Bhawani Shanker Kusum, president of Avaclim's partner NGO in India GBS has just passed away on 14 November 2020. Patrice Burger, President of CARI, pays tribute to him and remembers the beautiful moments he had with him, particularly in the Gandhi forest.
Dressed in the traditional Indian "kurta", with a haughty silhouette and sharp eyes, Bhawani Shanker Kusum did not leave anyone indifferent and had a look that was not forgotten. He was a worthy representative of the culture of this mythical region of India - Rajasthan - which includes the Thar Desert and whose stories of the maharajas' independence struggles still haunt the collective memory. Bhawani was also a committed man. As founding president of the NGO GBS accredited to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, he served for two years as the representative of Asian NGOs and coordinated the participation of Indian NGOs and other civil society guests at the 14th Conference of the Parties in Delhi in September 2019. "His wisdom and kind words have always been much appreciated, his advice and his heart has made us all a little better ," says Marcos Montoiro, UNCCD Civil Society Officer. " He worked tirelessly to create a better world by combating desertification and trying to give everyone a better future " and " supported the participation of many people coming for the first time to his beautiful country, acting as an ambassador for India. "I share these thoughts and add that Bhawani's struggle was strictly in line with Gandhi's philosophy.
The announcement of his death on Saturday, November 14, 2020 sounded like very bad news for CARI, its staff and myself.We know that we are losing a defender of the earth and one of those "friends at the end of the world", those whose values we share, without sharing geography and borders . In full confinement in France because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this news adds dark colours to this year 2020 that can already be described as an " annus horribilis " for so many people around the world who have lost their jobs, lost their health, lost loved ones and for some lost a little hope.
In June 2019 we invited Bhawani to the fourth Desertif'actions summit in Ouagadougou to help us prepare the participation of civil society in the Conference of the Parties. In his speeches Bhawani testified rather than expressing his commitments and convictions as a disciple of Gandhi. The message was getting through to the audience.
After COP 14 and in order to clarify the future partnership between GBS and CARI in the framework of the Avaclim project on agroecology, I had the privilege of visiting GBS. The NGO is based in Amer near the famous pink city of Jaipur. In the modest premises of GBS I was fraternally welcomed by a whole team very committed to the work of GBS and remember in particular, in addition to Bhawani, Abishek, Amber and also Kusum, faithful among the faithful. On this occasion I had the privilege to better understand the itinerary of Bhawani, a former government official, and victim of a shock when he returned to his region of origin (Rajasthan), discovering a river of his childhood totally dried up in the middle of dry land
In the car that took us to the site that was to serve as an inspiration for Avaclim I went from discovery to discovery; for example the visit of a rural school where GBS was behind the purchase of the land and the fundraising to build the buildings. The school houses 700 pupils, girls and boys, and its budget is balanced - including the pupils' uniforms, dear to a tradition inherited from the British Empire - exclusively from private donations from the community! I am surprised to discover that in a country that is seeking the conquest of space, no state subsidy is allocated to this school, where teachers are paid about a third of the price of public education. I am seduced by this beautiful young student whose eyes are full of intense curiosity about me and full of life which GBS allows to blossom. In the same building, I discovered a "health camp", still supported by GBS, that is to say the intervention on the spot of volunteer doctors from several disciplines. Equipped with mainly natural-based medicines, they provide free consultations. I learn that here it is mainly about digestive problems or problems related to health aspects (food, hygiene, sanitation, water, etc.). Or intimate problems, especially for women, which is a taboo subject in this very rural region and which leads young women to distress: in two days, five hundred people have benefited from consultations! Here again, no State.
But my biggest surprise was the discovery of Gandhivan (the Gandhi forest) after a bumpy road which was nevertheless financed by the local government... at Bhawani's request! I was rediscovering an old principle: to know who a person is, it is often more telling to know what they do, rather than what they say. I was served.
Bhawani led me to what had mobilised him for thirty years of his life: a dense forest backed by dry hills. He explained to me the beginnings of this adventure alone, with no support and no resources, asking the Indian government for 100 hectares of sand dunes to create a forest. He succeeded in convincing a few rare individuals to accompany him in the planting of trees of various species, and after many failures, sometimes alone in violent storms; he gradually succeeded in organising reforestation workcamps, including with people with disabilities, delinquents and even lepers! " In this place where scorpions and snakes swarmed, no one was ever stung or bitten," he explained, adding that "the area was totally wooded with a very great diversity of forest and shrub species according to three Gandhian principles: do not suppress any life, do not make any surface development, do not lose a single drop of water". The visit to the site was very simple. Today, the site is used as a training and reception centre. In addition to the great spontaneous biodiversity that has taken root there, two tigers and panthers have made it their home.
Sharing a few tasty pancakes while sitting among the trees and having planted a souvenir tree myself, it was obvious that agro-ecological principles combined with the contagious determination of a single person had the capacity to restore the land. Bhawani may not have had time to write the Gandhivan story as he promised me, but he may have had time to inspire the partners from the 10 countries of the Avaclim project at the kick-off workshop we had in January 2020 at CARI. It is a great pity that we are unable to continue our common journey within the project. But we will be inspired by this example. Rest in peace Bhawani.
Patrice Burger, President of the NGO CARI.