Spirit of Chipko echo in the cry for justice in Helang

Mandodari Devi

In the border district of Chamoli in Uttarakhand a powerful action Smt Mandodari Devi to protect her meadows and grazing land has brought back the memories of Chipko resistance. Mandodari Devi fought with the CISF Jawans who tried to stop her accessing the village Charagah or what is termed as Common Property Resource and snatched her fodder which she had collected from the meadow. The police women caught hold of her, put her in the police vehicle along with her sister in law and daughter in law. Her four-year-old grandchild too was detained along with her and taken to Joshimath, about 8 kilometer from their village where they were made to sit for nearly six hours without any food or water and let off after they were fined for their encroachment.  The battle for Mrs Mandodari Devi remains unending despite initial successes of government acknowledging her ‘right over access to forest and its produce but it has definitely ignited the spirit of the people in the state against the gross misuse of the natural resources in the name of ‘development’.  It also reflects the dark reality of the much acknowledged Chipko movement which was hailed as protection of environment but the fact of the matter was a movement for ‘resource right’. The result of the ‘success’ of Chipko was that people lost their ‘traditional’ and ‘natural’ rights over the forest.  People protested against the contract being given to outsiders for felling of the trees but after the ‘success’ of the movement that ‘contract’ now went to ‘Forest Corporation’ while those who fought against it, who protected the forest were prohibited to access it.

Right to access village meadow denied to Mrs Mandodari Devi

The story of Mandodari Devi is the reflection of the belief where people nurture forest or our meadows as it nurtures them and their cattle. It is mutual relationship of nature and human being which is complimentary and now under the threat from those who are being ‘facilitated’ to bring ‘development’ to the Himalayan state. Uttarakhand is a state of rivers and it’s a treat to watch these beautiful Himalayan rivers which ultimately contribute to making of Ganga.

It was on July 15th that a video went viral on social media showing an old woman with green fodder on her back was being stopped by several CISF Jawans. They were asking the woman to stop and hand over her grass fodder to them. The woman, a true pahadi, was not ready to give in to the demand of these officers. Finally, the two-women constable caught hold of her and put her in the Police jeep along with her grand daughter who was about 4 years old and her sister in law and daughter. They were taken to Joshimath police station which was about 8 kilometers from Helang village. They were kept for six hours and let off only after a challan of Rs 250/- each was imposed on them.

The matter would have ended there but the fight that Mandodari Devi as well as local activist Atul Sati raised the issue in the media to give the other side of the story. The administration as usual came out with a narrative that this woman and her family were trying to encroach a ‘government land’ where THDC Tehri Hydro Development Corporation which is a public sector company now involved in developing various other ‘hydro’ projects in Uttarakhand. The issue raised people’s sentiments in the state who came out strongly as such attempt to humiliate a local woman by the police and forest personnel.

In the next few days the district administration made the story look like as if the Ghasiyari, the woman who are traditional fodder collector for their cattle, and her family were trying to ‘grab’ the village common land where THDC was planning to make a play ground for the village people. The district administration used the village Pradhan/sarpanch to speak against Mandodari Devi and her family for attempting to disrupt the ‘developmental’ work in village Helang. This was rather shocking as for a small incident the entire administration came to defame a local woman who is a widow and actually was protecting the common property resources of her village.

The incident outraged the people of Uttarakhand and social activists, intellectuals and other civil society organisations and individuals joined hand to participate in a call Helang Chalo on July 24th in support of the Ghasiyaris .  Afterwards, many of the district administration officers started visiting the house of Mandodari Devi and appreciating her concerns for the forest conservations. It is important to understand the issue in real as well as the possibilities of the people’s movement in the state in future.

The area

Chamoli district is the border district of India with China and most of the communities engaged in seasonal migration here are tribal. Till 1964, the community at the border had frequent interaction with their Tibetan counterparts as trade was open. The tribal community protected and nurtured forest amnd forest produce. After 1964 war with China the biggest jolt happened was closure of border. Many villages were shifted elsewhere and trade with Tibet was completely stopped.  The government too focussed on building better road network for enabling the army to develop its infrastructure in these border areas which resulted in land acquisition. The crisis in Uttarakhand is that there is very little land as most of the hill districts like Chamoli, Rudraprayag, Uttarkashi, Tehari, Pauri in Garhwal Division as well as Pithauragarh, Bageshwar, Nainital, Champavat in the Kumaon have more forest land which has some time created issues with people. These districts are actually located in forest zones and hence lives of people have become difficult because of the forest bureaucracy which does not allow the local people who protected the forests to access the forest where they live but the same time raise no objection when massive area of it is encroached or given for the ‘developmental’ purposes to the private or public sector companies.

Mandodari Devi’s struggle to protect the meadow

The story from Helang was that Mandodari Devi and her family have been opposing the attempt by THDC to take over the only pasture land in her village. This was in clear violation of the government order January 27th, 2014 signed by Revenue Commissioner and Secretary P S Jangpangi ordering all the district magistrate and revenue officers to ensure that the usage or transfer of the pasture land or Gauchar for any other purpose than grazing has been declared invalid by the Supreme court.  In Uttarakhand one of the biggest challenges to our environment particularly to our sacred rivers actually are not the local communities who protect it and worship the river but unlike the plain areas the mountain people do not pollute the rivers. Most of the companies engaged in various projects are dumping the muck, garbage, waste etc in various rivers. They have ‘created’ spaces for ‘dumping’ as per the directives of Supreme Courts but the fact is all this is just hogwash. The dumping blocks ultimately flows into the river and not taken out. As a native of Uttarakhand, we never had ever smelt dust or flies which are common in the urban infrastructures of what we call ‘developed’ areas particularly in the plains but if you visit to the hills these days, you can feel how the ‘development’ has brought destruction to environment. It was such a pleasant to feel the air whenever we used to visit the hills switching off the ACs of the car but today you have to remain inside because mud, dust is visible everywhere. A city like Srinagar has become ‘cemented infrastructure’ as humid and hot as any city in the plains of Uttar Pradesh.

What is missing in the entire discourse was that Mandodari Devi wrote a letter to the authorities long before to protect the ‘charagah’ or grazing land of her village. It was reported that no other ‘villagers’ were with her and that she was the only family trying to create obstacle for ‘development’ of the villages where the company wanted to make a play ground for the children. Mandodari Devi says that it is her family alone who keep the cattle as most of the other villagers have migrated and do not keep cattle. So, her concern was to protect the meadow meant for the village.  Surely, the government officials, forest department or revenue department must have known that the land was a pasture land or grazing land but they allotted the land in the name of play ground so there is little resistance.  Frankly, it was to be used for dumping the muck of the work that THDC is carrying out.

Understanding current crisis through legacy of Chipko movement

Frankly speaking, this incident has also brought back the memory of the issues of the hills often ignored by the elite intellectuals and political leadership which is the identity of the state, namely, the Pahad i.e. the mountains and its Himalayan rivers. There is an interlink between the rivers and mountains in the Himalayas and its people, which is there interdependence on each other. The romantics of Chipko movement as protecting ‘environment’ and preserving ‘green’ ignored the vital issue of ‘local communities’ with it. So most of the leaders that we saw emerging ‘nationally’ and ‘internationally’ actually were not tribal but had the privileged communities who appropriated the struggles and popular success of the movement and actually negotiated with the state on behalf of the ‘people’ and talked to the same person who felt it’s a ‘regional’ issue.  The political leadership as cunning and crafty, converted their ‘defeat’ into victory. The historic fight of Gaura Devi and other powerful women of the tribal communities in the Dhauli Valley, in and around Raini village was cleverly undone by the then chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Mr H.N.Bahuguna, himself hailing from Uttarakhand. In 1973 H.N.Bahuguna, as Minister of Communication in Indira Gandhi’s cabinet termed Chipko movement as ‘manifestation of narrow regionalism’, as Himalaya belong to the whole country and not just to a few villages in Uttarakhand[i].”

On November 9th, 1973, H.N.Bahuguna was made chief minister of Uttar Pradesh and movement against Symonds company of Allahabad which was the main private company taking contract of felling of trees in Uttarakhand. Bahuguna’s opposition to the Chipko movement was well known but he was a crafty politician, expert in breaking the opponents so he called a meeting of the activists of Chipko movement with the government on December 13th, 1973 in Lucknow which had leaders like Sundar Lal Bahuguna, Chandi Prasad Bhatt, Devaki Nandan Pandey and Jangi Lal Shah Bandhu was special appointee. Look at the constitution of the committee which had no representation of tribal who built up the movement. In the name of people, it was Chandi Prasad Bhatt that he listened to and then came to a decision to forming a committee to design the Forest policy of the state. On March 26th, 1974, the brave women of village Raini led by legendary Gaura Devi, actually forced out the Symonds company’s labourers from their village. This big resistance gave the movement a huge boost but it was naturally not a comfortable position for politicians who were making their big ‘national image’ as people for them were merely to be used for their bigger national ambitions. Bahuguna remained a highly ambitious man and expert in exploiting people’s sentiment particularly the brahmins who felt immensely proud of him. Finally, the new forest policy of Uttar Pradesh handed over the forest management to Uttar Pradesh Van Nigam and in the name of protecting environment local communities were denied their right over the resources while the corporations continued to exploit the forests.

Actually, it was important to give the back ground because of the crisis that we are facing today has a direct relationship with glamorisation of ‘Chipko’ movement which left the locals isolated while a few others who got name and fame at the cost of the communities. It is a crisis when environmental questions are discussed exclusively as an ‘expert’ domain leaving communities completely out of the debates and discussion.

Nationalist political parties rarely raised the issue of resource right

The two main political parties namely Congress and BJP refuse to take a stand on these issues.  Their ‘developmental’ agenda is nothing but allowing exploitation of the Pahad’s identity to outsiders. Those who are fighting against it rarely get an opportunity to come to the power structure. The issue has been highlighted by two brave political fighters Mr Atul Sati and Mr Indresh Maikhuri who belong to CPI (ML) were the force behind making the issue known everywhere and mobilising the people. It needs to be understood that the success story behind the Chipko movement was main work of the left parties and its dedicated leadership with in the local communities in the border areas of Uttarakhand. It is well known fact that Uttarakhand’s top political leaders who are ‘respected’ never really supported the resource rights issues as they were more bothered about their ‘national’ image. Govind Ballabh Pant, H.N.Bahuguna, Narain Dutt Tiwari rarely raised people’s issues but got the full sympathy from the elite intellectual class of the people while Chandra Singh Garhwali, the hero of Peshwar rebellion, always sided with the people on these issues yet never got political support. Somewhere, people of the state will have to decide whether they would only like to be ‘service provider’ and not speak about the resource right. Can there be any Pahad without our beautiful rivers and mountains. Can we really speak about Uttarakhand if our right to access these resources is denied to us and handed it over to big corporations in the name of ‘nation building’. I mean none deny nation building and who more than Uttarakhandis know it better as it is this tiny state which contribute to our armed forces more than any other state. Our mountains and rivers are definitely for nation and no one deny that but it will be helpful to the nation as long as they survive. The issue is of their protection and not to help the private cronies to exploit it for their personal profits. Nationalism is to protect our people’s resources which are our identity and not allow it to be used for private corporations for profiteering.

During the last winter when I travelled to Dhauli valley and visited Raini and Lata villages and met various people then I realised as what exactly has ‘Chipko’ given to the communities. I was shocked to hear from former head of the Gram Sabha Raini Chak Lata Village and important member of Chipko movement Shri Dhan Singh Rana now turning a harsh critique of it. I could sense his deep sense of anguish and pain. Dhan Singh ji is deeply anguished and pained at the double talk and duplicity of those taking ‘decisions’ about them without any involvement of the local people. “mera chulhe jalane se himalay pighlega nahi, he says. (The Himalayas will not melt just because I am cooking on a chulha or stove). Scientist says that Himalaya will not be there after 50 years but then the same scientist allows these companies to work here. The question is when Himalaya will not be there then why are you allowing these companies to function here. Actually, everything depends on how you interpret things. This is all games that powerful play. We are being killed. Salt is at Rs 18/- per kilo though it was 25 paisa once upon a time. You will always gain from us. We are being looted. Those who have created it, they will only fulfil it.”

The Dhauli Ganga-Rishi Ganga tragedy is making of our own, he says.  How can the glacier explode when it is the freezing time he asks? The time when water freezes everywhere in the mountains as it become snowy then what is the reason of a glacial burst. Somewhere we have heated it. When our water get frozen in our pans then how is it possible that a glacial burst after all it happens in summer. All this is our doing.  It is like telling us that I don’t want you to steal but I will do it. Everybody wants to get profit from the things but give sermons of honesty to others. If there is gas in every home then how long will it be. If our projects are being run by coal then how long will we get if. How long will the coal work? I want I do maximum use of it, you get least. This greed is killing is. The fact is calamities are bound to occur in the hills whether it was February 7th or any other date.”

Local communities & Natural Resource Management

Therefore, issue of Helang has to be seen in the larger context as how Uttarakhand’s native communities are denied the rights to access natural resources while allowing the private companies to mint money from natural resources of the state.  We cannot ignore the fact that border districts of Uttarakhand right from Chamoli and Uttarakashi in Garhwal while Bageshwar, Champawat and Pithauragarh in Kumaon have sizeable tribal population whose rights are being encroached in this entire ‘developmental’ exercise. This tribal question was rarely informed to people even when the issue of Chipko came into prominence perhaps to deny them their own agency to raise their own issues. The aim is not only to delink them from the forest and water through various ‘schemes’ and create ‘conducive’ environment for the industries so that they can do the business but also denial of their ‘leadership’. The power elite normally plays such games and occupy those spaces too where a natural leadership emerge from these communities.

Ghasiyari Scheme

The state government claim to ‘honor’ the ‘Ghasiyaris’, the native word for women who collect grass fodder from the forest for their cattle. Now, the government has come with a ‘unique’ idea after it ‘felt’ ‘pained’ to see the pain of the village women who go to forests to collect fodder. It was announced in February 2021 by the then chief minister Shri Trivendram Singh Rawat but it could only start in September 2021. The Ghasiyari scheme basically is the privatisation process of the fodder which will be sold at 7771 outlets decided by the government in different places. The fodder would cost Rs 3/- per kilogram. The government says it can’t see the pain of the village women to go to forest for fodder. It takes a lot of time and risk for them so it is arranging the fodder at home. Government will support it but we don’t know how. How will families who don’t have enough resources pay for their fodder. In the mountains actually more than the cows, it is Goat and definitely our traditional pastoralist communities can’t feed their goats or cows by purchasing their fodder from the market. The idea that traditional work is worthless and hence opt for purchasing things for market is nothing but a clever ploy to actually keep people away from the forest and water resources. Frankly, it was not merely fodder for which people particularly women go to forest or their meadows but also to socialise. Such schemes are bound to fail as they are not here to provide employment or support to the communities but snatch their traditional rights from forest and rivers.

 Return to  the roots of Uttarakhandi identity

The widespread public condemnation of police action on the Smt Mandodari Devi and others in Helang has send a warning to the state government to actually look into the issues of natural resources, forest and water in close connection with the native people of Uttarakhand. Already, there is huge resentment against the land policies of the government which has removed land ceiling in many areas particularly in Tarai region and amended land laws which can help the outsiders to buy land at the prime locations. In the coming days, this resentment will grow when delimitation exercise of the constituencies will start. The Hill districts have already lost number of seats because of that and with hug difference between the population growth in the plains and hills there is bound to be dissatisfaction and unrest. Unfortunately, political leaders have not bothered the question that can send the entire Himalayan state into turmoil. The whole meaning of formation of Uttarakhand state will come to a naught if the seats of the hill districts are reduced just because they have lesser population. You can not punish people for following family planning and strengthening the nation. Uttarakhand is a border state and the only border state in India where there is no insurgency issues and there is not only perfect harmony but mutual respect between the forces and the people. Any political unrest in the hill state will be detrimental for India’s security interest and therefore the government should not approach anything with highhandedness but accept people’s right over their resources particularly when they have been interdependent on it. Uttarakhand government and all other political parties should not compromise on people’s rights and participation in the developmental agenda of Uttarakhand. Helang’s incident has shown that how laws are being used to criminalise local communities without caring for the sentiments of the people. On the one side you allow crores of ‘devotees’ to come to religious places and put enormous pressure on the small infrastructure of the state respecting their sentiments but not ready to respect the sentiments of the local people. If the political class including the ruling party really want to honor the sentiments of Uttarakhand then it must be protective our Pahadi identity which include protection, preservation and respect of the Himalayas, its diverse forest ranges, biodiversity and beautiful rivers as they are our civilisation and without them we can’t imagine Uttarakhand.

[i] The first Shoot of Chipko, The Chipko Movement  :  A People’s history by Prof Shekhar Pathak

Vidya Bhushan Rawat is a social activist. Twitter @freetohumanity

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Vidya Bhushan Rawat

Vidya Bhushan Rawat is a social and human rights activist. He blogs at www.manukhsi.blogspot.com twitter @freetohumanity Email: [email protected]

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