‘The Chipko Movement: A People’s History’ review: When nature speaks out

Remembering the people who contributed to the extraordinary Chipko movement and why the battle to protect forests and mountains is far from over

February 20, 2021 04:27 pm | Updated February 21, 2021 08:02 am IST

As we watched with shock the videos from Uttarakhand, of a flooding river rushing down the mountains in a wave of fury and destruction, it seemed obvious that an ecological balance is urgently needed to face the challenge of climate change in our century.

However, this was not so evident in the early 1970s. That was when the Chipko movement was born.

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Life of struggle

Chipko evolved as a response to wanton environmental degradation. “In this northern State, though nature can be found at its most beautiful, its spartan and frightening aspects are seldom obscured. The homes of peasants and small-town dwellers frequently nestle in sylvan and foliage-full environments, but the people within them mostly live a life of hard struggle. The past two centuries have seen an onslaught on local resources, and this has led to the present economy of dependence,” writes historian Shekhar Pathak in his account of the Chipko movement.

The epigraph reads: “for all our communities who know most truly the many meanings in our forests.” It is not surprising that Pathak’s interest in the relationship between forests and communities emerged organically out of his years of work on the oppressive feudal and colonial system of forced labour known as ‘begaar’.

A fascinating section of the book tells of Uttarakhand’s early forest struggles, which were inextricably linked to people’s quest for livelihood and dignity. After taking power from feudal rulers, colonial officials began to expect the same free labour and supplies from local people that the feudal rulers had demanded. But there had been sporadic protests against ‘begaar’ through the 19th century. In 1903, villagers in Almora refused to provide free labour and provisions to officials. Despite fines, they fought the matter up to the High Court. A 1910 editorial in The Garhwali wrote about the constitution of reserved forests by the colonial government, pointing out that until then, the forests had only been used for the benefit of the people. In 1918, at the Provincial Council, lawyer and editor Tara Dutt Gairola spoke about coolie ‘begaar’ and forest rights, quoting the bitter words of a Kumaoni soldier from the war in Europe: “We are fighting here to protect the Empire while our brothers are bearing the misery of begaar and the forests.”

In independent India, forest issues became central in hill society and politics by the 1960s. The forest question came up repeatedly in the Legislative Assembly. Indramani Badauni, the legislator from Devaprayag, spoke of how contractors were ruthlessly chopping down even unmarked trees.

Warnings aplenty

“The natural world had also begun episodically speaking out,” adds Pathak: an unusually severe monsoon, flash floods, a severe drought, the caving of a mountainside. But these early warnings were ignored. July 1970 saw an unprecedented flooding of the Alaknanda all the way down to Hardwar in the plains. The devastation encompassed 55 human lives, animals, crops, bridges, vehicles, motorable roads, hundreds of houses, and more. An Industrial Training Institute 60 miles downstream, in Srinagar, was surrounded by debris six feet high. Where had the flooding started? With the breaking of a lake in the Rishiganga above Reni.

As a people’s history, Pathak’s account is about the ordinary human figures and communities who came together in an extraordinary struggle for forest rights. Govind Singh Rawat who, “carrying for the first time in his life a microphone in his hand,” reached Lata village in October, 1973. The children of Uttarakhand who learnt the words of Ghanshyam Sailani’s Chipko song from pamphlets distributed by the local people.The man who stood up at Chandi Prasad Bhatt’s meeting and said trees were going to be cut because the villagers themselves had helped to mark those that were to be felled. And the word ‘Chipko’ itself, which, Pathak notes, “evoked a smile among the women sitting at the back.”

The girl from Reni who, one morning, saw labourers climbing towards the forest, and — with the men away at work — ran to tell the head of the village mahila mandal, Gaura Devi. And Gaura herself, who until then had not been able to attend any of the Chipko meetings, but whose son had told his mother about them in detail. The women of Reni who stopped their cooking, weaving, and bathing babies — and began walking rapidly towards the Sitel forest path. And the little girls who followed them there, to make history.

“On 26 March 1974, in the upper Alaknanda Valley, it seemed as if through Gaura Devi, not just Reni but all of Uttarakhand, and all forest dwellers of the country, had spoken.”

Chipko would be the beginning of the modern environmental movement in India.

‘Tree as a young person’

The movement spread. In late 1974, an article in the newspaper Amar Ujala described the fundamental nature of the struggle: “If trees remain, the mountains remain, and so does the country... To be against trees is akin to denying your own identity. We have to see each tree as a young person in a new India.”

The legacy of the movement was to break the hold of colonial ideas of forest exploitation and suggest that new models of community-based forest management were needed. “Chipko... is all about the imperative of balancing the use and conservation of nature, the complex differentiations between need and greed,” notes Pathak.

Pathak’s fascinating, thoughtful and deeply human account draws from local newspapers, books, pamphlets, discussions in the legislature, archival material, and not least of all, a vast amount of fieldwork, including physically walking the entire stretch of the Uttarakhand Himalayan region, stopping at every hamlet and habitation on the way to talk to fellow residents. In the story of Chipko, everything is profoundly interconnected: livelihood, sustainability, equity, and dignity.

The Chipko Movement: A People’s History ; Shekhar Pathak, Permanent Black, ₹895.

The reviewer is in the IAS.

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