of formal education while her husband’s death led to a great void in her life, where she had to rely on collecting firewood to make a living.

“Being from Halakki community helped her a lot. She had adequate knowledge of trees, flowers and herbs. It was at that time the forest department sought to appoint a group of locals as daily wage employees. Since she needed to earn a livelihood to take care of her young children, she accepted the job and started working,” says former MLA Satish Sail, who admires her commitment.

“She started with a payment of Rs 1.25 per day, which was a meagre sum, not sufficient to make ends meet. People advised her not to work for such less money, but she had that passion for trees and saplings and got totally involved in it,” says Subbaraya Gouda, her son.Roaming all over the distant forests, she gathered seeds along with her co-workers. She scrutinised, preserved and multiplied them by raising them as seedlings and saplings and planted thousands of trees in the barren and denuded forests and in villages like Honnalli, Mastigatta, Hegguru, Holige, Vajrahalli, Dongri, Kalleshwara, Adagur, Agasur, Siragunji and Elogadde. These 30,000 trees have now become part of plantations and forests.

“We grew teak, sesame, Nandi, peepul, ficus, bamboo, rattan, and edible fruit trees like jamun, cashew, nutmegs, mango, jackfruit and kokum,” says Tulasi. Fondly called as ‘Tulasajji’ by youngsters, her house, on Hubballi-Ankola Road, is open to everyone. Villagers go to her to learn about flowering, seeds and the method to grow trees.

Having served for more than 40 years in the department, she along with her co-workers has been instrumental in reviving the greenery in the region. Called as ‘Vriksha Devi’ for her love towards greening the earth, the youngsters, who visit her house, show their reverence by touching her feet. “Her passion is such that she lapses into silence or cries if she finds a tree planted by her is chopped off by miscreants,” says Gopala Krishna Naik, a local Congress leader who has been a regular visitor to her house since the last ten years.

The trees, to Tulasi, are the saviours of the world and she sees divinity in them. Despite not receiving a formal education, she can hold forth on the seeds, planting saplings, flowering, shedding of leaves, their growth and their utility.  “She has an ability to identify over a 300 species of trees, their flowerings and even seeds. She can smell and tell you what tree it is,” says Gopal Naik. She is known as a barefoot ecologist with immense knowledge of the flora of the region. Recognising her contribution to conservation, the Union Government has honoured her with the Padma Shri award this year. Among her other honours include the prestigious Rajyotsava award given by the state government.

Tulasi has been responsible for greening over 50,000 acres of land along with environmentalist A N Yellappa Reddy. The latter was awarded the Indira Priyadarshini Vrikshamitra award. He felt his efforts bore fruit only because the daily wage labourers under Tulasi strived hard to make it a great success and the award should be received by her. Tulasi received the award from the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1986-87. The local forest officials are said to have taken away the award as well as the cash reward. 

Despite achieving tall feats, Tulasi Gouda lives in a small house along with her family and refuses to give up her tree-planting spree. She retired after serving for 35 years in Mathigatta Forest Nursery. Yet, she goes there to guide the youngsters.

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