On 26 March 1974, Gaura Devi, a peasant woman, gathered other women around her in a village in the Garhwal Himalayas and—by hugging trees and through other forms of defiance—together prevented loggers from felling trees. This act by illiterate tribal and village women to reclaim their traditional forest rights was a dramatic moment in the ‘Chipko Andolan’, a non-violent struggle that gave birth to the modern Indian environment movement.
Born in 1925 in a tribal family in the Neeti valley of Chamoli district, Gaura Devi did not attend school. She was trained in the family wool trade. Married early, she became a widow at the age of 22, with a young son to look after. But she was always actively involved in matters concerning the panchayat and the larger community.
When the Chipko movement started in the hill areas of Uttarakhand (then a part of Uttar Pradesh), the women of Reni village made Gaura Devi president of the Mahila Mangal Dal. Among other responsibilities, the dal had to be vigilant about protection of forest cover.
The origins of the Chipko movement lay in the growing realisation among people of the hill region that their way of living was under threat. In 1964, Chandi Prasad Bhatt, a Gandhian, formed the Dasholi Gram Swarajya Sangh, which aimed to use forest resources judiciously for the benefit of local people.
Members of the Sangh, which was based in Gopeshwar, were at the forefront of protests against ill-conceived policies of the forest department. A major flashpoint occurred when a contract to fell trees was given to a sports manufacturer. The Sangh won this round, but it was clear that there were many battles ahead. So a decision was taken to use non-violent means to protest against unfair policies imposed on them by the state.
Hugging of trees—“chipko”—was one such novel means of protest.
In an article on the history of the environmental movement in India, the historian Ramachandra Guha wrote in March 2013 in The Hindu: “[The Chipko movement] was representative of a wide spectrum of natural resource conflicts in the 1970s and 1980s — conflicts over forests, fish, and pasture; conflicts about the silting of large dams; conflicts about the social and environmental impacts of unregulated mining. In all these cases, the pressures of urban and industrial development had deprived local communities of access to the resources necessary to their own livelihood. Peasants saw their forests being diverted by the state for commercial exploitation; pastorialists saw their grazing grounds taken over by factories and engineering colleges; artisanal fisherfolk saw themselves being squeezed out by large trawlers.”
Gaura Devi was one among hundreds of villagers—men and women—who started organising themselves in smaller groups to take up the issues of protection of trees and forests as a prime objective. The government, unmindful of objections, set 26 March 1974 as the date when thousands of trees would be felled near Reni village. The men of Reni village and the Sangh workers were somehow lured elsewhere while labourers led by forest officials poured in near Reni to cut the trees.
When news reached Gaura Devi, she led the village women to confront them.
“The officials . . . began to hurl obscenities at Gaura Devi and her group of women and told the labourers to go ahead and cut the trees. They were then told in no uncertain terms that if they attempted any such thing the women would cling to the trees. One of the officials who was drunk brandished a gun,” the writer and researcher C.S. Lakshmi wrote in The Hindu in May 2000. “The women stood in a row, each one of them looking as if the mountain goddess Nanda Devi had taken one of her fierce forms. They then chased the labourers for nearly two kilometres and broke the cement bridge leading to the forests. A group of them sat guarding the rest of the men and kept vigil throughout the night.”
The trees were saved and news of the incident spread across the district and beyond. The Chipko movement grew in scope and began to be used to describe a broader environment protection movement across the Himalayas. In the years and decades ahead, it would lead to new laws being framed to protect forests and greater scholarly attention towards ecological issues. It also inspired a new generation of activists, journalists and researchers to contribute to ecological and sustainability issues in various ways.
As the renowned environmentalist and scientist Vandana Shiva told the India Today magazine in December 2011: “The Chipko movement gave us the environment department initially and then the environment ministry. It also gave us a whole new set of laws, the Environment Protection Act, the Forest Conservation Act, the entire legacy that governs us today. I always tell people that I learnt my quantum theory in the University of Western Ontario in Canada and I learnt my ecology in the university of Chipko in Uttarakhand.”
Also on this day:
1965 — Prakash Raj, Indian film actor, director and television presenter, was born