After long years of leading a trader’s life in the city, when Premji Bhai decided to return to his village he was shocked to see most of the roadside trees either drying up or dead. That immediately spurred him to action and he ended up developing a device for scattering seeds — about 45 billion of them, in fact, till date.
From his homeland Saurashtra, his work soon spread to parts of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.
Born into a farming community in Upleta Taluka, Rajkot district, Premji became a distributor for Reliance Textiles and moved to Mumbai in 1975.
Yearning to retire from his trade and the urban lifestyle in Mumbai, he looked for ways to make a difference to the world.
His mind kept returning to a character called Gopal Bapa in a Gujarati play, written by the well-known educationist Manubhai Pancholi, who generated employment for young people through horticulture and growing trees.
Emulating this, Premji began by supporting tree planting near the temples in his village. He reasoned that religious faith would prevent people from cutting them.
He hired a person to organise this work and met all expenses. Soon his work spread to temples in more villages. Finally, in 1984, he entrusted the work to a local voluntary organisation.
His son, an industrialist in Ahmedabad, forwarded him an article from a local magazine that described the work of Elzeard Bouffier (which originally appeared in a story titled The Man Who Planted Trees by the French writer Jean Giono). A shepherd, Bouffier devoted his retired life to tree planting and is credited with creating a forest 10 km wide and 50 km long within 35 years. Premji was inspired by this too, and his son supported him wholeheartedly.
In the beginning, Premji set out every morning with a bagful of seeds and a small spade. He planted seeds on the bunds of fields and along roadsides.
However, the trees grew in a haphazard manner as the seeds were broadcast by hand. That led Premji to think of air-blowing seeds through a mechanised device to disperse them evenly.
His daughter and son-in-law, who run a steel business in Rajkot, chipped in with suggestions and encouragement.
He bought a motor, a fan and pipe from the scrap market and started work on his innovation. Soon he had ready a petrol-driven mechanical blower mounted on the back of a jeep. The blower, fabricated in Rajkot at a cost of around Rs 12,000, could disperse seeds up to 15 metres. Premji soon adapted it for use on railway tracks as well, to broadcast seeds alongside the tracks. He now has two such machines.
Within a year, he managed to broadcast 10 tonnes of tamarind seeds in villages around Ahmedabad. He also lends the machines to other tree-planting organisations.
Currently, Premji is focusing on watershed development through his organisation Vruksh Prem Seva Sanstha Trust. About 150 nature clubs are active in this work on 1,000 hectares.
Till date, he has built 1,500 check dams by providing complete financial support and 400 others for which he met the cement cost.
He encouraged farmers to improve the design to help save on labour and cost. They were motivated to innovate as they met much of the cost. Thus, while the government schemes had uniform design and, often, uniform costing norms, variability became the hallmark of those promoted by Premji, with an emphasis on cost-effectiveness and efficiency.