Of Chipko and other fables from Uttarakhand

The state of Uttarakhand has been regularly plagued by catastrophes of a humongous scale. The ubiquitous landslides and long traffic jams caused by the breaking of roads are a common experience to anyone  who visits the state.  A swarm of various ecological NGOs have brought these concerns to the fore. However, they are not able to push back the all-sweeping course of development chosen by the establishment. The story of the receding Gaumukh Glacier, the source of the Ganges, is considered to be a mystery to all but its association with the broader environmental crisis, like the lack of snow and rain this year, seems far fetched to most of us. Only people well rooted in nature can hear its sigh. So it is incumbent to look at things from the perspective of these people. It was only a few decades ago that they rose to push the environmental onslaught of deforestation back through a collective movement. In order to gauge the present realities, it is important to understand the legacy of struggles like Chipko.

A little detour at Chamoli from the popular Alaknanda route takes us to the District Headquarters – Gopeshwar. With a view of a snow-clad peak – a rare sight this winter – the town of Gopeshwar slopes down the side of the hill, towards a nondescript stream.

Rare view of a snow peak from Gopeshwar
Rare view of a snow peak from Gopeshwar

Any decent description of the Chipko Movement starts with the mention of Dasholi Gram Swarajya Mandal (DGSM), Chandi Prasad Bhatt and surely Gopeshwar. On the way to Gopeshwar, I had arranged the meeting with Gyanendra Khantwal ji, an advocate at the District Judiciary, and also an activist. A small hike towards the lone petrol pump at Gopeshwar and I reached the tea shop where I would be enlightened by Gyanendra ji.

In the early 1970’s, Gopeshwar was surrounded by dense forests all around, which were accessible even from nearby villages like Mandal. A particular tree variety  called ‘Chamkhadi’, which is suitable for manufacture of sports goods was found here. The forests were in the control of Kedarnath Forest Department (KFD) at the time. There were some small-scale industries coming up then. These industries were run by a co-operative DGSM, which had saw-mills at Mandal and Gopeshwar and also a turpentine factory running for the benefit and by the cooperation of the villagers from around. They used to buy trees from KFD.There is also a ‘Jadi buti Shodh Sansthan’ (Medicinal herbs Research Institute) at Mandal.

In 1973 KFD auctioned a lot of trees to a sports goods company from Allahabad. Due to the allocation to Simon Co., DGSM couldn’t procure trees any longer. This started a conflict between local vs. outsiders which spread like wildfire due to the organization of DGSM and the deteriorating livelihood of the common populace; the conflict eventually took the form of a movement all around. Deforestation had already led to the deterioration of ecosystems and a loss of livelihood. As the contract was relocated to various other places like Raini and Phata, the leadership of the likes of Chandi Prasad Bhatt tied together the movement at all these places, not letting the contracts go through. There was already a growing concern shown by leaders like Com. Gobind Singh at Joshimath, who observed and organized against deforestation which could lead to a major ecological disturbance. Gobind Singh and C. P. Bhatt came together when there was trouble with the same contract at Raini. Another major push against deforestation came from the side of students who participated in mass rallies and mobilized villagers. Bharat Singh Rawat, Sachidanand Bharti and Dinesh Dimri were some of the student leaders. The whole movement was active almost for a decade. Along the way, it gained international support, increasing the pressure on the Government. This eventually resulted into a 15 years ban on any tree felling in the hill state. However, it also came as a vendetta on the people.

Advocate and Activist Mr. Gyanendra Khantwal -- Gopeshwar
Advocate and Activist Mr. Gyanendra Khantwal — Gopeshwar

The ban prevented the people from entering forests, bugyals (meadows) and glaciers. The life of the indigenous people depended crucially on these ecosystems providing natural resources. These were a part of their lifecycle. People used to take their cattle to the bugyals for six months, stay in makeshift dwellings there and also grow some potatoes and other vegetables. They lost their whole resource base. Even Gujjars, primarily a tribal community, were not allowed into the forests. This led to an increase in  malnutrition and a resultant dwindling of livestock especially of animals like goats. Further, the government increased the area under forest land. Slowly people moved from a traditional lifestyle to a more modern form with gas-stoves, road transport etc. This came about with the flood of NGOs after the ban which advocated a lot of subsidies from the government. Migration from the hill villages increased momentously. Students of the hill region were given reservations in the universities and colleges in the plains. Universities like Garhwal University and Kumaon University were established. The then Chief Minister of UP, H N Bahuguna, brought a wider development dream for the people of the hills. But the independence of the traditional life was lost. People are now more dependent on the whims of the larger economy and the resultant environmental crisis. The dependence is aptly summarized as – “Ab toh pahaad kaa aadmi aanchal ka dudh pi rahaa hai”. Though the hill people seem to be more prosperous as compared with many other parts of the country.

On a stroll I took one night through Gopeshwar, I saw a dilapidated structure right between the market and bus stop. It was DGSM office. A few environmental researchers were standing around. Among them I figured out it would be Mr. Om Prakash Bhatt, son of C. P. Bhatt, who runs the organization now, a person who was difficult to get a meeting with.

At a diversion at Rudraprayag, going along the Mandakini, half-way to Kedarnath shrine, lies the quiet town of Phata. There are arrays of shops on both sides of the main road, with shop keepers either absent or sleeping; the town sleeps even in the evening. As I go towards a tea shop, the owner emerges from its interior. Sipping tea, I come to know that he had  worked in a cotton factory in Mumbai. He is 65 years now. A young chap tends the shop and the hotel behind the shop, with about 10 rooms in 2 storeys. They must be having decent business in the season. For me, however, the room cost only Rs. 200, with a view of Phata village and terraced fields sloping down at the back.

Phata village and fields
Phata village and fields

The memory of the Chipko Aandolan, in which this village was also a battleground, is seemingly lost. As I inquire about people of older generation I come to know of the hamlet of Pasaudi about 5 km further on the same road. The younger  shopkeeper suggests he would drive me there and it would cost me only Rs. 200. We are accompanied by the local photographer who takes a fancy to my camera.

We enter the local ‘kiraanaa’ shop where a few men are chit-chatting. They instruct me a little about the Chipko history of Phata and nearby villages. The area has a particular variety of tree called ‘Pamani’. At the time, after Gopeshwar, the contract was relocated in these forests. People from a lot of villages around gathered together to protect these trees. Many of the present local leaders were the organizers at that time under the leadership of Bharat Singh Rawat and Chandi Prasad Bhatt of Gopeshwar.

But beyond this their memory is blurred. They only see Chipko as something that happened in the hill region. It probably is washed away by the ‘Aapda’ (calamity) that occurred in Phata region and Kedarnath very recently.

During the floods in 2013 this area was severely affected. Many of the fields got washed away. Many children working at Kedarnath, tending small shops, lost their lives. There are so many people now with no means of subsistence. Only the educated migrate to better pastures from here. Where will the others go?

Even besides this spike of misfortune, there are other problems slowly eating into their lives. Agriculture has become very bad over the years. Seeds are so expensive that even the remunerations from the market don’t add up to that. Cost of manure has risen. They used to grow mustard, potatoes, rajma (kidney beans) for markets. Now it is done only for subsistence. Better products like malta and lemon have lost their market value substantially. Pasaudi has school only upto 8th and Phata upto 12th. For higher studies students must go to Agastyamuni. But only a few elite make it there.

Kiraana Shop at Pasaudi hamlet -- Near Phata
Kiraana Shop at Pasaudi hamlet — Near Phata

The afforestation effort right now is only in name. Neither the government nor the people are serious about it. The government allocates a ‘Green Bonus’ for various environmental difficulties and efforts. But due to corruption, it mostly gets eaten up on the way. With mild bonhomies exchanged we returned to Phata.

It was after sundown now and as I entered the tea shop, the owner was chatting with a man around the age of retirement. This was Mr. Ayodhya Prasad Sati, originally from Gopeshwar area. We started to talk about reforestation and various other environmental topics. I learned that trees like ‘Banj’ (Himalayan Oak) are very good for water retention as they hold about 200 gallons of water each. Pine, on the other hand, planted for products like resin and turpentine, are bad because their roots go straight down and don’t hold soil well. They also hold very little water in their root system and soak a lot in their pointed leaves.

I came to know that his younger brother is married to C. P. Bhatt’s daughter. He was active right from his student days, first with Sarvodaya and later with Chipko. He mentioned the opportunism shown by some other leaders at the time. Mr. Sati now works at the Livestock department at Phata.

He suggested that as the ‘Aapda’ of 2013 is a calamity, so is the lack of snow and rainfall this winter, even though people have found work at the Kedarnath shrine this season. If the glaciers start to melt, there will be a huge water scarcity in a large portion of the country. Where he lives at Gopeshwar, there is a lot of water problem. He wonders whether Phata will also become like that? On a happy note he mentions Jungliji, who has planted a diverse forest near Rudraprayag. He did not plant any Pine. Things like water and other resources are fantastic there. He has also made a lot of natural art in his forest to promote his effort.

Lack of snow on high altitude peaks -- Nanda Devi Biosphere
Lack of snow on high altitude peaks — Nanda Devi Biosphere

As I go back to my room, and look at the hills on the opposite side of the Mandakini valley, I can see a mountain fire. Later, when I went to have dinner at the local ‘dhaba’, I found that the dry grass is getting burnt. The story about the mountain fire is ambiguous. Some say that it is burned by the villagers so that the new grass is better due to the ash. Some others say that the forest officials get them burned so that women don’t climb up there. Anyhow, it was the only luminous appearance in the pitch darkness of the night.

Settlements on hill slopes in Nanda Devi Biosphere -- Near Tapoban
Settlements on hill slopes in Nanda Devi Biosphere — Near Tapoban

From Joshimath a road diverts to the Nanda Devi Biosphere going up to Niti, a border village. As the road changes, people change too. This is a tribal belt. The mark of modern consumerism slowly fades. Time gets slow as people take their time doing things. There is little stress on ‘more income more work’. A sign of lesser dependence on the all pervading economy. This border road, is mostly dirt. We halt at Tapoban, for the driver to have lunch. As we move on, a more difficult terrain emerges. Settlements on slopes, surrounded by hills on all sides, reminds me of popular images of El Dorado.

There is a road block. They are blasting the mountain to broaden the border road. We are accompanied by Dhauli Ganga all the way up to Raini. We can see some tunnels through the mountains very close to the river. They are the hydel projects called ‘Run-of-the-river’. The debris of blasted mountains are pushed down the slopes. A co-passenger exclaims – “Parbat ke saath chhed-chhaad karoge to vinaash to aayega hi. Ye kiska dosh hai? Mera aur aapka.”. As the road shifts from Dhauli Ganga to its tributary, Rishi Ganga, we reach the village of Gaura Devi – Raini.

Pushing Debris down the slope on the banks of Dhauli Ganga -- On the way to Raini village
Pushing Debris down the slope on the banks of Dhauli Ganga — On the way to Raini village

There are memorials constructed at various points. Climbing the steep cement road for about ½ km, I reach the main village. There are almost no people to be seen at this time (around 3 pm). But those that I meet are effortlessly cordial. With the help of their directions, I reach Gaura Devi’s house. I am welcomed by a couple of monkeys. I remember what Gyanendra ji had told me about the difference between the culture of monkeys in cities and those in remote areas. They don’t bother me. After about 15 mins I am entertained by Gaura Devi’s daughter-in-law (quite old) and her grand daughter-in-law. They give me tea.

The old lady reminisces the night of the standoff – “In the night Maaji found that there were people with axes who had come to cut the trees. There were only women in the village. Maaji asked all women to finish their meals and head towards the forest. I had gone to graze cattle. When I and a friend came back, we found an empty village. We also headed towards the forest. My friend couldn’t go back to her own village for the whole night.”

Rishi Ganga -- At Raini
Rishi Ganga — At Raini

Later, we moved onto more current topics. Her daughter-in-law said there is no snow this year at this time (early February). Usually, it snows even in March here. By this time they would be sitting near a fireplace in a more traditional dwelling. But now, it has become like the plains. The old lady adds, “At Maaji’s time there would be at least 3 ft of snow around this time of the year.”

By this time we are joined by Chander Singh, Gaura Devi’s son. He talks about Com. Gobind Singh, the ‘block pramukh’ who had organized everybody in the Raini village against the government allocated contracts of wood. As all the men were decoyed at another location, women from Raini and nearby villages organized under Maaji, who was the Mahila Mandal head, to protect the trees. C. P. Bhatt later joined the struggle. After the imposed restriction, when the government prevented the local people to enter the forests, Gobind Singh ji helped a lot. Subsequently, as the means of livelihood diminished, people started to concentrate on their lives more, and such movements are difficult to come up now. The people who had sided with the government officials and contractors at the time, take credit of the legacy of Chipko in the present age of opportunism. The particular forest still exists, but the trees have mostly dried up. It consists of mainly Pine and Deodar. C. P. Bhatt and Sunderlal Bahuguna capitalized on the outcome of the movement a lot. At the time of awards, C. P. Bhatt asked only one person to join from Raini. Maaji went and she got a pressure cooker. Maaji and all women had embraced the trees to die first than let cut the trees. During her fatal illness (cancer) there was no aid from anybody.

Memorial and entry point to Raini Village -- Nanda Devi Biosphere
Memorial and entry point to Raini Village — Nanda Devi Biosphere

Chander Singh runs a shop at the opening of the village of basic things like biscuits, soaps etc. Many people have asked him to take donations in Maaji’s name, but he earns his living by himself. He considers education as the most important thing and has educated all his children, many of whom could acquire government jobs. When people come and ask about the past, it annoys him. Nothing is going to come out of it. He is cynical of all interested people. At the time of the struggle, there were many government spies in the area to report on the proceedings. On a lighter note he mentions how he used to be a porter for Nanda Devi expeditions before it was declared a restricted area. He showed a little irritation at my coming, but the family took good care of me. He also showed me some softness while I was playing with his grandson.

New Tehri
Very near the Bhagirathi river, on its way to meet Alaknanda at Devprayag, lies the town of New Tehri. The adjective ‘New’ refers to the fact that there was an Old Tehri town on the banks of the Bhagirathi, presently submerged under the reservoir. As we go down towards the Tehri Dam, we approach the point where the Bhilangana river would meet the Bhagirathi prior to the reservoir. At present the reservoir stretches 30 kilometer on either side. Electricity from this high powered (1000 MW) hydel project is supplied to Punjab, Haryana, UP through the grid, of which the Uttarakhand state gets about 12%. It was a very large project in its time where technology supplied by the Soviet Union was used originally. The height of reservoir is about 850 ft. There are other hydel projects nearby upto 400 MW. The Tehri Dam will be further expanded in capacity by another 1000 MW in near future. If we take into account all the projects going on Bhagirathi, including all large and small dams, run-of-the-river projects etc, there would be effectively no part of the holy river in actual flow.

Vegetable vendor at Bauradi -- Near New Tehri
Vegetable vendor at Bauradi — Near New Tehri

About 6 km downwards towards the reservoir lies the town of Bauradi. It is the place with the local bus stand. It is here that I meet Mr. Bhagwan Singh Rana, a grass root worker with All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) and also a Marxist. The people’s story of the Tehri Dam is one of exploitation and defeat.

The banks of Bhagirathi in the Tehri and Uttarkashi districts hosted a very fertile belt producing high quality Basmati rice and other products. Many people resided here on their ‘prime’ land with less fertile lands elsewhere. The gradation from more to less fertile land was on the basis of irrigation. Ever since the Planning Commission passed the Tehri Dam in 1972, there were talks of rehabilitation and compensation. The cost of the Dam doubled every six months, but the compensation remained stationary. Sunderlal Bahuguna was a major proponent of the struggle for justice to the displaced people. After a long struggle, the Hanumantha Rao Committee came up with a more equitable solution in 1996. This, though initially accepted to a great extent, was reverted back on most of its clauses. The people’s movement suffered due to divide and rule policy of the establishment by introducing hierarchies amongst the affected people based on opportunism and rampant corruption. Some people with less to lose got more compensation who later on went to become local leaders of the movement. Most of the people, who did not get much, got their struggle diluted because of such leadership. They were either given less fertile land, insufficient monetary compensation or very small holdings around the cities like Dehradun, Rishikesh etc. Even the compensation that trickled down was mostly lost on the way.

Fruit vendor at Bauradi -- Near New Tehri
Fruit vendor at Bauradi — Near New Tehri

As the people have settled after insufficient rehabilitation there are further impediments in the way of their livelihood. They are watching the signatures of an imminent environmental crisis, but that doesn’t have an immediate mobilizing effect. Direct economic phenomena surface more through people. A mass migration to cities is taking place. It is happening in order for people to get better value for their labor or for better education facilities for their children. Due to influx of prosperity in towns and cities, life in villages with traditional occupation has become more difficult. The value of their commodities have reduced in markets. Education in villages is bad. But many can’t even find a solution in migration and are in a limbo. One reason is that the agriculturist becomes an unskilled laborer when they move to the city. The increasing population puts stress on the resource base of cities, and these are the people who are worst affected. Some even can’t support their families in cities and they keep going back and forth without a breakthrough. In other situations they lose their holdings back home, due to nobody being there to take care of it, and eventually have no place to fall back on. Due to all these difficulties, people are organizing here to demand better educational facilities, better health care and avenues for additional income as their traditional farming can’t support them fully.

History and the Present
Back in Dehradun, after spending five days in the hills, and having collected quite a few fragments of the movement and the present predicament, there was a need for consolidating it all. For this I went to Com. Vijay Singh Rawat, a leader and activist of the left. I reached by around 9:00 in the morning and had about an hour or so to interview him as he was about to leave for Karnaprayag to participate in a public rally. And what I got was a clear historical picture of the rootedness of the people of the hills and the spontaneous rise of environmental movements in their tradition. Such historical perspective and analysis of the present is worth mentioning.

Gobind Singh, a follower of the pre-independence left leader Chandra Singh Garhwali, organized people in Raini against the ecosystem onslaught and formed bodies like Mahila Mandal. At the time there was an environmental convention at Stockholm based on which C. P. Bhatt took charge of the movement at places like Raini. There was a parallel movement at Mayali in Uttarkashi which was taken charge by Sunderlal Bahuguna. These ecosystem movements have been taking place, at least, since the late 1920s. The struggle at Rawain is an example. At the time the villagers formed something called as ‘Azad Panchayat’ for free and harmonious living in their ecosystems. This, however, was brutally suppressed. Even the editor of the local newspaper ‘Garhwali’, who wrote of the incident, was imprisoned. Then there were movements in the 1930s spearheaded by G. B. Pant. These were against the unjust Forest Act. Following the restriction of 1980 the Chipko movement could not rise again. The returns to people were bad. The apathy towards figures like Gaura Devi was demoralizing, at least at the local level. The present bent of the hill people towards the mainstream economy further reduces the chances of such struggles.

At this time there is a major migration taking place. Districts like Pauri and Almora are greatly affected by this. This will pose some serious economic dilemma in future. The diaspora floods cities like Dehradun, Rishikesh, Haldwani etc. It is very much necessary to provide people with means to stay on their lands. The need of the day is a concerned government intervention, for example by efficient use of MNREGA to provide the traditional populace with additional remunerations. But instead, the government tries to accommodate these large number of people in urban suburbs and other ideas like ‘Smart Cities’.

Projects like ‘Run-of-the-river’ dams have severe environmental ramifications due to spilling of the debris down the slopes, but these have not yet dawned upon people fully. Climate change has not manifested itself at the micro-level in the hills where people see each year only as an exception to the normal trend. But it is evident in places like the Doon valley. Crop yields have dropped substantially.

Looking at the present artlessness of life in the hills, one cannot imagine a vibrant past. The spirit of struggle has probably ceded to the juggernaut of the larger economy. The larger economy can always target the concern of the indigenous. The drive for harmonious living of the hill people seems to have been compromised. However, climate change and environmental catastrophe are going to be of importance in the time to come.


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Sarosh Ali Written by:

Sarosh Ali is a science researcher and freelance writer living at Navi Mumbai interested in understanding phenomena at the cusp of science and society. To read more visit sarosh30.blogspot.in

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