Patiala: For 12 years, Hardayal Singh, 67, had the same routine. Every morning he would load his bicycle with saplings and mud, before pedalling to the boundary of his village’s crematorium.
Once there, in his own mini jungle, he would plant the saplings and water those already planted, making several rounds on his bicycle with buckets filled with water.
Over the years, he planted and nurtured over 10,000 trees across Dhablan village in Punjab’s Patiala district. His wife Kulwinder Kaur, 54, told ThePrint that it was his little contribution to “ensure oxygen, and purify the air his village breathed”.
All that ended last month when Singh contracted Covid-19 and died, first struggling to find a bed when gasping for breath and eventually passing away within days of getting one.
According to Kaur, Singh tested positive for Covid on 17 May, by which time he had difficulty breathing. By 18 May, villagers scrambled to admit him in hospital but it took them nearly 28 hours to find an oxygen bed, that too in Chandigarh, some two hours away.
Singh was admitted at a private hospital in Chandigarh late on 19 May, according to Karan Veer Singh, the village sarpanch.
“His condition was bad and his Spo2 levels were very low but there was no ventilator available. He was put on normal oxygen but his Spo2 kept fluctuating,” the sarpanch told ThePrint. “He was finally put on a ventilator on the 23rd but by then, it was too late. He did not survive.”
Singh passed away on 25 May.
“Jis aadmi ne ane ped lagaye taki oxygen vadha sake, hawa saaf kar sake, parmatma ne ona nu he oxygen nai dita…kismat dekho. (For the man who planted so many trees to increase oxygen for people, purify the air we breathe, God did not give him oxygen. He died gasping for breath. Such is destiny),” cried his wife Kulwinder Kaur.
“He was so passionate about planting trees that even though he could not crouch, because of his knee trouble, he would cycle to water the saplings,” she said. “When I would tell him to at least take his bike, he would say that a bike causes pollution and so he prefers to cycle.
“He would also make his own insecticide spray for the trees, get manure and he would tell me that he wanted to plant as many trees as possible,” she added. “We would often tell him to take care of his health and not exert so much, but he would not listen.”
Recalling the day that Singh struggled to find a bed, Kaur, who herself was positive and in quarantine at the time, said, “When he started having difficulty in breathing, our neighbours took him to a private hospital nearby but there was no vacant bed. They then got him back home but I could see, from a distance, how uneasy he was.”
Kaur added that he even ventured on his own to find a bed but couldn’t get one.
“A few hours later, he went by himself to a hospital in the city, without telling us or anyone, but returned after he could not find a bed,” she said. “We then sought help from the sarpanch, who then took him around for more than 28 hours, before they found a bed in Chandigarh, two hours from here.”
Believed in creating small jungles
Singh, who retired as a stenographer from the Pepsu Road Transport Corporation in 2013, was also popular among the villagers as the man who was always seen with his “hands in the mud” and the one with a resolute personality.
“We would either see him digging and planting a tree somewhere or watering it or carrying saplings from one place to the other,” said sarpanch Karan Veer Singh. “He created a mini forest next to the crematorium, which hardly had any trees and planted several thousand of them across the village.
“He would first get the sapling from the government nursery, nurture it at home, then go plant it,” he added. “He talked very passionately about preserving the environment. We always saw his hands in mud.”
A few years ago, when the railway department was to construct a power grid by the railway line crossing through the village, there was a peepal along the path that authorities were looking to build a fence. Orders were given to chop off the tree but Singh fought against them. And won.
“The forest authorities had given the approval to chop off the tree but Singh fought. He moved the courts for over a year; he kept writing to authorities and even sent letters to the PMO to save that tree and finally succeeded,” said Dr Aslam Parvez, rural medical officer in-charge of Kauli block, under which the village falls.
“The authorities were forced to redesign the grid to run the fence around the tree. The tree still stands tall today,” Dr Parvez added.
Dr Parvez, who often interacted with Singh, told ThePrint that the 67-year-old believed in making “small jungles”.
“He was a very interesting man. Very intelligent and aware. He believed that trees speak to each other and had a firm belief in creating small jungle spaces, like the one he created next to the crematorium,” the doctor said. “He often discussed environmental concerns and what individuals can do at their level.”
Dr Parvez added that Singh was finally cremated by his beloved jungle.
“He was cremated next to the jungle he created and I was there too,” Parvez said. “Being a doctor, I know that liquid medical oxygen has nothing to do with oxygen given out by trees, but the irony of it all is disturbing. A man who cared to give oxygen to his people by planting trees, died for the lack of it.”
‘Will carry forward what my father started’
Sitting on a cot, surrounded by saplings that Singh could not plant, his two sons — 16-year-old twins Damanpreet Singh and Dilpreet Singh — said they were going to “carry forward what their father started”.
“He often took us with him when he planted these trees. He showed us how land is tilled, how a tree is planted and how it is taken care of,” Dilpreet Singh said.
“I never felt so passionate about it before, but now since he is no more, I am going to take his drive forward. He dreamt of making this village the greenest area and I will make sure that happens.”
Their mother too said that she would back them. “Look at all these saplings around. These remind me of him every day. We are going to work towards what he left behind — the idea of a greener, cleaner village,” she said.
(Edited by Arun Prashanth)
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.