Indian octogenarian honored for preserving the environment

Childhood drought, famine inspires tribal Catholic to plant trees, build dam
Indian octogenarian honored for preserving the environment

Simon Oraon Minj, an octogenarian tribal Catholic, has been honored by the Indian government for his work in preserving the environment in his eastern Jharkhand state village. (Photo by Bijay Kumar Minj)  

Simon Oraon Minj, an octogenarian tribal Catholic who received India's fourth highest civilian honor, credits his community for his awarding-winning work to protect the environment and conserve water.

Indian President Pranab Mukherjee bestowed on Oraon, 83, the Padma Shri Award during a ceremony inside the parliament building in New Delhi on April 12. Oraon, known as the "waterman" of eastern Indian Jharkhand state, dropped out of school in the fourth grade.

The award recognizes his work to bring back green space to the tribal villages of his Bedo area, near the state capital Ranchi.

"Whatever I have done is due to the support of the community. How can I take the award alone? It's a Padma Shri for all those who made my mission succeed," he told

As a child, he witnessed famine and abject poverty that destroyed hectares of farmland and killed livestock, forcing his family and villagers to migrate to save their own lives.


Watch this video on Simon Oraon Minj talking about deforestation.


He thought of ways to "set things right." In 1961, he, along with friends, built a check dam to trap rainwater. After the dam gave way twice, they lobbied the government for help in building a concrete dam. They also planted trees in the area.

When people saw the positive changes the dam brought, they returned to the area and improving the environment soon became a movement among the locals.

Villagers built two dams and five ponds, which trapped rainwater that was channelled through canals to the fields. To prevent soil erosion, Oraon and other villagers planted some 30,000 fruit trees.

"We have worked hard and it now helps more than 1,600 families to grow crops on nearly 850 hectares of land. We are now supplying vegetables to Ranchi, Jamshedpur and Kolkata," he said.

The Jesuit-run Indian Social Institute in New Delhi offers Oraon as a role model for people in other drought-affected areas.

"His work inspires us to leave our comfort zone and work for the community," said Jesuit Father Ranjit Tigga.

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Father Praful Toppo of Oraon's Bero Digya parish said the tribal man's "faith in God and simplicity" is exemplary.

"His leadership qualities bring people together with a purpose," the priest said.

Oraon, who local people refer to by the Hindi term of endearment, baba, or "holy man," said he will continue to plant trees "until he dies."

The state's Rural Development Department has appointed him as the brand ambassador for its watershed program.

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