Anand Dhawaj Negi, the forest man of Kinnaur, died after suffering a brain stroke on May 23. (HT file photo)
Anand Dhawaj Negi, the forest man of Kinnaur, died after suffering a brain stroke on May 23. (HT file photo)

Kinnaur’s forest man leaves behind an evergreen legacy

74-year-old Anand Dhawaj Negi developed a forest on 100 hectares in the cold desert, 50km uphill from Pooh, in the remote border district of Himachal Pradesh
By Gaurav Bisht, Shimla
UPDATED ON MAY 31, 2021 06:34 PM IST

At 74, Anand Dhawaj Negi, the forest man of Kinnaur, has left behind an evergreen legacy by developing a lush forest spread over 100 hectares in the cold desert of the high-altitude border district of Himachal Pradesh.

Popularly known as AD, Negi died after suffering a brain stroke on May 23.

He created the forest at Thang Karma 50km uphill from Pooh, a small town in Kinnaur. It’s a tall order considering the district is spread over 6.24 lakh hectares of which 5.76 lakh hectares is non-cultivable and only 9,355 acres is cultivated land. The district has 38,563 hectares of forest land. The natural vegetation at this altitude is limited to grass and shrubs.

But Negi had different plans. “He was an inspiration to me just like many others. His way of educating people through ground action must reach millions. His way of demonstrating a transformation must be included in the books. I wish to carry forward his legacy and our upcoming waste collection centre at Pooh is going to be named after him,” says Pradeep Sangwan, the convenor of NGO Healing Himalayas.

A native of Sunam village in Kinnaur, AD Negi worked with the finance wing of the desert development programme before seeking voluntary retirement to build the forest. (HT file photo)
A native of Sunam village in Kinnaur, AD Negi worked with the finance wing of the desert development programme before seeking voluntary retirement to build the forest. (HT file photo)

Inspiration behind transformation

A native of Sunam village in Kinnaur, Negi worked with the finance wing of the desert development programme. When government efforts to turn the barren land into green fields did not yield results, he took permission from the authorities in 1998 to start a volunteer service for developing a forest at Thang Karma.

The Centre had already launched a scheme to mitigate the adverse effects of desertification when in 1999, Negi, who was the deputy comptroller, took it upon himself to develop the desert and implement the biggest cold desert programme. He took leave that year and in 2003 opted for voluntary retirement to spend all his time at Thang Karma. Between 1998 and 2008, Negi planted whatever he could in the cold desert. Local wisdom helped him as he trekked to villages to seek advice from the elderly on plants and crops that could be grown in the forest patch.

“My uncle worked with the desert development programme but when he realised that lots of money was being wasted without any tangible results, he quit the job,” says Negi’s 36-year-old nephew Virender Sappa. Sappa is a postgraduate in anthropology from Panjab University but was so inspired by his uncle’s initiative that he took up traditional farming, too.

A view of the forest land that resembles an oasis in the barren cold desert of Kinnaur. (HT file photo)
A view of the forest land that resembles an oasis in the barren cold desert of Kinnaur. (HT file photo)

Contour planting method worked

It wasn’t long before Negi realised the Herculean task on hand as the land had no source of water. With the help of villagers, he tapped water from a nullah 6km from Thang Karma. The nullah originates in China-occupied Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). The irrigation and public health department, now known as the Jalshakti department) would only supply water in summer and that too for a limited duration. “But seeing my uncle’s resolve, the department supplemented his efforts to provide water for the forest project,” says Sappa.

Initially the survival rate of the plants in his nursery using the seeding method was only 20%. He blended local practices along with scientific ones to plant the right trees. He adopted the contour planting method that is irrigated by small dug-up water channels. Contour plantation provided enough moisture to the plants. “At first, he achieved success with contour planting in a small patch. Later, he replicated it in the entire 100 hectares,” he says.

Fixing nitrogen deficiency in soil

Another challenge before Negi was that the soil lacked nitrogen. Soil in the cold arid region is mostly sandy loam. To fix the nitrogen in the soil, he planted clovers along the irrigation channels; they retain water and also divert hare that destroy crops. He chose the vegetation wisely as he grew plants that have roots that decompose and help the soil become more fertile with time.

The bark of tree saplings was covered with scrap wood to protect them against the freezing cold. Saplings were planted a little below ground level, in pits, to shield them from the wind.

Negi went on to rear 300 chigu goats, known for high-quality Cashmere wool and meat quality. The goat dung was added to the soil to raise nutrients in the soil.

200 farmers join hands, transform landscape

In 60 hectares, he planted and nurtured 30,000 trees, most of them deciduous trees such as poplar, wild apricot and Rubinya.

Negi inspired more than 200 farmers in the region to transform their arid land into a cultivable patch. “We took inspiration from Negi ji, he showed us the way to develop orchards in the cold desert,” says Roshan Negi, 39, of Chango, a village along the China border known for its high-quality apple production.

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