#Sepia Stories

Remembering A Women-Led Eco Movement Amidst Uttarakhand Tragedy

Why it is important to remember Chipko movement in the wake of Uttarakhand floods: Last Sunday we all woke up to the news of a Himalayan glacier – Nanda Devi breaking and causing sudden, massive flooding in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district. It smashed two dam projects, the Rishiganga hydel project and NTPC’s Tapovan-Vishnugad hydel project causing authorities to evacuate villages and try to save as many lives as possible.

Along with the loss of close to 30 human lives and missing persons toll at 197 (till this story was filed), the two ambitious projects have faced extensive damage.

Whenever we have plundered our natural surroundings we have had to face dire consequences. A case in point – the floods in Chamoli brought back memories of the deluge in Kedarnath from 2013.

In all of this, what caught my eye was the mention of the village of Raini/Reni near the Rishiganga project which faced the worst of the flash floods. Wasn’t this village the cradle of the Chipko movement in the 70s, a movement helmed by women to protect their environment? So, is there a connection between the movement and what happened on Sunday? Let’s first understand what the Chipko movement was all about first.

Chipko movement: a movement led by women

Chipko, literally meaning “to hug”, had always evoked a romantic image of the poor village women in the hills determinedly hugging trees to prevent them from being cut down by the very axes of forest contractors that also threatened their lives, for me. But this disaster opened
my eye to the importance of the movement. In fact, if we study further, as a women’s movement, it inspired ecofeminism in India for the first time and, to some extent, throughout the world.

Chipko’s first battle took place in early 1973 in Chamoli district, when the villagers of Mandal prevented an Allahabad-based sports goods company, Symonds, from felling 14 ash trees, this was in April. In December the same year, the villagers again stopped Symonds agents from felling in the Phata-Rampur forests, about 60 km from Gopeshwar.

But what caught the world’s attention was when the women of the Raini village hugged trees to protect them from logger’s axes on March 26, 1974. The concept of hugging a tree to protect it was so powerful that it brought in a new awareness to the country about the environment.

Effects of the Chipko movement

The movement has far-reaching effects. It showcased the resourcefulness by women, especially when menfolk were not around to lead. This incident at Raini forced the state government to set up a nine-member committee. The committee submitted its report two years later which led to a 10-year ban on commercial forestry in Raini. The ban was further extended for 10 years in the year 1985. Another response to the movement was the formation of a Van Nigam. A state-owned forest corporation formed in 1975 to take over all forms of forest exploitation from private contractors. This was a huge achievement.

But Chipko movement was not limited to Raini it gained strength when in 1977-78, the women from Pulna village stopped the felling of forests in Bhyunder valley.

Protests similar to these were witnessed at Doongri-Paintoli in 1980, and in Bacher, as late as 1984-85.

It was not just the people who were motivated but Chipko created an understanding among foresters as well. They also realised that their plans to exploit forests was not based on scientific research, as it was claimed. A new realisation also dawned on them that nurseries and plantations were far more important than cutting down green trees.

Chipko Movement

Chipko movement introduced ecofeminism in India.

An ecological movement, the Chipko andolan, concerned itself with the preservation of forests and thereby it also maintained the traditional ecological balance in the sub-Himalayan region, where people from the hills had traditionally enjoyed a positive relationship with their environment. Thus, it strove to maintain the traditional status quo between the people and the environment.

This multi-faceted movement was an extraordinary conservation movement of the poor, mainly women, while for others; it was a local people’s movement to regain control of their natural resources.

Why was it a landmark movement for women?

This collective mobilisation of women for the cause of preserving forests had then brought about a situation of conflict regarding their own status in society. Women demanded to share in the decision-making process along with men; hence, there has been opposition by men to women’s involvement in the Chipko movement. So, women were, on the one hand, seeking alterations in their position in society and, on the other hand, were supporting a social movement that is resisting change.

To understand this movement better let’s understand the fact that the women became involved due to a sustained dialogue between the Chipko workers who were originally men and the victims of the environmental disasters in the hilly areas who were chiefly women. Women in the hills are largely in charge of cultivation, livestock and children, but they were losing these because of recurring floods and landslides. And so the Chipko workers made a direct appeal to them, and finally, the women were able to perceive the link between their victimisation and the denuding of mountain slopes by commercial interests. Realising that it was the matter of their survival that made women support the movement.

One might ask why men didn’t see these connections and women did. Well, it has to do with the way the local economy is organised in this area. It is also related to the fact of how men perceive the Chipko movement. For them, it was ‘back-to-nature’ strategy and to their preference for a traditional type of economic development whereas for women, it was their whole life at stake.

However, whether the Chipko workers realised it or not, or intended it or not, the women who participated in the Chipko meetings, processions and other programmes become aware of their potential in the process and started demanding their share in the decision-making
the process at the community level. Which was huge.

Why is protecting the forests and trees important?

People who live in the hills know that the only way to protect their lives and the environment is by protecting the trees and forests because they hold the earth together and save them from landslides and floods. In the name of development when we blast mountain ranges and fell hectares of forests we are inviting disasters in this fragile eco-system. And nobody knows this better than people of the area and more specifically the women. From the 70s till now nothing has changed it seems, it’s time we listened to them.

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