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What is behind the tradition of resisting 'anti-people' forestry policies in Uttarakhand

By Bharat Dogra* 

In 2023 the 50th anniversary of the famous Chipko Movement  will be observed. This name (which translated from Hindi means hug the trees) and the movement it represents has caught popular imagination and become almost a household name in India. This refers loosely to a series of efforts, starting about 50 years back in India’s state of Uttarakhand, in West Himalayan region, in which people of these Himalayan villages were involved in protecting trees in natural forests from being axed by contractors or government agencies, as well in asserting more local rights over forests.
In Uttarakhand region (then a part of Uttar Pradesh, now a state), forests play a very important role in the life and livelihood of villagers. This socio-economic reality is celebrated in culture, reflected in festivals and folk-songs. Hence it is not difficult to understand that people and communities here have a history of resisting anti-people forestry policies. In an agitation in Rawai area of Tehri for forest rights during colonial days, 17 people were killed in police firing.
However aspirations of people for better protection of forests and forest rights continued to be ignored even after the end of colonial rule. Hence mobilization of people continued on these issues. An important role in mobilization was played by peaceful social activists drawing inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi, belonging to the Sarvodaya movement closely identified with Gandhi’s ideas of social change. 
Other mobilizers included communist activists. Sometimes the two were close to each other. In one family I came to know closely, the sister Vimla Bahuguna has been a very committed Gandhian activist all her life, while her brother Vidyasagar Nautiyal remained with the Communist Party of India.
Sarla Behn (original name Catherine Mary) came from Britain in 1932 to serve people of India and finally became an active participant in the freedom movement, winning the affection and respect of several senior leaders including Mahatma Gandhi. After independence she settled in Uttarakhand and was regarded as a motherly figure by Sarvodaya activists. Girls whom she trained , like Vimla Bahuguna and Radha Behn, made very important longer-term contributions.
In 1973-74 several activists and villagers in Chamoli district in places like Rampur Phata and Reni forest asked forest contactors to go away without felling any trees and said that if they persist in felling trees then they will hug trees to protect them. In these efforts a village woman Gaura Devi emerged as a natural leader and was widely regarded in her elder years as a motherly figure of inspiration by younger activists. Chandi Prasad Bhatt, who later received the Magsaysay Award, and his colleagues in the Dashauli Gram Swaraj Sangh were also active in efforts of this phase.
Some of these initial successes were followed by the government appointing a committee and commercial tree felling being stopped in a wider area on the basis of its recommendations. However commercial tree-felling continued in most places and so did the protests. A leading Sarvodaya activist Sunderlal Bahuguna went on a protest fast against the auctioning of green trees in Uttarkashi while communist activists protested more forcefully and some were arrested.
Sunderlal and others soon embarked on long foot marches to take the message of protecting forests to many more villages. The long Askot-Arkot march was taken up by four young activists—Shekhar Pathak, Kunwar Prasun,Shamsher Bisht and Pratap Shikhar, with several other joining for shorter stretches. They all went on to make important longer-term contributions. 
Pathak has recently written a history of the movement. Kunwar Prasun was one of the most intensely involved social activists with a holistic vision of social change who made many-sided contributions, from protecting forests to saving seeds, from inter-faith harmony to helping folk artists and oppressed communities.
Several activists gathered to obtain the guidance of Sarla Behn and this led to more intense activities. Earlier some activists had also been been raising demands like better provision of raw material for their cottage scale industries, but now Sunderlal and Vimla Bahuguna and activists closer to them like Kunwar Prasun , Dhum Singh Negi and Vijay Jardhari placed much more emphasis on ecological aspects. 
They argued that sustainable livelihoods are more integrated with protection of forests, and protection of forests from felling and auction became even more clearly the core issue for them. Villagers and activists marched to Narendranagar to oppose auction of forests , occupied the auction hall and were promptly arrested. Village women suddenly found themselves in Tehri jail but they all faced this very bravely.
It was at this crucial stage that I had the good fortune of establishing contact with these activists like Vimla and Sunderlal Bahuguna, Kunwar Prasun, Dhum Singh Negi, Vijay Jardhari and Sudesha Devi from whom I could learn a lot in the course of lifelong friendship at the level of our families.
Around this time-- 1977-78 or so--the movement peaked in several forests of Tehri district like Salet, Advani, Badiyargad and Kangar where villagers, particularly women, and activists repeatedly hugged trees to protect them. In Advani a big police force was sent to the forest but villagers, particularly women and even children, hugged the trees so that contactor’s men could not axe the trees without hurting them. In Badiyargad the long fast of Sunderlal Bahuguna in a remote forest at the peak of winter made a huge impact on people, even though he was arrested. Finally the government announced a moratorium on the felling of trees in a vast area of Uttarakhand.
It was again my good fortune at this stage -- around 1980 or perhaps a little later -- to write a book on this movement as well as the problems of people and deforestation to which it responded. This book was titled ‘Forests and People -- Re-establishing a Lost Protective Relationship.
Not a man to rest on his achievements, Sunderlal Bahuguna soon embarked on his most difficult and high-risk undertaking -- the Kashmir-Kohima foot-march. This covered western as well as eastern Himalaya region of India, and in addition Nepal and Bhutan as well. This helped him to understand almost the entire Himalayan region as well as to take his message of protecting forests to many, many remote villages. His work has been respected by many senior people, including former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi who held him in very high esteem.
Soon after this he, Vimla and several other Chipko actvists of Tehri district in particular became very absorbed in the even bigger and much more difficult movement for opposing the Tehri dam project which continued for several long years in increasingly difficult conditions. At the same time, another important movement to save farming biodiversity and traditional seeds came up to which Vijay Jardhari made a particularly significant contribution.
Yogesh Bahuguna played an important role in saving a large number of trees which were to be felled by the extension of a university campus, a loss that was avoidable by better planning. Suresh Bhai and his fellow-activists in Raksha Sutra movement were active in saving forests at an early stage in Uttarkashi district, but they were even more active, with help from other senior activists like Radha Behan, at a later stage in checking extensive tree loss from highway and other projects. 
Trepan Chauhan and his colleagues in Chetna movement were also active in protecting forests and environment, some of his efforts were heroic-- made in the middle of great difficulties. Kunwar Prasun and his friends in Henvalghati combined wisdom and courage to save thousands of trees from being axed at the time of laying electricity transmission lines and towers. 
They could arrange for a re-survey which resulted in saving many trees. Folk singers and poets Ghanshyam Sailani and Girda played a very creative role in spreading the message of this and other movements. Novels of Trepan Chauhan are a rare gem. Local newspapers like Nainital Samachar, some editors and journalists also contributed in important ways.
While staying at the ashram established by the Bahugunas in Silyara village to consult several old documents, I had met a social work student from Delhi University who was a very keen learner. Later he passed his post-graduation studies as a gold medalist and went back to his village in Karnataka and played a very important role in starting the Appiko (which means the same -- hug the trees -- in Kannada language) movement there. Appiko also succeeded in achieving a ban on felling of trees over a very wide area. Again I was fortunate to learn much from him and his colleagues and write two books on this movement, its concerns and off-shoots.
While travelling in Chattisgarh, in central India, people in a village told me about their own Chipko movement type efforts to save forests near their village. When questioned further, they said they were inspired by news of such efforts in the Himalayas. Even in big cities there have been reports of chipko inspired efforts to save trees.
This is how the chipko message has been travelling far and wide, inspiring people more and more for protecting forests. Some learned people interpreted it according to their own views and theories, and sometimes their writings appeared to us to be different from what we had seen, but clearly the core issue has been that of people rising with great commitment to save forests, overcoming many-sided hurdles and difficulties, something which is increasingly more relevant in times of climate change, and hence the increasing relevance of this movement. 
The various struggles of this movement have been an important milestone in the use of non-violent means for achieving important environmental goals. This movement sees a coming together of environment, peace and justice concerns. Some of these activists were also involved in protecting the interests of exploited forest workers, and in addition took forward a range of important social reform efforts –against the rapid spread of liquor shops and to protect the rights of oppressed dalit communities. Some like S.L. Bahuguna, Kunwar Prasun, Trepan Chauhan and Shekhar Pathak made important contributions as writers as well.
Sunderlal Bahuguna, who breathed his last in 2021, provided a particularly inspiring example of a peace, environment and justice activist. I had been hurrying up my biography of Vimla and Sunderlal Bahuguna in order to be able to present it to him, and fortunately I could do so in the last month of 2020.
Lately some of these activists like Suresh Bhai have been active in opposing big loss of trees caused by several projects, at the same time suggesting ways of saving some of the endangered trees. Even in and around the villages where the first actions of the Chipko movement took place there have been reports of landslides and land-sinking at least partially caused by some of this indiscriminate construction work. So an important ecological battle was won by one generation, but in the next generation even bigger challenges have emerged.
The wider challenge of creating a national forest policy that is supportive of people getting involved in forest protection by establishing a supportive link between forest protection and sustainable livelihoods still remains before us.
Even fasts of saints in Matra Sadan (in Hardwar, Uttrakhand) to protect the Ganga river in its Himalayan stretch did not have the desired effect on the authorities and some of them, including a former senior environment official and professor with a doctorate from the University of Berkeley (Swami Sanand), have died in the course of their prolonged fasts. 
Elsewhere in Bundelkhand region in Central India, between 2 to 3 million trees (perhaps more) are threatened with felling very soon to pave the way for Ken-Betwa river-link/dam project that has been repeatedly trashed by experts for its non-viability and many-sided harms. Will India rise to protect these and other threatened trees and forests?
---
*Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include ‘Planet in Peril’, ‘Protecting Earth for Children’, ‘Earth without Borders’ and ‘A Day in 2071’

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