The Pal-Swinburne Friendship Forest

The Pal-Swinburne Friendship Forest; from little things, big things grow for Swinburne’s IT for Social Impact India Project

In a long-sweeping bend, the Suki River cradles the village of Pal in the remote Satpuda Ranges of Maharashtra State, India. Once a hill station for the Maharajas travelling in elephant convoys between Delhi and Mumbai, Pal is now a thriving market village of 6000 residents. The Satpuda Ranges in which Pal is located were once a dense forest with monkeys, deer, tigers and panthers. However, today only scattered trees remain in parts and though sometimes you will see monkeys and very rarely a panther, most animal life has largely disappeared.

December and January are the best times of the year to visit Pal with warm days and cool nights. If you are visiting during these months you are likely to notice a group of patently western-looking ‘locals’, confidently navigating the streets and alleyways of the village, either on their way to tasks in the primary school, secondary college, tribal school, popping in and out of Krishi Vigyan Kendra (the Farm Science Centre) or returning from a visit to the Hindu temple. It is the black and red corporate polo shirts, the long-sleeved black or red t-shirts with words like ‘business’ printed on the sleeves or white t-shirts with words like ‘Swinburne University’, ‘IT for Social Impact’ and ‘WICT – Women in ICT’ which give a clue to the origins of these strange looking ‘locals’. You see, since 2014, at the end of one academic year and the start of the next, Pal becomes a ‘home away from home’ for the Swinburne IT for Social Impact India Project. If you continue your stroll through Pal and enter the gates of the primary school — managing to make your way across the playground to the steep banks of the Suki without being mobbed by beaming students — you will enjoy one of the best panoramic river views in Pal, with banana and guava plantations growing along its fertile banks. And if you look close enough, directly across the river you will also see a new plantation, which is the Pal-Swinburne Friendship Forest.

In August, 2015, in collaboration with CERES Global, the IT for Social Impact India Project was successful in gaining funding through the Australian Federal Government’s New Colombo Plan (NCP) to enable Swinburne students to continue to travel to Pal for a further three years: 2016-2018. Everyone involved in the previous projects knew how wonderful they were, how much it meant personally to each participant and now it seemed that NCP was acknowledging the worth to Swinburne students and to our host organisation and communities in India. To mark the achievement of NCP funds being awarded, Ben, Noel and I discussed ways to commemorate the strengthening relationship between Swinburne, CERES Global, SVM and the community of Pal in a way that would also point towards a shared future. With CERES founded on building awareness of current local and global issues, and being a movement for economic, social and environmental sustainability, it seemed a simple idea to plant a tree for each Swinburne student and academic who has visited Pal and to put in place a process of doing this on each return visit. The idea of a Pal-Swinburne Friendship Forest literally took root and was quickly embraced by SVM and KVK and plans drafted to conduct a planting ceremony once the IT for Social Impact India Project reached Pal for the December 2015 visit. In his forest planting inauguration speech, Mr Sanjay Mahajan from KVK explained the motive behind the friendship forest:
“The plants we are planting here, the motive is friendship, friendship between you and the friendship between us. The plant is our friend and a friend of you and me. You and one of our students will plant your tree and after that you will go to your country and that plant will be taken care of by the student. Every week they will come here and they will tend the area; they will water it and take care of it. You must come next time and you will see these plants are here. This is the motive behind this friendship forest.”

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Left: Mr. Sanjay Mahajan inaugurates the Pal-Swinburne Friendship Forest. Right: Local high school student, Indica, helps Dr. Jason Sargent plant their friendship tree. December 2015.

As you read this, my friendship tree grows on the banks of a river in a remote part of India, 6000 miles from my office on the Hawthorn campus of Swinburne University of Technology. My new friend Indica has taken on the task of caretaker for ‘our’ tree until I return to Pal each December with another student project team to renew and grow our friendship. On our way to Jamnya, as we cross the Suki River bridge, I will now be able to point out the Pal-Swinburne Friendship Forest to my students and tell them “A part of you will forever belong to Pal, to be remembered until you return once more”.

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The Pal-Swinburne Friendship Forest – testament to the strong and ongoing relationship between the tribal village community of Pal, our host NGO SVM and Swinburne University of Technology.

Dr. Jason Sargent is a lecturer in Information Systems and co-founder of the DigiDoGood Mob at Swinburne University of Technology. His Doctoral research fieldwork was carried out on the Thai-Burma Border and he continues to work and research in the domain of social impact. Jason has lead the IT for Social Impact India Project since December 2014 and is working on a sustainable model of social impact through the use of technologies in collaboration with SVM, particularly in Pal, Mohamandali and Jamnya. Jason can be contacted via email jpsargent@swin.edu.au