“Rohan bhai we have a shramdaan shivir at Salaiban next week. I will be happy if you can come and see what we are doing here” said Manjeet Singh when he called me one afternoon. I instantly jumped at the opportunity of travelling to a remote tribal village in Buldhana district in northern Maharashtra to donate my labour to a social good project and to meet a noble person spearheading it. I packed my bags, keeping in mind that it was middle of the summer there with temperatures reaching 46 degrees and got myself on a train. Next day at 5-30 in the morning I alighted at Nandura station and walked out a few meters to take a State transport bus to a town called Jalgaon-Jamod, half an hour’s drive from there. From here, I was received by Dinesh, one of Manjeet Singh’s volunteers and ridden to Salaiban on his bike. Beyond a point the earthen roads leading to Salaiban were not motorable for a four-wheeler. Finally at 7-30 I reached Salaiban. Located in the foothills of Satpura range, it is home to 5 tribes that have stayed there for decades. It is peaceful and pristine to say the least. The first thing I noticed was it had lost a lot of its tree cover leaving the land barren and dusty. When I arrived, Manjeet Singh had gone to work building a pucca road with kids who had come from neighbouring villages. Half an hour later I met him and was struck by his humility and simple demeanour. Over the next 3 days I worked, stayed and chatted with him closely. This is his story.
Manjeet Singh’s modest home at Salaiban.
Children donating labour during Sharamdaan Shivir at Salaiban
Days of Youth
Manjeet Singh was born and brought up in a well-to-do Sikh family in Khamgaon, one of the biggest towns in Buldhana. Having spent almost all his 45 years of life in Maharashtra, he speaks chaste Marathi. During his days as a student of Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) at G.S. College at Khamgaon, Manjeet Singh enrolled in National Service Scheme (NSS) where the seed of community service was sown. He would organize several community service activities like blood donation campaigns, tree plantation drives and such within and outside college. This won him best student award on multiple occasions. Life changed for him when he was nominated by Amravati University to represent the state of Maharashtra in the Republic Day parade at New Delhi in 1994. In Delhi, at a NSS camp, he learned about Baba Amte and got an opportunity to meet in person SN Subba Rao also popularly known as Bhaiji (Elder brother). Bhaiji is a fellow of Gandhi Peace Foundation and Founder of National Youth Project and is immensely respected nationally as a social worker.
A newly constructed play area for the local tribal children. To the left are some of the trees planted by Manjeet SIngh.
Children from surrounding villages at Salaiban for the Shramdaan Shivir
After graduating in 1995, Manjeet Singh joined Bhaiji’s National Youth Project as a volunteer and travelled for 6 months across India as a part of Sadbhavna Rail Yatra from Okha in Gujarat to Puri in Orissa. The theme of this campaign was national integration and the team would stop at several places on the way to meet local youth. Camps were organized to carry out cultural activities, shramdaan (donation of labour), all-religion prayers and discussions on topics of national interest. Over the period of the Rail Yatra, Manjeet Singh met and struck friendship with many young people from Nepal to Lakshadweep.
In 1998, Manjeet Singh got another great opportunity when he met Baba Amte in Madhya Pradesh in a village on the banks of the Narmada river. He was awestruck with Baba’s simple living and felt inspired by his views that youth can change the society. He would attend all his camps over next 4-5 years. “Bhaiji and Baba have been the biggest inspiration in my life and I’m extremely fortunate to have worked with both of them” says Manjeet Singh.
Village called Wadpani adjoining Salaiban. Manjeet SIngh’s sustainable development efforts are focused on 5 surrounding villages including this one
Embankment built by volunteers of Tarunai using local stones and earth
Days as a Journalist
Manjeet Singh started his journalism career in 1998 as a city reporter for Khamgaon with Deshonnati, a widely-read Marathi newspaper based in Akola. Since then until his retirement from active journalism in 2015, Manjeet Singh worked in leading publications like the Sakal and Maharashtra Times in senior role of a district correspondent. He served as President of Khamgoan Press Club between 2006 to 2012 and made positive contributions to the cause of regional journalism. “Meaningful contacts I made during my days in journalism have been helpful to my social service efforts” recalls Manjeet SIngh.
Vounteers playing game after Shramdaan Shivir. Manjeet Singh seated 4th from left while Secretary of Tarunai, Rajendra Kolhe on extreme right.
Anandvan Mitra Mandal (AMM), a social service organization started by Manjeet Singh and his friends in Khamgaon in 1998 was the precursor to Tarunai Foundation he founded later in 2003. AMM was modelled on the Anandvan created by Baba Amte and primarily focused on spreading awareness amongst the youth on community service camps run by Baba. “We felt that we should start a local organization to run our social programs and hence 15 of us from Khamgoan got together and founded Tarunai, which means youth in English” says Manjeet Singh with a smile. Its chief motto is to channel the energy of the youth towards socially and environmentally constructive activities. Water conservation, Tree plantation, Sanitation and Pollution control are the prime areas of focus for Tarunai.
‘Phulwari’, an educational center started by Manjeet Singh for local children where he teaches them about environment and wildlife.
In 2008, Tarunai got a major boost when it was asked by the local Zilla Parishad to reach out to 200 villages within its jurisdiction to spread awareness on ‘Jal Swaraj’, a drinking water scheme that relied on people’s participation. A team of dozen volunteers from Tarunai would go to each village and talk to them about the benefits of scheme and how to avail it. Under ‘Pariyavaran Jagruti Abhiyan’ in collaboration with Social Forestry Department, Tarunai went to 45 schools in Buldhana and sent out a message on water conservation and rainwater harvesting amongst 1.5 Lakh schools students. Volunteers from Tarunai have been involved in plastic cleanup for last 10 years between Khamgaon and Shegaon; A highly popular route for devotees of Gajanan Maharaj.
In late 2014, Shankardada Bagade of Mahatma Gandhi Lok Seva Sangh approached Tarunai to prepare an action plan for 500 acres of barren land they had in their possession for over 40 years as an endowment from the Bhoodan movement. As a result, Manjeet Singh arrived and settled in Salaiban in February 2015 to bring sustainable development to the area. Since then he has worked tirelessly to change the attitude of the local tribes towards the environment and wildlife around them.
Manjeet Singh looks at himself as a mere facilitator and shies away from taking credit for the development activities at Salaiban. With his close aides, Rajendra Kolhe, Dr. Rajesh Mirge and Vitthal Pawar, he aims to plant 5000 trees every year and percolate 25 crore Litres of water in the local soil over next 2 years. “I want to transform this place into a model village with a thriving ecology, self-sufficient in its livelihood, through active participation of local people and the youth. I cannot done anything alone” he signs-off.
The reason I wrote this story is to highlight a passionate socio-environmental changemaker working silently at the fringes of the society to bring about a long-lasting impact for the local people. I am highly fortunate to have met him and spent time with him.