Monday, April 5, 2010

Chipko Movement (Source: Wikipedia)

The Chipko movement or Chipko Andolan (literally "to stick" in Hindi) is a socio-ecological movement that practised the Gandhian methods of satyagraha and non-violent resistance, through the act of hugging trees to protect them from being felled. The modern Chipko movement started in the early 1970s in the Garhwal Himalayas of Uttarakhand, with growing awareness towards rapid deforestation. 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 grassroot level actions, throughout the region. 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 as far reaching as Vindhyas and the Western Ghats.


The first recorded event of Chipko however, took place in village Khejarli, Jodhpur district, in 1730 AD, when 363 Bishnois, led by Amrita Devi sacrificed their lives while protecting green Khejri trees, considered sacred by the community, by hugging them, and braved the axes of loggers sent by the local ruler, today it is seen an inspiration and a precursor for Chipko movement of Garhwal.


The Chipko movement, though primarily a livelihood movement rather than a forest conservation movement, went on to become a rallying point for many future environmentalists, environmental protests and movements the world over and created a precedent for non-violent protest, It occurred at a time when there was hardly any environmental movement in the developing world, and its success meant that the world immediately took notice of this non-violent Tree hugging movement, which was to inspire in time, many such eco-groups, helped in slowing down the rapid deforestation, exposed vested interests, increased ecological awareness, and demonstrate the viability of people power. Above all, it stirred up existing civil society in India like never before, which started looking towards tribal, and marginalized people and their issues like never before. So much so that, quarter a century later, India Today mentioned, the people behind the "forest satyagraha" of the Chipko movement, as amongst "100 people who shaped India". Today, beyond the eco-socialism hue, it is being seen increasingly as an ecofeminism movement, as though many of its leaders were men, women were not just its backbone, but also its mainstay, because they were the ones most affected by the rampant deforestation, leading to lack of firewood and fodder as well as water of drinking and irrigation. Over the years they also became primary stakeholders in majority of the afforestation work that happened under the Chipko movement.


History

The Himalayan region had always been exploited for its natural wealth, be it minerals or timber, including by the British. The end of the nineteenth century saw implementation of new approaches in forestry, coupled with reservation of forests for commercial forestry, causing disruption in the age-old symbiotic relationship between the natural environment and the rural peasant, both in Kumaon and Garhwal. The few peasant protests that arose during this period were crushed severely. Notable protests in 20th century, were that of 1906, followed by the 1921 protest which was linked with then independence movement imbued with Gandhian ideologies, the 1940s was again marked with a series of protests in Tehri Garhwal region.

Post-independence period, when waves of a resurgent India were hitting even the far reaches of India, the landscape of upper Himalayan region was only slowly changing, and largely remained inaccessible. But all this was to change soon, when an important event in the environmental history of the Garhwal region occurred in the India-China War of 1962, in which India faced heavy losses. Though, the region was not involved in the war directly, the government wisened by its losses and war casualties, took rapid initiatives to secure its borders, set up army bases, build road network, deep into the upper reaches of Garhwal, on India’s border with Chinese-ruled Tibet, an area which was till now all but cut off from the rest of nation. However with construction of roads, and subsequent developments also came mining projects for limestone, magnesium, and potassium, timber merchants and commercial forestry which now had access to forests inaccessible till now.

Soon, the forest cover started deteriorating at an alarming rate, resulting in hardships in labour intensive fodder and firewood collection. This also led to a deterioration in the soil conditions, and soil erosion in the area as the water sources dried up in the hills, and water shortages became rampant. Subsequently, communities gave up the raising livestock, adding to the problems of malnutrition in the region. This crisis was heightened by the fact that Forest conservation policies, like Indian Forest Act, 1927, traditionally restricted the access of local communities to the forests, resulting in scarce farmlands, in an over populated and extremely poor area, despite all its natural wealth. Thus the sharp decline in the local agrarian economy, lead to migration of people into the plains, looking for jobs, which created several de-populated villages in the 1960s.

Gradually a rising awareness about the ecological crisis, which arose from an immediate loss of livelihood caused by it, resulted in initial activism sparks in the region. Starting in 1964 with the establishment of Dasholi Gram Swarajya Sangh (DGSS) (“Dasholi Society for Village Self-Rule” ), set up by Gandhian social worker, Chandi Prasad Bhatt in Gopeshwar, and inspired Jayaprakash Narayan and the Sarvodaya movement, with an aim to set up small industries using the resources of the forests, their first project was a small workshop making farm tools for local use. Its name was later changed to Dasholi Gram Swarajya Sangh (DGSS) from original Dasholi Gram Swarajya Mandal (DGSM) in the 1980s. Here they had to face the restrictive forest policies, a hangover of colonial era still prevalent and on top of it the "contractor system", in which these pieces of forest land were commodified and auctioned to big contractors, usually from the plains, who brought along their own skilled and semiskilled laborers, leaving only the menial jobs like hauling rocks for the hill people, which paid next meagrely. On the other hand, hill regions saw an influx of new population, which added to already strained ecological balance and cracks started showing everywhere.

Hastened by increasing hardships, the Garhwal Himalayas soon became centre rising social ecological awareness against reckless deforestation which had denuded much of forest cover, which eventually resulted in the devastating Alaknanda River floods, in July 1970, when a major landslide blocked the river, and effected an area starting from Hanumanchatti, near Badrinath to 350 km downstream till Haridwar, further numerous villages, bridges and roads were washed away. Thereafter incidences of landslides and land subsidence became a common feature in an area which was experiencing rapid civil construction.

Soon villagers, especially women had started organizing themselves under several smaller groups, taking up local causes with the authorities, and standing up against commercial logging operations that threatened their livelihoods. In October 1971, the Sangh workers held a demonstration in Gopeshwar to protest against the policies of the Forest Department. More rallies and marches were held in late 1972, but to little effect, that is when the decision to take direct action was taken, and first such occasion arrived when the Forest Department turned down the Sangh’s annual request for ten ash trees for its farm tools workshop, and instead a awarded contract for 300 trees to Simon Company, a sports good manufacturer in distant Allahabad, to make Tennis rackets. In March 1973, the lumberers arrived at Gopeshwar, and after a couple of weeks, they were confronted at village Mandal on April 24, 1973, where about hundred villagers and DGSS workers beating drums and shouting slogans, forced the contractors and their lumberers to retreat. This was the first confrontation of the movement, and finally the contract was cancelled and awarded to the Sangh instead. Though by now, the issue had enlarged from procuring the annual quota of three ash trees, and encompassed a growing concern over the commercial logging, and forest policy of the government, which the villagers saw as unfavourable towards them. The Sangh also decided to resort to hugging the tree, Chipko as a mechanism of non-violent protest.

But the struggle was far from over, as the same company was awarded more ash trees, in the Phata forest, 80 km away from Gopeshwar. Here again, due to local opposition, starting 20 June 1973, the contractors retreated after a stand off that lasted a few days. Thereafter the villagers of Phata and Tarsali, formed a vigil group and watched over the trees till December, when they had another successful stand-off, when the activists reached the site in time, and the lumberers retreated leaving behind the five ash trees felled.

The final flash point began few months, when the government announced an auction scheduled in January 1974, for 2,500 trees near Reni village, overlooking the Alaknanda River. Bhatt set out for the villages in the Reni area, and enraged the villagers, decided to protested against the move of the government by hugging the trees, over the next few weeks, rallies and meeting continued in the Reni area, and the villagers were prepared for the stand-off.


On March 26, 1974, the day the lumberers were to axe the trees, the men of the Reni village, and DGSS workers, were in Chamoli, diverted by state government and contractors to a fictional compensation payment site, while back home labourers arrived a truckload to the start logging operations.Finally when a girl on seeing them rush to inform Gaura Devi, the head of the village Mahila Mangal Dal, at Reni village (Laata was her ancestral home and Reni adopted home). Gaura Devi led 27 women of Reni village, reached the site and confronted the loggers. When all talking failed, and instead loggers started shouting and abusing the women, threatening them with guns, the women resorted to hugging the trees to stop the them from being axed. This went on into late hours, and the women kept a whole night vigil guarding their trees from the cutters, till a few of them relented and left the village. The next day, when with the men and leaders back, the news of the movement spread to the neighbouring Laata and others villages also Henwalghati, and more people joined in. Eventually only after a four-day stand off, the contractors left.

The news reached the state capital, and then state Chief Minister, Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna, set up a committee to look into the issue which eventually, ruled in the favour of the villagers [8]. This then became a turning point in the history of eco-development struggles in the region and also across the world.

The struggle soon spread across many parts of the region, and such spontaneous stand-offs between the local community and timber merchants occurred at several locations, with hill women demonstrating their new-found power as non-violent activists. As the movement gathered shape under its leaders, the name Chipko Movement got attached to their activities. As per Chipko historians, the term originally used by Bhatt was the Garhwali lanaguge word, "angalwaltha", or embrace, which later adapted to Hindi word, Chipko, which means to stick.

Subsequently, over the next five years the movement spread to many districts of region, and within a decade throughout the Uttarakhand Himalayas. Larger issues of ecological and economic exploitation of the region were raised. The villagers demanded that no forest-exploiting contracts should be given to outsiders and local communities should have effective control over natural resources like land, water and forests. They wanted the government to provide low cost materials to small industries and ensure development of the region without disturbing the ecological balance. The movement took up economic issues of landless forest workers and asked for guarantees of minimum wage. Globally Chipko demonstrated a clear link between environment concerns till now considered a luxury of the rich, in a new perspective as a matter of life and death for the poor, always the first ones to be devastated by an environmental tragedy, and several scholarly studies were made in the backdrop of the movement. In 1977, in another area, women tied a sacred threads, Rakhi, around trees earmarked for felling, in a Hindu tradition which signifies a bond between brother and sisters.

Women’s active participation in the Chipko agitation was a very novel aspect of the movement. The forest contractors of the region usually doubled up as suppliers of alcohol to men. Women held sustained agitations against the habit of alcoholism and broadened the agenda of the movement to cover other social issues. The movement achieved a victory when the government issued a ban on felling of trees in the Himalayan regions for fifteen years in 1980, by then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, until the green cover was fully restored. One of the prominent Chipko leaders, Gandhian Sunderlal Bahuguna took a 5,000 kilometre trans-Himalaya footmarch in 1981-83, spreading the Chipko message to a far greater area. Gradually, women set up cooperatives to guard local forests, and also organized fodder production at rates condusive to local environment. Next, they joined in land rotation schemes for fodder collection, helped replant degraded land, and established and ran nurseries stocked with species they select.

One of Chipko's most salient features was the mass participation of female villagers. As the backbone of Uttarakhand's agrarian economy, women were most directly affected by environmental degradation and deforestation, and thus connected the issues most easily. How much this participation impacted or derived from the ideology of Chipko, has been fiercely debated in academic circles.


Participants:

One of Chipko's most salient features was the mass participation of female villagers. As the backbone of Uttarakhand's agrarian economy, women were most directly affected by environmental degradation and deforestation, and thus connected the issues most easily. How much this participation impacted or derived from the ideology of Chipko, has been fiercely debated in academic circles.

Despite this, both female and male activists did play pivotal roles in the movement including Gaura Devi, Sudesha Devi, Bachni Devi, Chandi Prasad Bhatt, Sundarlal Bahuguna, Govind Singh Rawat, Dhoom Singh Negi, Shamsher Singh Bisht and Ghanasyam Raturi, the Chipko poet, whose songs echo throughout the Himalayas. Out of which, Chandi Prasad Bhatt was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1982, and Sundarlal Bahuguna was awarded the Right Livelihood Award in 1987, and Padma Vibhushan in 2009.

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