Tribute to Bhawani Shanker Kusum of the NGO GBS
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Tribute to Bhawani Shanker Kusum of the NGO GBS

Bhawani Shanker Kusum, President of Avaclim’s NGO partner in India, GBS, passed away on 14 November 2020. Patrice Burger, President of CARI, pays tribute to him and recalls the wonderful times he shared with us, particularly in the Gandhi forest.

Dressed in the traditional Indian ‘kurta’, with his haughty silhouette and sharp eyes, Bhawani Shanker Kusum never left anyone indifferent. 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 United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, he spent two years representing NGOs from Asia and coordinating the participation of Indian NGOs and other guests from civil society at the 14th Conference of the Parties to be held in Delhi in September 2019. “His wisdom and kind words were always much appreciated, and his advice and heart made us all a little better,” says Marcos Montoiro, the Convention’s civil society officer. “He worked tirelessly to create a better world by fighting desertification and trying to give everyone a better future” and “supported the participation of many people coming to his beautiful country for the first time, acting as an ambassador for India”. I share these thoughts and add that Bhawani’s struggle was in the strict tradition of Gandhi’s philosophy.  

The announcement of his death on Saturday 14 November 2020 came as very bad news for CARI, its permanent staff and myself. We know that we are losing a defender of the earth and one of those “friends from the ends of the earth”, those whose values we share, without sharing geography or borders.  In the midst of being confined to France because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this news adds dark colours to the year 2020, which 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 Désertif’actions summit in Ouagadougou to help us prepare civil society’s participation in the Conference of the Parties. In his speeches, Bhawani bore witness rather than expressing his commitments and convictions as a disciple of Gandhi. The message got through to the audience.  

After COP 14 and in order to clarify the future partnership between GBS and CARI as part of the Avaclim agroecology project, I had the privilege of visiting GBS. The NGO is based in Amer, very close to the famous pink city of Jaipur. In the modest premises of GBS I was given a warm welcome by a whole team who are very committed to the work of GBS, and I remember in particular, in addition to Bhawani, Abishek, Amber and also Kusum, one of the faithful among the faithful. On this occasion, I had the privilege of gaining a better understanding of Bhawani’s itinerary. A former government official, Bhawani was shocked to return to his home region (Rajasthan) and discover a river from his childhood completely dried up in the middle of dry land.

In the car that took us to the site that was to be the inspiration for Avaclim, I went from one discovery to another; for example, a visit to a rural school for which GBS was behind the purchase of the land and the fund-raising to construct the buildings. The school accommodates 700 pupils, both boys and girls, and balances its budget – including the pupils’ uniforms, a cherished tradition inherited from the British Empire – exclusively from private donations from the community! I was surprised to discover that, in a country that aspires to the conquest of space, no state subsidy is allocated to this school, where teachers are paid around a third of the cost of state education. I was captivated by the beautiful young students, whose eyes were full of curiosity towards me and full of life, which GBS allowed to blossom. In the same compound, I discovered a “health camp”, again supported by GBS, in which volunteer doctors from a variety of disciplines work on site. Equipped with mainly natural-based medicines, they provide free consultations. I’ve learnt that the main problems are digestive or health-related (food, hygiene, sanitation, water, etc.). Or intimate problems, particularly for women, a taboo subject in this very rural region, which leaves young women in a state of confusion: in two days, five hundred people received consultations! Again, no state.    

But my greatest surprise was the discovery of Gandhivan (Gandhi’s forest) after a bumpy road, even though it had been financed by the local government… at Bhawani’s request! I rediscovered 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 took me to the place where he had spent thirty years of his life: a dense forest backed by dry hills. He explained to me the beginnings of this adventure on his own, with no support and no resources, asking the Indian government to make 100 hectares of sand dunes available for the creation of a forest. After convincing a few rare individuals to join him in planting trees of various species, and after many failures, sometimes alone in violent storms, he gradually succeeded in organising reforestation projects, including with people suffering from disabilities, delinquents and even lepers! “In this place, where scorpions and snakes abounded, no one was ever stung or bitten”, he explained, adding that “the area was completely wooded with a very wide variety of forest and shrub species in accordance with three Gandhian principles: not to destroy any life, not to make any surface improvements and not to lose a single drop of water”.  The tour of the site was a simple one. 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 the site their home.

As we shared a few tasty cakes while sitting among the trees, and after planting a souvenir tree myself, it became clear that agro-ecological principles combined with the contagious determination of one person had the capacity to restore the land.  Bhawani will not have had the time to write the history of Gandhivan as he promised me, but he may have had the time to inspire the partners from the 10 Avaclim project countries at the launch workshop we held in January 2020 at CARI. It’s a great pity that we won’t be able to continue our common journey within the project. But we will draw inspiration from this example. Rest in peace Bhawani.

Patrice Burger, President of the NGO CARI.

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