Not many people have the courage to give up a secure job to take the path less trodden. Manish Singh is one of those people. An officer in the Chhattisgarh Forest Department, he gave up the position in 2009, after 13 long years of service.

While we trekked through fields in Kharsia block of Chhatisgarh, fields which once lay barren but had turned profitable now, thanks to the efforts of his NGO Janmitram Kalyan Samiti, he turned to me and said, “I feel really proud when I see fields green and flourishing, as a result of JKS’s effort.” So proud that he went on to ask me to take a photo of him with the fields in the background.

Born on 23rd June, 1977, at Umaria (in Shahdol district), Mr. Singh’s family moved to Raigarh in 1985, when the Forest Department, where his father used to work, transferred him here. In 1996, he went to Indore, to pursue his dreams of becoming a doctor, and enrolled into Abhyankar’s coaching. But fate clearly had different plans for him. His dad’s sudden demise due to a Brain Hemorrhage forced him to come back. A year later, at age of 19, he took up a job with the Forest Department – a position that came to him as a result of his father vacating a senior position within the same department. His first posting was at Kharsia; he held the post of Range Officer. Three years later, he was transferred to Raigarh, to handle forest offence cases and joint forest management.

In the 1990s, the concept of Joint Forest Management (JFM) was launched by the Government of India. JFM involves partnerships of Government and local communities in forest management . While schemes vary from state to state and are known by different names in different languages, usually a village committee known as the Forest Protection Committee (FPC) and the Forest Department enter into a JFM agreement. Villagers agree to assist in the safeguarding of forest resources through protection from fire, grazing, and illegal harvesting in exchange for which they receive non-timber forest products and a share of the revenue from the sale of timber products.

Mr. Singh contributed a lot to the development of JFM in the district. With the cooperation of the Government, NGOs and leading industry CSR teams, he was instrumental in implementing some innovative JFM projects. It was during this time that he got introduced to many NGOs and the work that they do. He was especially inspired by Mr. Manoj Pattnaik, Director RCDC, who used to come to Raigarh to study JFM in the district. Interactions with Mr. Manoj Pattnaik and exposure to various NGO’s work sparked the first few initial thoughts of setting up his own organization.

The real impetus to this idea though came in 2002, when Dr. Mukesh Goswami, a Forestry Scholar from Bilaspur University came to Mr. Singh’s for some research work. Dr. Goswami had recently came back to his hometown (i.e. Raigarh) after spending eight years doing intense research at the Tropical Forest Research Institute, Jabalpur (Madhya Pradesh). Together, they conceptualized the idea of an NGO that would work for “Forest, Forestry and Forest Dwellers”. They initially wanted to name it “Vanmitram,” which means “forest friends”, but as this name was already booked, they registered themselves as “Janmitram”, meaning “Friends of People” (on October 31st 2002).

Janmitram’s first assignment was to prepare micro plans for JFM committees. Dr. Goswami, an expert in PANR (Participatory Appraisal of Natural Resources), went to over 400 villages in northern Chhattisgarh and prepared plans in 6 forest divisions. During the same time, NABARD sanctioned a project to form self help groups in JFM committees; due to which, the Government of India sanctioned a project to enhance lac production in the Raigarh district. By 2005-06, the organization’s activities spread in the areas of health, skill development, and agriculture development. They started a project for the welfare of female sex workers in Raigarh city. Community health was taken care of through the Mitanin Programme. NABARD again sanctioned a forticulture development project, while the Government of India granted permission to the organization to carry out a watershed development programme.

Mr. Singh tried to juggle his job at the Forest Department along with Janmitram’s activities. But with Janmitram’s activities increasing by the day, it became difficult to do so. In 2009, he decided to call it a day, and resigned to work fulltime at Janmitram.

The organization has grown thanks to the collective efforts of Mr. Singh and Dr. Goswami. Their efforts also led to the formation of RISA (Raigarh Integrated Shellac Association) and JMCL (Janmitran Marketing and Consultancy Limited), both 25AC companies, aimed at ensuring lac production and a fair price for growers, and marketing of non-farm products respectively. They have also facilitated the formation of Ravi (Rural & Agricultural Venture Investment) Credit Co-operative Limited, Janmitram’s own micro-finance arm. Through the maze of these institutions, they are able to support the community with technology, capacity building, market-linkages and finance.

There’s an age difference of four years between Mr. Singh and Dr. Goswami, who ironically share the same birthday. Dr. Goswami still leads the organization as president, while Manish Singh, who is 37 years old, calls himself “semi-retired”. He explains that many talented and efficient people have been groomed at the organization over these years; who are now mature enough to take charge. His role thus is to mentor young fellows, create challenges for the team and help them overcome them so that, if ever the situation arises in reality, Janmitram is prepared.

These days, most of his time and efforts are now redirected to a school that he wishes to set up in memory of his father. A school that will offer top class English-medium education to underprivileged tribal children. A school which will also have an old age home, an orphanage, a hospital and a vocational training centre.

A school that is sure to transform lives of children, just as Janmitram has done, over the past 13 years!

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