In hindi the word Chipko means "to stick" or “to embrace” or “to hug” and that is what the Uttarakhandi women have done in 70’s to save the trees. Chipko Movement, started in 1970’s, was a non violent movement aimed at protection and conservation of trees and forests from being destroyed. The villagers used to hug the trees and protect them from wood cutters from cutting them. Chipko movement was based on the Gandhian philosophy of peaceful resistance to achieve the goals. It was the strong uprising against the against those people, who were destroying the natural resources of the forests and disturbing the whole ecological balance.
The landmark event in this struggle took place on March 26, 1974, when a group of female peasants in Reni village, Hemwalghati, in Chamoli district, Uttarakhand, India, acted to prevent the cutting of trees and reclaim their traditional forest rights that were threatened by the contractor system of the state Forest Department, and transpired hundreds of such grassroots level actions, throughout the region. When the Forest Department announced an auction of 2500 trees in the Reni Forest overlooking the Alaknanda River, which had already flooded disastrously, one woman- Gaura Devi- organized the women of her village to protect the trees from the company that won the auction. They physically prevented the tree felling, and thus forced the Uttar Pradesh government to investigate. Two years later, the government placed a 10-year ban on all tree felling in the area. Later on the ban was imposed in Himachal Pardesh, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Bihar, Western Ghats and Vindhayas. All this was done on the order of the Indian Prime Minister after the strong protests by the activists through out the country. After that, women prevented felling in many other forests all along the Himalayas. They have also set up cooperatives to guard local forests, and to organize fodder production at rates that will not harm the trees. Within the Chipko movement, women have joined in land rotation schemes for fodder collection, helped replant degraded land, and established and run nurseries stocked with species they select. By the 80s, the movement spread throughout India, and led to formulation of people sensitive forest policies and stopping of open felling of trees in regions.
Several Books were wriiten on Chipko Movement. One booklet, in which Gaura Devi’s story was detailed, "Emancipated Women-Folk of Uttarakhand", brought out by the Himalayan Action Research Centre, Dehradun. An abridged version was recounted by C.S. Lakshmi in her Hindu article, Lessons from the Mountains: The Story of Gaura Devi.
Everyone by now knows about the Chipko Movement. But not many know about the women of the Uttarakhand region who have made it their lifetime mission to leave undestroyed forests for their children and grandchildren. One has known old women and men who, towards the end of their lives, would plant trees which would bear fruits only many years later. When questioned these old people are known to have replied, "I won’t be here to taste the fruits of this tree. But my grandchildren and their children would taste its fruits." The women of Uttarakhand would understand this sentiment for this has been their way of looking at the forests and the lives they support.
One woman whom future generations in Uttarakhand are not likely to forget is Gaura Devi who has mobilised the women of this region to protect their natural heritage. Gaura Devi was not educated in the conventional sense of the term. She had not attended any school. Born in 1925 in a tribal Marchha family of Laata village in Neeti valley of Chamoli district, she was only trained in her family’s traditional wool trade. In keeping with the tradition of those days, she was married off at a young age. She went to a family which had some land and was also in the wool trade. Unfortunately at the young age of 22, Gaura Devi became a widow with a two-and-a-half year old child to bring up. She took over the family’s wool trade and brought up her son Chandra Singh alone. In time, she handed over the family responsibility to her son but did not sit back to rest. She was aware of the poverty of the region and how it affected women and how her own experiences of survival had taught her a lot. She was actively involved in the panchayat and other community endeavours. Hence, it was not surprising that the women of Reni approached her in the wake of the Chipko Movement in 1972, to be the president of the Mahila Mangal Dal. It was the first of its kind to be established. Its responsibilities were ensuring cleanliness in the village and the protection of community forests. Gaura Devi was in her late forties and her son was not doing very well. But she had no hesitation in accepting their offer.
The awareness generated by the Chipko Movement had already spread in all the areas of the region. Gaura Devi took up several campaigns to spread awareness in the nearby villages. Not only did the women but everyone in that region realised what the forests meant to them. Gaura Devi always referred to the forests as their gods. So the people of Reni were quick to react when the government authorised the felling of the trees in the belt and gave the job to contractors. They held demonstrations of protest. But little did they know that the date for the felling had already been fixed. It was fixed for March 25, 1974. That day, a group of forest officials along with some labourers started moving towards the forests. A young girl saw them and she went running back to report to Gaura Devi. That day there were no men in the village. All of them had gone to Chamoli. Undaunted, Gaura Devi and 27 women of Reni village began to march towards the forests. Soon they reached the group of men and their labourers who were cooking their food. Initially they tried to reason with them and told the labourers to leave after they ate their food. The officials who were already a bit drunk began to hurl obscenities at Gaura Devi and her group of women and told the labourers to go ahead and cut the trees. They were then told in no uncertain terms that if they attempted any such thing the women would cling to the trees. One of the officials who was drunk brandished a gun. The women stood in a row, each one of them looking as if the mountain goddess Nanda Devi had taken one of her fierce forms. They then chased the labourers for nearly two kilometres and broke the cement bridge leading to the forests. A group of them sat guarding the rest of the men and kept vigil throughout the night.
The Chipko Movement gained momentum under Sunderlal Bahuguna, an eco activist, who spent his whole life persuading and educating the villagers, to protest against the destruction of the forests and the Himalayan mountains by the government. It was he, who made appeal to the Prime Minister of India Mrs Indira Gandhi to ban the cutting of tress. He shouted the slogan ‘ecology is the permanent economy’. Another main leader of the movement was Mr. Chandi Prasad Bhatt, who advocated the development of small scale local industries, which were based on the sustainable use of the forests resources for the local benefits. There were many slogans that originated during that period. For example :-
Jagigyan 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)
“Embrace the trees and
Save then from being felled
The property of our hills,
Save them from being looted”
Another one says :-
“Let us protect and plant the trees
Go awaken the villages
And drive away the axeman”
In the year 2004,on completion of 30 years of Chipko Movemnet. The anniversary celebrations were covered by differnt papers (see pictures) where government authorities criticised for dominating the celebrations in Reni and not involving local people. Gaura Devi’s only son, Chander Singh Rana, and Dhan Singh Rana raised this issue.
* Some Photo Courtsy : Rajiv Rawat