The birth place of the Chipko movement, Uttarakhand’s Reni village has not lacked in publicity. But that has hardly helped, say the residents who feel development has bypassed them
On a recent trip to the majestic Garhwal Himalayas and its various spots of both scenic beauty and mythical importance, a chance mention of the Reni village by cab driver Manish made us curious and we drove down a few more kilometres to reach the spot.
For the uninitiated, Reni was where the famous Chipko movement began in 1974 by a motley group of courageous village women. In the following years, the movement and its objective to protect the forests from destruction became the model for a host of similar movements in different parts of the country to save the greens.
Situated in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district, Reni’s appearance is like any other mountain village — houses resting on a series of steps cut out on the slope face. At the entrance of the village stands a humble marble-covered gate built in remembrance of the movement participants. While it is named after Gaura Devi, the then 40-something widow who spearheaded the movement, names of all the other women are also inscribed on it. Gaura Devi died in 1991.
As luck would have it, we met Chander Singh, Gaura Devi’s only son, at the village entrance. He, however, was not enthused to speak about his mother’s contribution to the movement or the days of the struggle. Prodded further, the sexagenarian retorted, “People from across the world come here reading about the movement in books and ask the same questions. But has that helped in improving our lives in any way?”
Under both national and international media’s limelight for many years now, Reni is yet to have a health centre and a secondary school. For any medical emergency, patients have to be rushed to the nearest health centre at Tapovan, situated eight kilometres away. The ordeal becomes even more difficult during monsoons with the region being susceptible to landslides and flash floods.
Till the Sino-Indian War in 1962, grazing cattle and trading were the main occupations in the area before the borders were closed. Large herds of cattle were reportedly taken to the grass-rich Tibetan plateau. Traders dealt in vegetables, wool and salt with their Tibetan counterparts at the border market of Rimkhim.
After over four decades since the movement began, a sense of denial runs deep among the villagers who either participated in the protests or are family members of the participants. The village is mainly inhabited by old people, women and children since most of the men have migrated to nearby or faraway towns and cities in search of jobs.
As Chander Singh said, “Though the movement was started by my mother, later various people came from outside and took over the leadership. Today they are more famous and talked about in books and the media. This, however, overshadowed Reni’s contribution to the entire episode…We want some development of the village, such development that the younger generations too can relate to the movement.”
On March 25, 1974 — the day the movement began, contractors and labourers marched to the nearby Niluribhur forest for felling trees which was authorised by the State government. It is believed that the contractors tried to take advantage of the absence of most of the men in the village, who had gone to Chamoli town to collect compensation for land that had been acquired by the Army.
On being alerted, a group of over two dozen women, led by Gaura Devi, rushed to the site and hugged the trees in order to save them from felling. They remained undaunted in the face of threats from the contractors and were eventually successful in chasing them away. They even demolished the cement bridge leading to the forest and stood guard for a week before the menfolk returned.
Recalling those tumultuous days, 76-year-old Amrita Devi, who was among the women who rushed to the forest, said that the contractors fled leaving 20 to 25 trucks they had brought for carrying the felled trees.
While respectful for Gaura Devi’s courage and resolve, Amrita Devi, however, feels that names of all the other women in the movement were overshadowed with that of Gaura Devi’s.
“She alone could not have achieved victory unless the other women joined her. Still, people usually come looking for her and ask about her life with little interest in the other participants’ details,” said Asha Devi, who was a young bride at that time.
It was getting late and the sunlight was hurrying on its journey behind the lofty mountains. Two young boys chatted and laughed while returning home from school. A girl was busy gathering errant chicken. While walking towards the car, a hunchback old man approached us. His name is Kundan Singh Bhutola. “Please write about Reni as only printed words can make some difference. Our lives are over but the young ones should get their due” — these were his parting words.