In India, modern environmentalism was inaugurated by the Chipko Movement, which began in 1973. Because it was led by Gandhians, the movement included women participants and used innovatively non-violent techniques of protest.
Around 1970, the movement for a separate state [of Uttarakhand] was being revived, and simultaneously the movement for the establishment of hill universities was taking root. Sarvodaya activists were carrying out the business of mobilising and organising people. Yet the political parties and politicians of the day had neither the required perspective nor much sensitivity when it came to the mountains. This poverty of both perspective and sensitivity was evident in the working of various governments. Uttarakhand’s status in electoral politics, considering its population and representation in the Uttar Pradesh assembly and in the Lok Sabha, was negligible.
Over the decades after Independence, the resources of Uttarakhand were continuously plundered by powerful external interests. As for its human population, a fair proportion of it was forced to flee, migrating to distant places in search of a livelihood. Male teenagers – even children – considered themselves suited only to becoming domestic servants or waiters in hotels; healthy young men wanted nothing more than to be foot soldiers in the army. Girls and young women in heavily indebted families or caught in the trap of bonded labour – as was the case specially in Jaunsar (district Dehradun) and Rawain (district Uttarkashi) – were all too often trafficked into prostitution. As for the region’s natural wealth, it seemed under a perpetual curse to be plundered and overexploited. Its trees were cut and taken away, its resin gathered and sold, its herbs and minerals exported, its wild animals killed or traded. Even the rivers of Uttarakhand, which through landslides and floods constantly scarred and cut the mountains, seemed created only to take water and fertility down to the plains; and the roads were used more to take things away from the mountains than to bring things into them. That which was neither human nor a gift of nature – such as metal, stone, and wooden statues in the region’s many historic and neglected temples – these too seemed destined to be stolen and smuggled.
Five MPs represented Uttarakhand in parliament; nineteen MLAs and two or three MLCs from the region were elected to the state assembly. Most of these were connected to the party in power. The process of creating a people’s movement could not have emerged out of the interests and motivations of such politicians. Meanwhile, in the remote and distant regions of Uttarakhand the freedom that the bureaucracy enjoyed was much greater by comparison with the capital. The mountains came laden with all kinds of “goods”, so postings there were not what bureaucrats call “punishment postings”; they were, rather, beacons of impending plenty and prosperity.
The rare exceptions apart, neither netas nor babus had much time for the difficult lives led by the people over whom they ruled. More empathetic were Sarvodaya activists who had been largely trained in the Bhoodan-Gramdan school of Vinoba Bhave. Although in Uttarakhand, which had few large landlords, the idea of ‘bhoodan’ was of limited relevance, these Sarvodaya workers had over their extensive travels and conversations acquired a deeper understanding of the local society and its challenges. They had seen that the main problems of the people pertained to land, forests, and natural resources. The problem of out-migration and alcohol addiction among the men who stayed back had also attracted their attention.
The movement for liquor prohibition increased the faith of such activists in the power of local people. Some islands of activism and dedicated social service began to emerge. The considerable participation of women in this movement came as a revelation. It gave the struggle dignity and depth and was a foretaste of the future. The villagers of Uttarakhand had put forth their forest-related problems very clearly and in great detail to the Fact Finding Committee of 1959. Yet this had had absolutely no impact on policy. Instead, after 1960, the expansion of the road network had made it easier to cut and carry away trees previously inaccessible. The extraction of timber, resin, and other commercial forest produce had expanded rapidly.
The wood left over after making sleepers as well as twisted pine – both used in the making of paper – had been exploited by Star Paper Mills since 1958. Then, covering the period from 1 October 1961 to 30 September 1981, the state government entered into a contract with the mill ensuring the mill of its 15,000 to 20,000 tonnes of wood for pulp every year. Also, more than 80 per cent of the resin tapped was allotted to the ITR factory in Bareilly. Local co-operative committees did not, consequently, get their quota of wood or the resin they needed for their small factories.
The idea of Chipko was along several byways brewing internally. The 1970 Alaknanda flood served as an effective catalyst and, through their relief work, members of the Dashauli Gram Swarajya Sangh (DGSS) began to grasp the relationship between deforestation and the incidence of floods. On 4 November 1970 a demonstration took place in Gopeshwar against the “Oppressive Policy of the Forest Department”. A year later, on 22 October 1971, an even bigger demonstration was held in Gopeshwar, where it was clearly stated that “we have first right over raw material from the forest for our livelihood” and “we will no longer tolerate wilful plunder”. Ending the contractor system, giving rights to forest dwellers, and stopping the discrimination against small resin units were the other demands.
The two notable features of this demonstration were the participation of women and the turning out together on the streets of artisans, trades-people, and upper castes. Both demonstrated the success of the work of Sarvodaya activists over the previous decade and a half. The main slogan of the demonstration, “Van jaage, vanvaasi jaage” (Forests awake! Forest folk arise!) powerfully evoked the local sentiment.
The protests had no effect on the government and the Forest Department. The rates of resin and the quota for co-operative organisations remained unchanged. The resin factory and wooden artefacts units of the DGSS were closed down. This grassroots experiment in economic creativity and social renewal had been killed by the state.
In October 1972 Chandi Prasad Bhatt went to Lucknow and Delhi to find a way out. He met the state forest minister, who confessed he was helpless in his dealings with the Forest Department bureaucracy. In the same year, Sunderlal Bahuguna wrote a long essay on development in the mountains, arguing for a complete overhaul of forest policy:
In order to make the forest development programmes successful, the first requirement is to make fundamental changes in the existing forest policy. The existing policy emphasises earning as much money as possible from the forests. Due to this, the contractors have gained importance rather than the people living in the forests. The tradition of awarding forest contracts [to merchants from the plains] must be abolished immediately and in its place the Forest Department should be made responsible for the development of the forests and people living in the forests.
The largest employment opportunities exist in forest-based industries. All the forest raw-produce-based industries – Resin factory (Clutterbuckganj, Bareilly), paper (Star Paper Mills, Saharanpur) and timber and plywood – are situated in urban and plains areas. In the opinion of forest experts, the closer the factories are to the forests, the better it will be for the protection of forests. The focus of people will shift from agriculture and the material coming out of the forests will become useful as a means of employment for them.
Returning from the state capital, Chandi Prasad Bhatt was despondent. The government wanted to extinguish a lamp that people had begun to light with their own hard work. By the time of his return to Gopeshwar, Bhatt had made up his mind: polite requests would not work, direct action was required.
In the last weeks of the year, protest meetings against discriminatory forest policies were held in Purola and Uttarkashi. Along with the poet Ghanshyam Sailani, Chandi Prasad Bhatt and Sunderlal Bahuguna were the featured speakers. A major demonstration was planned for Gopeshwar on 15 December 1972. Sailani, Bhatt, and Bahuguna travelled together in a jeep from Uttarkashi to participate. En route, they halted for the night at Rudraprayag, where Sailani wrote a poem exhorting his brethren to rise up and protect the forests from destruction. The forests were plundered to make capitalists rich, he said, while the young boys and men of the mountains were forced to seek employment as dish-washing menials in the plains. Everybody was felling forests but no one was planting trees to replace them. If forest-based industries were initiated locally, they might bring socialism to the mountains. In his poem, Sailani calls upon people to save trees from being felled.
Towards Direct Resistance
On 15 December 1972 an impressive demonstration was indeed held in Gopeshwar. It began and ended with Ghanshyam Sailani’s poem. The district headquarters there resounded to the beat of drums and the ring of slogans:
Van sampada par pehla haq vanvasiyon ka, gramvasiyon ka (Forest dwellers and villagers have first right over forest wealth)
Gaon gaon ki ek pukaar, panchayat ko van adhikaar (The call of every village – forest rights for the panchayat)
Vanon ki raksha desh ki suraksha (Protecting the forest is protecting the country)
Uttarakhand ki ek Lalkaar, panchayat ko van adhikaar (The war-cry of Uttarakhand – forest rights for the panchayat)
Jangalon ki loot band karo (Stop looting the jungles)
Vanon ki thekedaari band karo (Stop Contractor-Raj in the forests)
Vanvasiyon ka adhikaar, van sampada se rozgaar (The right of the forest dweller – employment via forest produce)
The resident population of Gopeshwar – approximately 3000 people – was augmented for the occasion by men, women, and children from villages many miles distant. Drums, traditionally beaten to call upon the gods and during marriages, were now used for the first time as a clarion call for resistance. The demonstration ended in a public meeting in the Dashauli Gram Swarajya Bhawan, where Chandi Prasad Bhatt narrated bits of his own life and that of the organisation. He spoke of how they were once associated with contracts for road construction, and of how they had then taken on contracts for forest work – such as the collection of rare herbs and the exploitation and production of gum and turpentine. He criticised the government for its indifference and said he had dedicated his life to protecting the rights of hill people.
Many others spoke too, among them several of the headmen of villages in the Alaknanda Valley. They made reference to people’s resistance during the time of the British and regretted that, though the Raj was over, the forest laws had not changed. Those attending left with the feeling that the time for requests and petitions had passed; it was now the time of direct action.
The movement that became famous as ‘Chipko’ was born in the following year, four months after this demonstration in Gopeshwar. Its ideas were immanent in this mass meeting and in the poem Ghanshyam Sailani had composed en route to attending it. These had laid the groundwork for the now celebrated incident at Mandal village on 27 March 1973, when loggers of the Symonds Company were thwarted from felling a stand of angu (ash) trees. Earlier that year the DGSM had asked permission to cut those same trees for the making of agricultural implements; they had been denied permission, and the lot had been handed over instead to this sports-goods company from distant Allahabad.
Angu wood had traditionally been used in the making of ploughs and farm implements. Then, once this wood had been found suitable in the making of sports goods, the Forest Department put commerce over the community and handed over its angu trees to Symonds. To add injury to injustice, a senior forest officer told the DGSM that they might like to consider pine wood for making their farm implements instead. The suggestion showed a shocking ignorance of mountain life and farming in the hills, pine being entirely unsuited to such use.
In January 1973 Chandi Prasad Bhatt visited Dehradun and tried to reason with senior forest officials. Two public meetings in Gopeshwar were held on the question and petitions sent afresh to the administration. On 5 March 1973 Bhatt resigned his membership of the Uttar Pradesh Small Industries Board. The DGSM in Gopeshwar kept a dialogue going with the local representatives of political parties. The district administration and state administration were sent reports and letters of protest by post and in telegrams. An extraordinary openness was throughout visible.
But the government was deaf to reason. On 27 March 1973 loggers from the Symonds Company arrived to cut the ash trees. As soon as he heard this, Chandi Prasad Bhatt angrily declared: “Tell them, we will not let them cut the trees, we will embrace the trees, we will stick to them.” Bhatt used the Garhwali word for embrace – ‘angavaltha’; this was later Hindi-ised in popular parlance to ‘Chipko’. Other activists said they would lie down in front of the loaded trucks. Yet others said that, as in the 1942 movement, they would set fire to the government resin-wood depot. Neither of these two ideas were accepted, whereas the ‘Chipko’ method emerged as acceptable. Although the words had been uttered by Chandi Prasad Bhatt, they expressed a much wider sentiment among the people. The feelings had already found place in Sailani’s poem, itself an outcome of conversations between him and Bhatt over their jeep journey.
The loggers brought in by Symonds retreated from the forests, defeated by this inspired demonstration of collective non-violence. Ironically, on their way to and from Mandal they had stayed in the DGSM hostel in Gopeshwar – the town had no hotel at the time. This Sarvodaya campus had often given shelter to villagers, tourists, and travellers, but there seems to have been a rather special and very Gandhian twist here – the hosting of the workers of a company whose activity the hosts implacably opposed.
After the Mandal protest, the administration finally showed some stirrings of life. The district magistrate of Chamoli sent wireless messages to the Uttar Pradesh forest secretary and chief conservator saying “Local units should be given priority in raw material – wood and resin from the forest. There is dissatisfaction on account of the giving of angu trees of Dashauli Gram Swarajya Sangh to Symonds Company. Please give angu trees to the organisation also.” Chandi Prasad was called to Lucknow. He met the chief conservator and state forest minister on 11 April. But no solution emerged over their meeting.
In the third week of April, a development conference was convened in Shrinagar (Garhwal) by Satish Chandra, the chief secretary of the state. It was attended by social activists and people’s representatives (legislators, block heads, etc.), all of whom gave vent to their dissatisfaction with state forest policy. Matters such as an erratic power supply, the shortage of teachers, the need for a separate hill state, improvements to road transport and hospitals, and the necessity of a university in Uttarakhand were also raised.
At this meeting, Chandi Prasad Bhatt spoke of the work of the Dashauli Gram Swarajya Sangh. Why, he asked, did people’s organisations seem such an eyesore to the Forest Department? Why was it that, of the current 220,000 quintals of resin produced in Uttarakhand, only 15,000 quintals was being given to local units? Why had ash trees not been allotted for the making of farm implements? Why had the rights of forest dwellers been taken away? The two different rates for resin, and the refusal to give angu (ash) trees to the organisation, had proved the clear existence of discrimination against locals.
At this Shrinagar meeting, Chandi Prasad Bhatt had long conversations with Govind Singh Rawat, who was to become a close companion in the struggle. When Bhatt returned to Gopeshwar, he found that the angu trees of the Paangarwaasa forest of Mandal had been marked by the Forest Department, and the Symonds workers were getting ready to fell them, the Symonds sub-contractor supervising them being one Jagdish Prasad Nautiyal.
The centre of the activist struggle shifted to a place known as Mandal, thirteen kilometres from Gopeshwar on the road to Tungnath. On the night of 23 April 1973, members of the organisation in Gopeshwar – including Alam Singh Bisht, Anand Singh Bisht, Murarilal, and Shishupal Singh Kunwar – made posters with red ink which read: “Angu bachao, Symonds bhagao” (Save the ash trees, send Symonds packing). On the same day, Almora’s students commemorated the heroes of the Peshawar episode and discussed regional issues, including the forest, potable water, and the need for a university in the hills.
The next day a meeting was held in which Anand Singh Bisht declared that, in the event of their trees being cut, he would be the first to resist: he would take the blows of the axe on his back rather than allow it to touch their trees. Others present likewise resolved to have “the axe fall on us first and then on the trees” and signed a note to this effect.
The meeting passed several proposals requiring villagers to be given wood for their farm implements and building construction, and for the promotion of small, locally run forest industries. An end to forest auctions was demanded, as was the promotion of labour cooperatives and the establishment of wood and charcoal depots at Badrinath, Joshimath, Chamoli, and Gopeshwar. The Symonds Company was told to back off.
This meeting caused the Symonds loggers serious worry. Though the trees to be felled had been marked and the money for the wood paid up, and though they had the order allowing the felling in their hands, they decided against cutting the trees. Symonds was not alone in recognising that this new power of rural organisation was for real – the Forest Department and the state government understood too that matters had taken a serious turn, that the protest was no temporary tomfoolery which they could ignore. The state forest minister made this clear when he sent a conciliatory message to the DGSM, saying they could fell ten angu trees for themselves and allow Symonds to take the rest. His compromise was rejected.
The idea of Chipko now percolated rapidly into local society. The interlinkages between forests and human society, between respect for the rights of common folk and protection of their forests, were becoming swiftly clearer. On 2 May 1973 the DGSS held a conference in Gopeshwar which drew in village leaders, social workers, and political activists. The conference called for (1) A radical change in the existing forest policy for the development of democracy and Gram Swarajya; (2) The direct involvement of villagers in forest work; (3) The establishment of small industries manufacturing goods with the involvement of local people; (4) An end to the contractor system. At this conference, Sunderlal Bahuguna described Chipko as “a new step towards the extension of love [towards nature].”
On 3 May 1973 a team led by Sunderlal Bahguna left on a padayatra (rural march) towards Ukhimath to spread the word about decisions taken in the previous day’s meeting. While Sailani and various others joined the march, Govind Singh Rawat and Chandi Prasad Bhatt did not. Their sense was that the struggle would have to continue on the ground, and that to lead it they had to stay where they were.
The above text has been excerpted and reproduced with permission from Shekhar Pathak, The Chipko Movement (Permanent Black, 2021).
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