Chipko Remembered amidst Nostalgia and Conflict

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Lata Delegation to ReniJagigyan hum, beejigyan hum; Ab ni chalali choron ki
Ghor apuna, baun apuna; Ab ni chalali auron ki
(We have risen, we are awake; No longer will thiefs rule our destiny
It is our home, our forests; No longer will the others decide for us)

Maatu hamru, paani hamru, hamra hi chhan yi baun bhi
Pitron na lagai baun, hamunahi ta bachon bhi
(Soil ours, water ours, ours are these forests too
Our forefathers raised these, it is we who must protect these too)

Maatu bikigi, paani bikigi, bikigya hamara baun bhi
Haath khaali, pet khaali, thikanu ni kakhi raun ki
(Soil has been sold, water sold, our forests too have been sold off
Hands bare, stomachs empty, we have no shelter to stay)

– Dhan Singh Rana “Adivasi”, village Lata (Chamoli Garhwal)

It was almost by accident late last year, in distant Canada, that Rajiv Rawat who manages the people’s website on Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve region, realized that the most dramatic and defining event in the regionwide Chipko Andolan of the early seventies which had captured the nation’s and the world’s imagination was completing 30 years on 26 March 2004. But the idea set a large ball rolling.

Thirty years is not a short time, even if it is not a long one either. In Lata and Reni, the two villages in the Niti valley of Chamoli Garhwal, which had been both the vanguard and the rearguard of the movement then, an entire generation was in the process of moving over. Bold young women and men of that time were now bent with age. women who were little girls back then, were now married and gone to other villages, while the energetic little boys of the 1970s are today languid and middle aged. Much had, indeed, changed – for the good or worse. If one thing had not changed, it was the memory of that fateful night in March 1974 when Gaura Devi, the head of the Mahila Mangal Dal at Reni then, led 26 other women into the forest in the dead of the night to confront the forest contractor’s labourers and dared them to use their axes. In the face of their quiet determination, the axemen relented and left the forest.

The children of Lata and Reni have since been fed on folklore emanating from this derring-do which then turned out to be a signal victory for the entire movement. For instance, young men (and women) like Raju Guide (as he is called) of Lata, then only a toddler, remembers listening to any number of stories of the Chipko from his parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts and other elders. Stories which cheered and inspired, but had, of late, started to more and more leave a twinge of melancholy and a whiff of despair in the air.

The social, environmental and political reverberations of Chipko were loud and far reaching. In India, the government redefined its policy and laws on forests, reworded the agenda of its forest department. The Movement – local, yet universal at the same time; taking place throughout the region, but remaining intensely local in each area – was hailed for providing new direction and fresh impetus to people’s movements and concerns. The women’s role and importance in the conservation of their environment was underlined and recognized worldwide, initiating gender concerns in conservation and development. The Movement and Gaura Devi were lionized in films, books and retells, and groups and individuals were felicitated and awarded. And just about everything seemed hunky-dory.

But the aftermath of the Movement also spawned a generation of false babies – and opportunists pretending to be nursemaids who then ran off with the babies. A whole range of careers have been founded on the Chipko movement, outside the region (and some within as well), while women and men who had struggled shoulder to shoulder slowly went into oblivion.

If their voices were not heard it was because initially they were probably just happy and satisfied to have done their deed, and later they were left with no space to let their voices be heard. If Gaura Devi continued to be spoken about and eulogized by the new fraternity, it was because it could not do without this powerful symbol, even as it was convenient for these spokespersons to negate the cohesion of a unified, sustained struggle and reduce the entire movement to one dramatic action. Through the latter part of her life, Gaura Devi herself remained dignified and did not tire of receiving visitors and other attention, but her single wish that her only son Chandra Singh be given a government job remains unfulfilled to this day. As for Chandra Singh himself, though he basked in his mother’s glory, he also often worried about the increased expenditure on tea and food that more visitors meant!

For the local community, Chipko’s victory became self-devouring, and the garland of gratitude around the people’s necks turned into a noose.

For the local community, Chipko’s victory became self-devouring, and the garland of gratitude around the people’s necks turned into a noose. The creation of Nanda Devi National Park in 1982 (and subsequently, the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve), out of the erstwhile forests of the community was apparently a conservation initiative, but had far-reaching, devastating effect on the community. With trekking and mountaineering banned, and the forests now becoming out of bound for the people, it seemed as if the people’s lives had come a full circle. Majority of the families in the region were hitherto engaged in providing guide and porter services to trekking and mountaineering expeditions – the annual earnings from this is loosely estimated to be around Rs 8000 per family. The ban caused this major loss. Oddly, having destroyed the local tourism infrastructure, the government has now opened limited tourism in the Reserve to be run exclusively by the government, with hollow talk of people’s participation. On the other hand, as a result of loss in grazing area, sheep rearing declined at a sharp rate, which in turn severely impacted on traditional wool and handlooms enterprise, once practiced by virtually every household in the region. No wonder, the people were half amused, when last year the government donated a wool carding machine to the women of Lata!

Elsewhere too, wherever Chipko had taken place, life for the people over the last 30 years had turned more grim and people continued to battle for preserving their natural resources.

Elsewhere too, wherever Chipko had taken place, life for the people over the last 30 years had turned more grim and people continued to battle for preserving their natural resources. In the Tehri district, a few years ago, the people of Advani region vowed to Chipko once again if their forests were clear-felled for high-tension electricity line from the proposed Tehri dam site to Meerut, near Delhi. And, lately, the district court at New Tehri has ordered 15 days imprisonment for Vijay Jarhdhari and Kunwar Prasoon, two of the celebrated Chipko activists, for protesting against illegal mining at Kataldi village in Henwalghati region of the same district. In the Niti valley itself, in 1998, in a symbolic gesture, people made a forcible entry into the core zone of the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve to highlight the denial of their traditional rights.

So when Rajiv Rawat’s observation of Chipko completing a milestone was passed on to Dhan Singh Rana, the ex-pradhan (village head) of Lata and a major voice of discontent in the Niti valley, the latter thought it should be celebrated. In the past three decades, Chipko had been much written and talked about the world over, but not once was its anniversary celebrated anywhere. Dhan Singh felt if this anniversary is to be celebrated it is first the Niti valley’s right and duty to do so. He discussed the idea among his own people and those in Reni, and subsequently with people in other nearby villages, who all welcomed the idea instantaneously and wholeheartedly. The people felt it would be a good occasion to pay respect to their elders and rightful heroes who had set a path-breaking example in environmental conservation. At the same time, the occasion would also be a good time to re-analyse and redefine the Chipko movement in the present context, to reflect on its gains and losses for themselves, and to underline some historic wrongs and perhaps seek to correct them.

The occasion would also be a good time to re-analyse and redefine the Chipko movement in the present context, to reflect on its gains and losses for themselves, and to underline some historic wrongs and perhaps seek to correct them.

To give the occasion and message a wider base and reach, it was decided at the gram sabha (village council) to not just celebrate that single day in history, but as homage to the women of the time, to celebrate it as Nanda Devi Women’s Festival, spread over two months beginning on 26 January, the country’s Republic Day. Moreover, it was also decided to enter the core zone once again on 26 March in a symbolic gesture. It was planned that people would gather at Lata a day before for a meeting and, on 26 March, go in a procession to Reni and onwards.

When the news of people’s collective decisions spread outside the villages, things began to go a bit awry, and a few people from Reni village started backing out under the pretext of not agreeing to entering the core zone. This was obviously at the behest of the Forest Department, which felt threatened by any such action. Trust the government machinery to appropriate and dilute a serious occasion and, worse, disrupt people’s collective spirit through wily machination, for this is exactly what happened subsequently. It is widely believed, the Department financially supported one of its associate NGOs (Society for Community Involvement in Development – SFCID) and some Joshimath based contractors to instead organize Chipko’s 30th anniversary celebration at Reni. By thus creating a fissure, the government rightly believed the people would be restricted to village precincts and would not be able to enter the prohibited forest areas.

For the people of Lata, this posed a dilemma. They did not wish to be part of government sponsored celebrations, and yet did not wish to aggravate the situation and add to a sense of division among the people. So, deciding to bend and retreat a bit, the plan of entering the core zone was discarded. With people divided, it wouldn’t have really worked, in any case.

Meanwhile, as news of the people’s Chipko celebration spread through the internet – the website and some supporters’ individual mailing lists, messages of goodwill and solidarity started coming in from all over the world, which were translated and pasted up for the people to read at the Lata meeting. Friends, supporters and others from nearby villages and distant areas started congregating in Lata on 25 March. Over the next two days, more than 200 people marked their presence at Lata. Locally, about 16 villages were represented at the gathering.

The meeting started with remembering all the pitr and elders, like Gaura Devi and Govind Singh Rawat, the unsung hero of the Chipko movement. On behalf of the gram sabha, Diwan Singh the oldest living person in Lata, a nonagenarian, presented the late Govind Singh’s widow and Dhoom Singh Negi (who had come all the way from Henwalghati, Tehri) with woolen pankhi, as a mark of respect and recognition of their role in the Chipko movement.

Dhoom Singh Negi of Tehri honoured by LataSetting the tone for the meeting, Dhan Singh Rana stated, “At the time of Chipko, as far as the government was concerned, it had sold off these forests for felling. But for the effort of our elders, there might have been no forests left here today. But today, the government claims itself to be the saviour of these forests, and we are being branded as culprits.”

He added, “As long as the forests were ours, we never or rarely heard of forest fires. But now there are forest fires almost every year. Our bidhee and cigarettes are blamed for these, as if we did not smoke earlier. We demand an impartial enquiry into forest fires ever since the forests came under government control.”

Dhoom Singh Negi said that, for him, the visit to this area was like “coming on tirth (pilgrimage)” to the land of Chipko. In fact, his visit itself was historic for it was the first time that a Chipko activist from Tehri was visiting this area, thus seeking to bridge the artificial divide that had been created among the people of the two regions. He related some of the experiences of Chipko in the Tehri region and how the issues of deforestation and mining in the name of development were still like wounds continuing to fester.

Dhoom Singh related some of the experiences of Chipko in the Tehri region and how the issues of deforestation and mining in the name of development were still like wounds continuing to fester.

Veenapani Joshi from Dehra Dun said that she had always wanted to visit this land to see the women who through Chipko had inspired an entire generation of environmentalists. Addressing the women at the meeting, she said “I see the image of Gaura in all of you.”
Jagat Singh of Lata and brother of Gaura Devi, was a keen guide and porter but is now partially paralysed. When asked about it, he lisped, “What paralysis! We were paralysed long ago when they closed these areas for us.”

Raju Guide said, “Many of us are not much educated, but we were fruitfully employed earlier. Now we are all in the ranks of the unemployed.”

Sunil Kainthola stressed, “The way the Forest Department is going about tourism, by organizing a mere one-day training for guides, is belittling the concept of community based tourism. Community based tourism is a serious business. It is not only a question of opportunities but also of responsibilities and of empowerment of the people.”
At the end of the meeting a charter of demands was prepared, which stated:

  • The community be given the ownership of the forests and forest land, and the people will take responsibility for ensuring their safety, security and preservation.
  • The government should announce Support Price for the agricultural produce by the people, and also ensure its purchase.
  • Any loss of life and property by wild animals must be compensated for fully.
  • The entire organization of tourism in the region must be handed over to the community which will ensure that no damage is done to the biodiversity of the region.
  • All kind of losses accruing to the community as a result of the creation of the Nanda Devi National Park must be compensated for.
  • A proper evaluation should be conducted of the loss of property and other economic activities as a result of creation of large hydro-electric projects in the region; and the expenditure on these projects be made public.
  • The work and expenditures made by government and non-government organizations in the Nanda Devi Biosphere Region be made public.
  • As has been successfully done in Lata, no project or research be conducted in the region without the permission or knowledge of the community or gram sabha of the respective area.

Decision was also taken that next day, at Reni, the people will not disrupt the government sponsored meeting. Also, they will stay this side of the Rishi Ganga and go to the Reni function only if honourably invited and allowed to address it.

Next morning, amidst the sounds of dhol and damau, songs and sloganeering, the procession marched towards Reni. The procession stopped this side of the bridge over Rishi Ganga, whereafter Smt Nandi Rana, the pradhan of Reni gram sabha and other women (who were present at Lata the previous day), came to formally invite the Lata people to the celebrations.

So it was a government programme all the way, what with the MC even warning the prospective speakers to “not be too smart”, in other words, don’t raise the real issues!

As was apparent, the celebrations at Reni were organized in the government’s typical style – under shamiana, lots of banners announcing affiliations, a sizeable local and Joshimath crowd, and lots of official presence – SDM (sub-divisional magistrate) and DFO (district forest officer) along with their retinue and wherewithalls. So it was very, very formal. The proceedings, unfortunately, were being conducted not by the community but by its Joshimath-based representatives, basically contractors who also worked for the forest department. So it was a government programme all the way, what with the MC even warning the prospective speakers to “not be too smart”, in other words, don’t raise the real issues!

Eminent veteran journalist Harish Chandola remarked that Chipko celebration was the community’s prerogative and should have remained so, and this should not have been a government celebration. He hinted that those very people against whom the entire Chipko Movement was targeted, were today sitting on the dias.

Chandola hinted that those very people against whom the entire Chipko Movement was targeted, were today sitting on the dias.

Oddly, the main organizing NGO, SFCID, was not on the scene, which was actually not surprising considering the community is upset over his role in the death of one of their people sometimes earlier. Dhan Singh, the only person from Lata invited to speak, brought up this point while speaking, that the Forest Department is encouraging groups and organizations who are opposed to the local people.

Having made their say, and not too willing to listen to routine speeches, the Lata group left the meeting. For the Forest Department, Dhan Singh was the protagonist or the major thorn in its side. With he and his people gone, the DFO is also learnt to have left the meeting soon thereafter. The women who had been brought from distant places were left stranded and fuming. But the DFO couldn’t have cared less. For him, the women were not important. Nor even Gaura Devi. His agenda was to create a division in the people and not have them march into the forest. And in this, for the time being, he had succeeded.

But, in so doing, fresh ground has been laid for conflict escalating in the future.

– By Biju Negi
March 31, 2004