Unsung heroes honoured at First Nanda Devi Women’s Festival

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Gunchhi DeviOn the eve of the Republic Day, Gram Sabha Lata in Chamoli District hosted the first Nanda Devi Women’s Festival. The striking feature of the festival was the recognition granted to achievements of the region’s women.

It was a memorable sight to watch Bhotia women in their traditional dress attending the fair with unprecedented enthusiasm.

With the women’s festival, celebrations have begun in the Niti Valley to commemorate thirty years of the famous Gaura Devi incident of the Chipko movement. It will be recalled that on 26 March 1974, Gaura Devi from Reni village forced contractors to leave the forest.

The festival aims to build a momentum towards these commemorations, while continuing the struggle through implementation of the Nanda Devi Declaration.

At the one-day feast, many unsung heroes and heroines were felicitated. Besides this, several competitions were organised to promote indigenous knowledge and skills.

Among those honoured were Sureshi Devi and Gunchhi Devi, who are traditional medicine practitioners.

Sureshi Devi, a 62 year old scheduled caste woman from Lata, holds the unique distinction of having the largest client base in the Niti Valley. She does not charge any fee and uses locally available herbs to treat a number of aliments.

Similar is the tale of 82-year-old Gunchhi Devi. She is considered to be only competent person to treat ‘Ghamjwar’, a fever due to excessive exposure to the Sun during early summer.

The Govind Singh Memorial Cricket Tournament is presently underway. Govind Singh was the regional organiser for the Chipko Movement. Eleven teams are taking part and the winners will be awarded on coming 26 March. Also honoured were many porters, including Natha Singh, who has been mentioned in many books on Nanda Devi, including ‘The Nanda Devi Affair’ by Bill Atkin.

It was a proud moment for Himmatu Lal, who knows the incantations of the local ‘Makhauta Nritya’ (mask dance), and Gabbar Singh (a Jagari), as they also received awards.

Eleven villages made it to the first Nanda Devi Women’s Festival. The gathering also provided the villagers an opportunity to exchange their views on the move of the state government to reopen the Nanda Devi Biosphere for limited tourism after a gap of 20 years.

On this, Dr Sunil Kainthola of Janaadhar (a NGO), says, “The locals are confused as it is not a participatory type of thing. This is so because the villagers were ousted by the creation of the park in 1982 and denied their common property rights for twenty years. The Bhotia of the Niti Valley had in recent years launched their own agitation to regain access to the core zone.”

The people of the Niti valley formulated the Nanda Devi Declaration on 14 October 2001 at Lata.

This declaration advocates community based tourism development that’s free from monopolies and which ensures equity of locals in the tourism business. To stop exploitation of porters and giving preference to local unemployed youth and under privileged families are other features of the Nanda Devi Declaration.

It is ironic that the government wishes to teach forest conservation to people of the valley, who have themselves set the best example, through the Gaura Devi episode to galvanise the Chipko Movement, gaining worldwide fame. The shape of tourism in the Nanda Devi is a hot issue and it is likely to catch more flames with each passing day.

— By Raju Gusain
Garhwal Post, February 1-7, 2004