How he starts
Paliwal was born in a village a little over a mile away from Piplantri, called Morwad, the youngest of the six boys his mother had before giving birth to his two younger sisters. According to Paliwal, his mother died of a snakebite when he was 6 and his littlest sister was just 2 months old. He dropped out of school when he was 11 or 12 to work on the family farm, and eventually started working for one of the many marble companies in the region. Once he learned the marble trade, he opened his own small marble company. In the meantime, he got married and had children, two daughters and a son.
One of those daughters, Kiran, died when she was 18 of severe dehydration — a largely preventable ailment that remains a leading cause of death for children in India and sometimes kills adults too. Paliwal was distraught. An environmentalist long fascinated with the outdoors, he decided to embrace nature to honor her memory.
"I want her name to be remembered by the generations to come," Paliwal says through a translator. "So I planted some trees. It takes 10 to 12 years for a small tree to become a big tree, and a big tree remains for thousands of years. "
At that point, in 2007, Paliwal had already taken some steps to improve the environment in Piplantri. The land was dry and barren when he was elected, so he built a few small dams to create water reserves. After Kiran's death and planting the memorial trees, he had another thought: Maybe more trees would mean more water. And maybe fostering an emotional connection between the villagers and the trees would mean more trees.
"First, I did this for my daughter," Paliwal says. "Then I thought, why can't we do it for all the daughters?"
Since 2007, villagers in Piplantri have embraced Paliwal's "daughter, water, and trees" ethos by planting 111 saplings every time a girl is born. At first, Paliwal had to press villagers to help. Now, he says, it's automatic: People here plant trees for everything — to commemorate births, deaths, and other major life events.
It's not only an environmental strategy but a feminist one. Celebrating female babies is one way of encouraging families to have and raise girls in a country where there are 35 million more males than females, largely because families prefer boys and have sex-selective abortions to avoid raising daughters. In Rajasthan, there are 928 women for every 1,000 men (in the United States, by contrast, there are 1,031 women for every 1,000 men). The child sex ratio is even more extreme: For every 1,000 boys in the state, there are just 888 girls.