When I first met him, I couldn’t believe I was talking to a senior Indian Forest Service (IFS) officer of 1987 batch. Om Prakash Sharma aka Vidhyarthi was wearing a white colour kurta pyjama and looked like an ordinary Dogra from Jammu.
He had come down to my friend’s flat who was also putting up in the same building (Govt quarters) around 2012. During that meeting we discussed ecology, environment , forests and much more. I kept meeting this interesting person quite frequently after that, and we became very good friends within a few years.
In fact my other friends also came into close contact with him and we would hold discussions, roundtables together on the issues of environment and climate change. Sharma ji had started Tree Talk programme on December 19th 2010 wherein he would regularly hold meetings, gatherings on environmental education across J&K.
He would talk about herbs, flowers, trees, fruits and much more during the Tree Talk programme. In one such programme I, along with several friends, educational volunteers from some NGOs who were working with District Administration Bandipora trekked with him for a full day in Bandipora during the summer of 2015.
The then DC Bandipora Dr Shah Faesal was also with us. We travelled all the way to Bumus, Nagmarg which connects Bandipora with Lolab valley via Diver. On the way Sharma ji would stop near a tree, bush or any other plant and start explaining its full details.
The great thing about Sharma ji is that he will tell English, Dogri, Kashmiri, Gojri & above all the Botanical name of any forest herb, flower, tree or a plant. That is so great of him. The story of Cicada (Dach Pompur) he told us was amazing.
During my Gurez trip with O P Sharma in July 2017 he made us to stop at least one dozen places between Bandipora and Gurez. He wanted to make us aware about the local flora and fauna and the edible and other values of these plants.
Series of Forest Food Festivals
Between 2015 to 2019 Sharma ji played a great role in introducing Forest Food to people at a large scale. The idea struck my mind when O P Sharma travelled with me to Basant Wodder village in Khansahib area of Budgam district on June 5th 2015- to celebrate World Environment Day with students and villagers.
We had organised a function in a private school at Khansahib and from there we travelled to Basant Wodder forests near Doodh Pathri. Sharma ji explained in detail the importance of forests to local villagers and students and then he told about the edible value of various forest herbs like Wopal Hakh, Obej, Hand, Krech, Chok Chinne and much more.
The great thing about Sharma ji is that he knows all the names of the wild plants whether it is Kashmiri name, its English name, botanical name, Dogri or Gojri name. When we were coming back I suggested Sharma ji to organise a forest food festival.
He was happy with the idea and within a few weeks , O P Sharma was posted as Director Environment, Ecology & Remote Sensing J&K Govt around August 2015 and we decided to organise a forest food festival. First we went to Yusmarg to see if the programme could be held there.
Then due to some logistical issues we decided to have the programme in Srinagar at Institute of Hotel Management (IHM). On Oct 4th 2015 first ever Forest Food Festival was organised at Srinagar by Department of Environment Ecology and Remote Sensing in association with Centre for Conservation of Culture and Heritage (CCCH) and IHM Srinagar.
Faculty of IHM Srinagar especially Chef Yaseen prepared lots of dishes from forest herbs. Before these dishes were prepared we had several brainstorming sessions at IHM about the things that could be prepared.
Nusrat Jahanara Chairperson CCCH , late Ramzan Khan Sahib from Gurez, Chef Yaseen gave some lovely ideas. We had brought lots of herbs from Gurez as well and Ramzan Khan sahib, my colleague played a great role in that. Around 2019 July Sharma ji held a Forest Food Festivals in Yusmarg and Gurez as well with an aim to create awareness about our forest biodiversity.
The aim of introducing Tree Talk in 2010 was to develop love and passion for nature and environment among people especially the younger generation. First event I remember was titled Tree Talk & Morning walk.
Sharma ji has not only held tree talks in the cities of Srinagar or Jammu region but he has tarveled to remotest corners of Jammu & Kashmir.
From Gurez to Bhaderwah to Poonch and Rajouri and other places. After his retirement from Government service in 2020 , O P Sharma didn’t stop. He kept holding tree talks in Jammu. During COVID 19 pandemic it was a bit challenging but from last 1 year Sharma ji is active again. O P Sharma is presently the Member J&K Biodiversity Council and recently held several Tree Talks in Delhi and NCR region.
While interacting with several forest experts & nature lovers at Lodhi Garden in New Delhi recently , O P Sharma threw light on the importance of many herbs and trees found in Lodhi Garden.
He explained the medicinal significance of Adansonia digitata (Monkey bread tree, Gorakh Imli, Boswellia serrata (Ghost tree,Bhootya vriksh) whose products are used for the treatment of arthritis, cancer treatment.
To mark the 12 years of Tree Talk, an event was hosted in Aravalli ridge and Asola Bhatti wildlife sanctuary around Delhi as well. The flora of the Aravalli mountain range was discussed during the programme.
O P Sharma and other participants threw light on the unique trees with medicinal & commercial value which included Wrightia tinctoria Dyeing rosebay ,Indrajao, Kootaj ,Salvadora oleoides (Meetha Jaal,Bada Peelu),Salvadora persica (Peelu ).
After the Delhi series of Tree Talk interactions , a series of Tree Talks were held in Jammu from Dec14th onwards to mark the 12 years of Tree Talk. Interactive sessions were held at Gandhi Memorial science college, Forest school trainees and students of Govt women college Gandhi Nagar.
Om Prakash Sharma @ Vidhyarthi in my opinion is the Forest Man of Jammu & Kashmir. He not only is a professional Forester, but he is also a Dogri poet who was born in Ramnagar Udhampur. He did M.Sc. Botany from Jammu University in 1981.
In 1987 he qualified for the prestigious Indian Forest Service (IFS). In past he worked as DFO Research, Dy Conservator Forests Communication & Extension J&K Social Forestry Department, Dy Conservator Forests State Vigilance Organization, Regional Director Pollution Control Board, Joint Director J&K State Forest Research Institute, Conservator of Forests Working Plan, Conservator of Forests Vigilance, Chief Conservator of Forests (Ecotourism) in J&K Wildlife Protection Department, Director SFRI etc.O P Sharma is a Sahitya Akademi awardee 2002 for the literary contribution in “Dogri” language.
His literary work has been translated into Hindi Boond Boond Smritiyan by Sahitya Akademi New Delhi. The successive governments had done great injustice with Sharma ji by not giving him important assignments in the forest department in-spite of the fact that he is a forestry encyclopaedia.
It was only during his last 3 years of service that he was posted as Director Environment Ecology and Remote Sensing and then as Director State Forest Research Institute (SFRI) where he undertook lots of activities.
On some occasions he would travel with me in my small car and never cared for protocol in spite of being a Principal Chief Conservator Forest (PCCF) rank officer.
Dr Raja Muzaff ar Bhat is an Acumen Fellow. He is Founder & Chairman Jammu & Kashmir RTI Movement
DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author.
The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.