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Mandodari Devi's struggle for grazing land versus 'dark reality' of Chipko movement

By Vidya Bhushan Rawat* 
In the border district of Chamoli in Uttarakhand, a powerful action by Mandodari Devi to protect her meadows and grazing land has surely brought back the memories of Chipko resistance. Mandodari Devi fought with CISF jawans who tried to stop her accessing the village Helang’s 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 eight kilometres 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 Rs 250 for their encroachment.
The battle of Mandodari Devi remains unending despite initial successes of government acknowledging her ‘right over access to forest and its produce’, but it has 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 is, it was a movement for ‘resource right’. The result of the ‘success’ of Chipko was that people lost their ‘traditional’ and ‘natural’ rights over the forests.
The story of Mandodari Devi is reflection of the belief that where people nurture forests or meadows the latter nurture them and their cattle. It is the mutual relationship of nature and human being, which is complimentary, but it is now under the threat from those who are being ‘facilitated’ to bring ‘development’ to the Himalayan state Uttarakhand.
On July 15, a video went viral on social media showing an old woman with green fodder on her back 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, two women constable caught hold of her and put her in the police jeep along with her grand daughter, who is about four-years old, and her sister-in-law and daughter.
The matter would have ended, but the fight by Mandodari Devi, supported by local activist Atul Sati, raised the issue in the media, which was forced 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 the Tehri Hydro Development Corporation (THDC), a public sector company involved in developing various other ‘hydro’ projects in Uttarakhand.
The issue raised people’s sentiments in the state. They came out strongly, as it was an attempt to humiliate a local woman by the police and the forest personnel. In the next few days the district administration made the story look like as if the woman, and the community to which she belongs, Ghasiyaris, traditional fodder collectors for their cattle, and her family were trying to ‘grab’ the village common land where THDC was planning to make a playground 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 a small incident led the entire administration came down 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 24 in support of the Ghasiyaris. This led many of the district administration officers to visit the house of Mandodari Devi and appreciate her concerns for the forest conservation.
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 and forest produce.
Government order of Jan 27, 2014 asked district officials to ensure against usage of pasture land for any purpose other than grazing
After the 1964 war with China the biggest jolt happened was closure of the border. Many villages were shifted elsewhere and the trade with Tibet was completely stopped. The government focussed on building better road networks for enabling the army to develop its infrastructure in the border area, which resulted in land acquisition.
The crisis in Uttarakhand is that there is very little agricultural land as most of the hill districts like Chamoli, Rudraprayag, Uttarkashi, Tehari, Pauri in the Garhwal division as well as Pithauragarh, Bageshwar, Nainital, Champavat in the Kumaon area have more forest land, which has often created issues with the people.
These districts are located in forest zones and hence lives of the people have become difficult, because the forest bureaucracy does not allow the local people, who protected the forests, to access forests where they live, but raise no objection when massive areas are encroached upon or given for the ‘developmental’ purposes to private or public sector companies.

Mandodari Devi’s struggle and Chipko

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 27, 2014, signed by Revenue Commissioner and Secretary PS 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 was declared invalid by the Supreme Court.
Mandodari Devi wrote a letter to the authorities to protect the ‘charagah’ or grazing land of her village. The view was floated that 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. However, Mandodari Devi argued that it is her family alone which keeps cattle as most of the other villagers have migrated and do not keep cattle. So, her concern was to protect the meadows meant for the village.
The incident has brought back the memory of the Chipko movement, which claimed to protect the ‘environment’ and preserve the ‘green’. However, it ignored the vital issue of local communities. Most of its leaders, who became famous, were actually not tribal but were from privileged communities who appropriated the struggle and popular success of the movement and 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, 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, isn’t even recalled today. The then chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, HN Bahuguna, himself hailing from Uttarakhand, at one point termed Chipko as ‘manifestation of narrow regionalism’, as Himalaya belonged to the whole country and not just to a few villages in Uttarakhand.
Bahuguna’s opposition to the Chipko movement was well known but he was a crafty politician, expert in breaking the opponents. In December 1973 he called a meeting with Chipko leaders leaders like Sundar Lal Bahuguna, Chandi Prasad Bhatt, Devaki Nandan Pandey and Jangi Lal Shah Bandhu. It had no representation of tribals who had built the movement.
A new forest policy was floated in Uttar Pradesh, which handed over the forest management to the Uttar Pradesh Van Nigam (Forest Corporation), and in the name of protecting environment, the local communities were denied their right over the resources, while the corporations continued to exploit the forests.
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 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.
Last winter, when I travelled to Dhauli valley and visited Raini and Lata villages and met various people, 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 Dhan Singh Rana now turning a harsh critique of it.
I could sense his deep sense of anguish and pain. Dhan Singh 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).
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 gets frozen in our pans then how is it possible that a glacial burst after all it happens in summer? All this is our doing.
The widespread public condemnation of the police action on Mandodari Devi and others in Helang has sent 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 the Tarai region. The amended land laws help outsiders to buy land at the prime locations. The Helang incident has shown that how laws are being used to criminalise local communities without caring for the sentiments of the people.
If the political class including the ruling party really want to honour the sentiments of Uttarakhand then it must be protective the Pahadi identity, which includes 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.
---
*Human rights defender

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