Kunwar Damodar Singh Rathore, who was awarded Indira Priyadarshini Vriksh Mitra Award in 2000 for planting almost a crore saplings, breathed his last at the age of 91 in Pithoragarh on Wednesday .
He was admitted to the district hospital of Pithoragarh on May 25 after he fell ill when he went to douse a forest fire at his village in Bhanora in Didihat tehsil.
In the last days of his life, Rathore faced severe breathing problems and had difficulty speaking, but until the end he did not part from his “friends“ -the saplings -and carried many plants from his nursery to his hospital room.
According to locals, three days before his death, the physically weak but determined green soldier marched on and distributed 4,000 saplings to schoolkids who paid him a visit at the hospital. Rathore embarked on his singular mission to plant crores of trees in the 1960s. The tall man carrying a small, faded bag soon became a common sight for the villagers of Bhanora and neighbouring areas. The bag, which contained a small spade and some saplings, was inseparable from Rathore, gradually becoming a part of his identity.
In his lifetime, he managed to plant over 160 species in and around his village. Vast swathes of land in Bhanora, which now boast of a lush green cover, is his lasting legacy .B D Kasniyal, senior journalist and long-time friend of Rathore, said, “His death is a great loss to the environment. He worked tirelessly for development of biodiversity and its preservation. He distributed lakhs of saplings every year and planted oak seeds on barren lands, which he nurtured for years to come.“
Rathore's work was not limited to his own village. He also formed the Himalayan Green Brigade, an organization which recruited volunteers to plant saplings in their respective areas, in Pithoragarh.
He also planted saplings in plains of Kashipur, Dehradun, and Haridwar. He experimented with various varieties, planting trees which not only provide fodder, but are also able to contain moisture and prevent landslides.
On his deathbed, Rathore had just one worry , according to his family . “What will happen to the saplings I have planted? Who will take care of them?“ he said even as he lay on his deathbed.