The world knows it as the Chipko movement — the most successful environmental mass action of the South, in which simple hill villagers fought big business. There was feminist romance in mountain women hugging trees to save them from the plainsman’s axe, daring him, “chop me before you chop my tree.” The Leftist nirvana of idealistic little-folk fighting rapacious capital also seemed to have been attained, as did the Gandhian’s vision of nonviolence, self sufficiency and khadi. The overall package was good enough to bring awards to the leaders on the Chipko front, grist for academic papers and books, and raw stock for journalists from far and wide.
Yet, the movement was much more than what has been written about it, and also much less. For a while, from early to the late 1970s, Chipko brought unprecedented energy and direction to Uttarakhand — the Kumaun and Garhwal poor-cousin hill districts of Uttar Pradesh state. Hill peasants saw possibilities of cooperative action, uniting against timber merchants and political bosses, and exploring the employment potentials in the hills. Certainly, Chipko was more than an absolutist environmental wave that was only concerned with trees.
However, the strengths of the movement were exaggerated, while at the same time its facets were watered down for easy. consumption in South Asia, Europe and North America. Complex relationships in the motif isil were presented by writers only as heroic stand-offs between good village men/ women and big, bad business/government. Soon after Chipko got name recognition, scholars and journalists ascended Uttarakhand — a convenient bus ride away from Delhi —and helped some Chipko leaders define their message and their image.
Historically, more than other parts of the Himalaya, the Uttarakhand hills have been oriented towards village-based activism. The villages of Kumaun and Garhwal have been resource-poor, but rich in savants and sages, and have provided leadership for India at the national level. On the flip side, however, Uttarakhandcontinues to export menial labour to the Indian plains. Unlike the economy of neighbouring Himachal Pradesh, Uttara-khand’s economy remains a lowly extension of the plains. Totalling just eight districts of Uttar Pradesh’s 62 districts, there is also little political incentive for the state and central politicians and bureaucrats to try and appease the hill men and women, however demanding they may be.
For all that it might have developed into, Chipko as a definable movement got wound up too quickly; its energies sapped by excessive adulation. While study of the movement has become de rigueur in universities in India and abroad, within Uttarakhand itself Chipko is spoken of in the past tense. Before it collapsed into itself, Chipko came tantalisingly close to providing, for a corner of South Asia at least, socio-economic development through a paradigm that was self-developed.
One reason that Chipko disappeared quickly might have been because it was so diffuse, meaning different things to different constituencies. Some of the lost momentum is obviously due to the egos of the key personalities, inflated to bursting point and made super-sensitive by reporters, academics and urban environmentalists. No movement can sustain its spirit at the level of internecine anger and jealousy that has been present in N aini tal, Almora, Chamoli, Tehri, U ttarkashi, Dehradun and Delhi.
Learn from Chipko
For whatever it was and was not, Chipko did provide a momentum and legitimacy to environmental and social activism for all of India. The real and perceived heroics of the hill people of Uttarakhand provided energy to others. While the conditions specific to Uttarakhand hills, obviously, are not to be repeated elsewhere, it finds a certain kind of revival in the Appiko movement in Western Ghats, the Narmada Bachao Andolan of Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat, and in the Chilka lake in Orissa.
Chipko has, however, singularly failed to provide a catalytic charge in other parts of the Himalaya. The forest dwellers of the Indian Northeast, the much coddled state of Sikkim, resource rich Himachal, violence prone Darjeeling district and war torn Kashmir, all have distinct cultural, historical, economic and political underpinnings that have given rise to different brands of protest. None, however, has been able to nurture a Chipko-like grassroots effort.
Perhaps it is in the adjacent hills ofNepal, east of Uttarakhand — where grassroots activism is most remarkable for its absence -that Chipko’s legacy can be best applied.
Centuries of Rana autocracy having dovetailed into three decades of an unrepresentative Panchayat regime, Nepali society’s potential for grassroots activism was never tried in the modern era. With democracy’s arrival in 1990, the country immediately got embroiled in party politics all the way to the rural level. The last three years have seen the attention and energy of village based leaders diverted and sapped by the demands of the party political machines. Rural Nepal, which contains the largest chunk of the populated and des titu te midhills of thel-Iimalayanregi on, has still to learn to look away from donor organisations, international agencies, government bureaucracy and political parties, and into ways of developing from within. And Chipko, certainly, has some lessons.
The Defining Moment
To understand Chipko, its success and swift debilitation, one must look back to how and where it began and the personalities who were involved.
Forest-based activism was no t something that suddenly sprang up in the hills in the early I970s. As early as 1906, when the Chandribadni forest near the town of Tehri was being surveyed to bring it under the Reserved Forest category, there had been an angry backlash in the villages. In 1930, villagers in Tiladi protested the encroachment of their rights to the forest, contrasting it to the extravagant spending of the Tehri durbar. Seventeen died in a police firing, while many more drowned in the Yamuna while trying to flee. This incident, which c ame to be known as the Tiladi kand, has had an important resonance for forest movements in the years to come.
A reading of the literature and clippings of the newspapers of Rudraprayag, Karnaprayag and Dehradun indicates that the stage was being set for Chipko in the mid-1960s. The obvious degradation of the environment was also playing its part in developing awareness. Increasing frequency of landslides, drying up of water sources and other trends were alerting the villagers to the fact that forests were not an unlimited resource. All over Uttarakhand, in gatherings large and small, the reference point of the growing movement came to be trees. The fact that outside forces — plains-based contractors, business and bureaucracy — were razing their forests provided the seed of anger in students, political workers and village elders. By the late 1960s, the villagers had started to organize themselves and to insistently question the state government’s policies.
The Alaknanda topped its banks in a 1970 flash flood that devastated fields and property far downstream. The Uttarakhand inhabitants were brought head-to-head with the realisation that ecological balance had to be restored. Demonstrations were held in Purola on 11 December 1972, in Uttarkashi on 12 December and in Gopeshwar on 15 December to protest the indiscriminate logging by outside contractors.
Anand Singh Bist of Gopeshwar (the headquarters of Chamoli district of Garhwal) recalls a couple of early episodes of Chipko. In 1971, some elders asked the Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) in Nainital that ash trees be included in the villagers’ haque-haquooks (traditional rights to the forest). The DFO wrote back that ash was a “foreign currency-earning species” which villagers could not be allowed to misuse by making farmyard tools. “Keeping the value of the tree in mind,” wrote the DFO, “Ash cannot be given to farmers to make agricultural implements.” He suggested that the farmers use pine instead.
In 1973, the Dasholi Gram Swarajya Sangh (now the Dasholi Gram Swarajya Mandal, DGSM, a Sarvodaya group from Gopeshwar promoting Gandhian principles of rural development) put in a request to the DFO’s office for two ash trees for its carpentry unit. This request, too, was turned down.
Meanwhile, it was learnt that an Allahabad-based sports goods manufacturer, Symonds’ & Co., was given permission to fell 14 ash trees in the forest of Mandal village. The Chamoli villagers were convinced that the state government in Lucknow, once again, was out to appease the larger economic interests at the expense of the hill communities. (Ash wood is used traditionally to make juwas, yokes, because it is light and strong. The suggestion to use pine was considered especially obnoxious as it secretes resin and is not as sturdy.)
On 1 April, a public meeting was called inGopeshwar to discuss the strategy to prevent Symonds’ axes from felling the trees that had been marked in the Gaindi forest of Mandal. More than 30 gram pradhans (village heads) of Dashol i block, political workers and journalists had gathered. One of those present was Chandi Prasad Bhatt, an organiser from DGS M.
Anupam Mishra of the Gandhi Peace Foundation, in his 1978 book, Chipko Movement: Uttarakhand Women’ s Bid to Save Forest Wealth, writes that it was Bhatt who proposed at the meeting that the villagers hug the trees. Demonstrating what he meant, Bhatt “locked his hands together in an embracing posture.” This, according to many, was the defining moment of the Chipko movement.
On 24 April, the day the Symonds’ contractors were to fell the trees, another public meeting was called in Mandal. More than a hundred men and women came out in protest, and the contractor had to return empty-handed. In turning back the contractors, the peasants of Garhwal had notched an impressive first-time victory against plains interests and sparked the imagination of others in the hills.
The Hills Are Alive
“For those of us gathered in Mandal, the only agenda was how to save our forest from Symonds’ men,” says Anand Singh Bist, who was with DGSM in 1973 and today heads a Gopeshwar-based NGO. However, the ripple effect was felt beyond the Chamoli hills.
The day after pushing back the contractor and his men, Bist and a few other workers from De SM visited the Forest Officer of the Kedarnath Division and demanded that the Symonds’ deal with the Forest Department be cancelled. If not, the villagers were prepared for “direct confrontation” with the Department. The official said that he could not override the Lucknow government’s orders, but he would direct Symonds’ to collect the 14 ash trees from the Rampur Phanta forests, 60 km away.
On 2May, gram pradhans, students, party workers and journalists met in Gopeswor and put up five demands before the authorities: one, that the fores t contrac tor system (in which Uttarakhand forests were auctioned at Dehradun or Nainital by the authorities) be abolished and a forest labourers cooperative society be established; two, people’s haque-haqooks be re assessed and redistributed; three, the export of raw produce from the hills be banned and villagers be provided technical training to establish small forest-based industries; four, reforestation be carried out on a war-footing; and five, that forest dwellers themselves be involved in managing and protecting their forests.
Ghanashyam Raturi, a Sarvodaya worker and poet from Uttarkashi (popularly known as Sailani — ‘adventurer’ in Garhwali), sang a song of the forests, trees and people. The participants committed themselves to preventing outsiders from devastating Garhwal ‘s woodlands. This was the beginning of the Van Bachao Andolan, the movement to save trees, which increasingly came to be tagged simply ‘Chipko’.
On 3 May, seven activists fanned out from Gopeshwar to spread the message and save the trees. Their first stop, naturally, was Rampur Phanta in Ookhimath Block, where Symonds had been directed by the Forest Officer. On 5 May, they organised a gathering at Ookhimath in which Kedar Singh Rawat, the Pradhan, declared that if Gopeshwar’s villagers could save their forests, so could they.
That December, when the Symonds’ agent arrived in the Shila Kharka forest in Rampur Phanta, he found, once again, the villagers ready and waiting. With the slogan “Van jc.tgev , vanvasi jagey!” (the forests have risen, the forest dwellers have risen), the Ookhimath villagers descended on Shila Kharka. Symonds’ hired labourers flung their axes and ran to save themselves from the wrath of the forest dwellers of Uttarakhand.
Twenty five km from Joshimath, 680 hectares of the Reni Peng forest had been auctioned for IRs 4.75 lakh to one Jagmohan Bhalla, a contractor from Rishikesh. With the Gopeshwar and Ookhimath incidents fresh in memory, the contractors and the Forest Department officials lay in wait for the appropriate moment to move in.
The opportunity presented itself one day when most of the menfolk had gone to Chamoli, 70 km away, to receive compensation for land they lost up in Malari when the border with Tibet was closed in 1962. Thinking that they had got rid of the opposition, the contractors and the forestry officials, the latter in their official uniform, reached Reni Peng with axes, labourers and rations.
The bosses had bargained without Gaura Devi, a Tolcha Bhutia widow, and other women of the village. When a young girl reported the goings on in the forest, these women hastened to the site and implored the party to spare the trees: “This forest is like our mother’s home. Please think about your children, and leave our trees al one.” Their pleading is said to have so moved the labourers that they refused to lift their axes.
Lying within the watershed of the Rishiganga and bordering Tibet, Reni was considered not only ecologically sensitive, but politically so as well. When news of the women’s activism reached New Delhi, Indian intelligence is said to have consulted with the Anthropological Survey of India about the Bhutias’ involvement and whether there was possibility of an ethnic movement.
Ban the Logger
With the Garhwal hills becoming increasingly agitated for the forests, in April 1974, the Central Government set up a committee to investigate the impact of Himalayan deforestation. VirendraKumar, a botanis t from New Delhi, was named Chairman, and apart from government officials, the committee also consisted of local representatives. They were Govind Singh Negi of the Communist Patty of India, Govind Singh Rawat, the Block Pramukh of Joshimath, also with Leftist leanings, and the Sarvodayi Chandi Prasad Bhatt of the DGSM.
The Forest Department’s stand before what came to be known as the Reni Committee was that the Reni Peng had a mixed deciduous forest and that selective felling of conifers was appropriate. They also insisted that felling three trees per two hectares did not cause soil erosion. The local activists responded that the actual number of trees the contractors cut always exceeded what was allowed by their permits.
The Reni Committee accepted that the watersheds were damaged and that tree felling, except for the haque-haqooks of the villages, had to be stopped. Its report, completed in 1976, led to a 10-year ban on commercial felling in Reni. The ban also covered 1200 sq km of the upper catchment of the Alaknanda. The ban was extended for a further 10 years in 1985.
The declaration of the logging ban was a major victory for the Van Bachao Andolan. It was the high point of Chipko in Garhwal.
In 1975, responding to public pressure, the state government established the Uttar Pradesh Van Nigam, a corporation with the mandate to harvest trees itself rather than to auction them off. The expectation that the state would be more sensitive to environmental and village requirements than commercial interests was shattered however, when the Van Nigam resorted to sub-contracting out its jobs. Protest against the Nigam was to be a consistent theme of activism in the ensuing years.
Even as the Reni Committee recommended the ban on tree-felling in the Alaknanda catchment, the Indian Constitution saw i ts 42nd Amendment, w hich dealt squ arely with environmental protection. “It shall be the duty of every citizen of India to protect and improve the natural environment including forest, lakes, rivers and wild life and to have compassion for living creatures,” stated Article 51A(g). “The State shall endeavour to protect and improve the environment and safeguard the forests and wild life of the country,” stated Article 48A. While they might not always go by the Constitution’s dictates, it seemed that the national-level politicians and bureaucrats, too, were behind what Chipko stood for.
Word of Garhwali activism spread, and within months Kumaun, too, was drawn into the circle of protest. Protestors forced the cancellation of forest auctions in Nainital, Ramnagar and Kotdwar in 1974. When 18 students of the Parvatiya Van Bachao Sangharsh Samiti were arrested, there was a wave of demonstrations in Kumaun towns.
Around the time that the Chamoli hills were active, Sunderlal Bahuguna, who was the Coordinator of the Uttarakhand Sarvodaya Mandal, undertook a 120-day padayatra within the region. His march inspired a group of students to undertake their own 700 km yatra, from Askot in the eastern Kumaun, adjacent to the Nepali border, all the way west to Arakot in Himachal Pradesh. The heightened political consciousness among students was most significant. While activists had raised their voice against exploitation of forest labourers in the past, the yatra brought home to participating students — Kumaunis like Samsher Singh Bist and Shekhar Pathak, and Garhwalis like Kumar Prasoon, Pratap Shikhar and Vijay Jaddhari — the patent unfairness of forest policies and practice as far as the hills were concerned. The 1974 yatra has continued to serve as an inspiration to successive groups of activist students from Kumaun and Garhwal.
“We were influenced by Marxism,” says Samsher Singh Bist, who was thenthe President of the Student Union of Kumaun University and today runs the Chetna Printing Press in Almora. The students mobilised against the contractors’ exploitation of forest labourers, and understood more than others the need for small, forest-based industries in the hills.
In October 1977, a large demonstration was organised in Nainital by activists of Uttarakhand Sangharsh Vahini. (USV, which was then a loose group of paharis concerned about exploitation in the hills, later became the Uttarakhand Jana Sangharsh Vahini, a political party demanding that Uttarakhand be made a seperate state). Kumauni poet Girish Tiwari (Girda) sang “Vriskshan ka vilap” (lament of the trees) for the demonstrators, giving an ecological twist to a 1926 poem by Gauri Dutta Pandey.
Several students were arrested in the demonstrations that were held in October in Nainital. When more than a thousandprotesters surrounded the club house, where forest auctions were to be held, they were rescheduled for 28, 29 and 30 November.
On 26 November, the Provincial Armed Constabulary marched the Nainital streets in a show of force. Altogether 53 persons were arrested and police launched tear-gas on the demonstrators. In the ensuing chaos, the club house was gutted.
The subsequent months saw sporadic demonstrations and lathi-charges in response all over Kumaun. On February 24, the whole of Uttarakhand remained closed in a bandh to protest the arrests inNainital. In January 1978, some 300 villagers camped out in the Chanchridhar forest in Dwarahat, near Almora, and prevented a contractor from the Saharanpur Star Paper Mills from entering the woods. Later planned fellings were also successfully stalled by student activists of the Uttarakhand Sangharsha Vahini.
In Gopeshwar, the villagers did not have to resort to hugging the trees (the threat to do so was enough), and in Nainital the protests were mostly directed against auctions. In Tehri, however, the villagers engaged in more direct confrontation with business and authority.
In early 1977, young activists in Tehri issued a pamphlet titled “Swan Song of the Pines” to protest excessive resin tapping in Henvalghati, on the way to Rishikesh. On 30 May, a crowd of villagers went up to the Adwani forest, in the same locality, and pulled out the iron blades used by the tappers on chir pines.
“We were merely doing what the Forest Department was supposed to,” recalls Dhoom S ingh Negi, a school headmaster who went on to become a well-known member of the Chipko pantheon. “It was their responsibility to remove the blades if they were inserted too deep, making the pines bleed too much.”
When 640 trees from the Adwani forest and 273 trees from the Salet forest were auctioned in the Narendranagar town hall, Bahuguna went on a fast and the atmosphere became quite tense. The villagers declared their intention to hug the trees to protect them from the axe.
The first confrontation in Henvalghati occurred on the first week of December 1977 in the Advani forest. On 5 December, village women tied rakshya vandan cords around the tree trunks; the silken thread symbolised their determination to protect them. Negi fasted under a tree for five days, and the Henvalghati Forest Protection Committee issued a “Declaration of Rights” which equated the protection of the forests with the protection of the right to life itself.
A forest officer tried to convince the activist women of Tehri that tree-felling was an economic necessity, that it was good for the nation, and assured them that since it was being done scientifically, there would be complete regeneration. The women were unconvinced, for they had seen all that the resin-tapping contractors were capable of.
Recalls Swadesha Devi of Rampur village in Tehri, “We told him that the trees provide milli, pani and bayar (soil, water and pure air). We would not let go of them.”
Unable to convince the villagers, the contractors smuggled their Himachali labourers into the neighbouring Salet forest, where the first confirmed instance of the physical act of chipko-ing’ is said to have occured.
“The labourers were advancing on the trees, and there were very few of us in the forest. In desperation, I went and hugged the nearest marked tree,” recalls Dhoom Singh Negi. His activist friends quickly joined in the action, hugging whichever tree the labourers made for, until finally they were forced to depart.
Later, two truckloads of the Armed Police Constabulary were sent to Henvalghati to march the trails, but the villagers would not relent. Finally, the police and contractors withdrew, and the auction grants were subsequently cancelled.
There were similar cancellations elsewhere. In Ranichauri, Tehri Garhwal, a group of 200 villagers from Savli, most of them women, went into the Loital forest and tied silken threads around trunks that had been auctioned. Cancellation of the Loital auction is said to have saved some 9500 trees, including 300 oak trees.
Yet another battle was fought over Amarsar forest, near Kangar village, where about 750 trees were to have been felled by the Van Nigam. A group of high school students arrived with Negi and Pratap Shikhar and started to hug the trees, forcing the labourers to withdraw.
The villagers of Badiyar Garh, 22 km from Srinagar in Pouri, had learnt of the planned felling of 2500 trees in the Malgaddi woods. It was here that the last, the longest and the most violent battle was fought against the Van Nigam. The villagers had sent a request to the activists in Henvalghati to come and help them save their forest. Kumar Prasoon and Vijay Jaddhari went to the area on 25 December 1978, a few days before the contractors arrived. They roamed the v illages, spreading the Chipko message through folk songs sung to the tune of a harmonium.
Even as the contractors bribed some villagers to try and win support, the minstrel activists went from community to community, and survived by asking the villagers to contribute one chapati each for their meals. Soon, some of the forest labourers themselves were sharing their food with Prasoon and Jaddhari, and one woodsman even claimed that he would start a Chipko movement when he returned to his village in Himachal.
Once, recalls Prasoon, when Jaddhari was protecting a tree, a frustrated forest ranger snapped at two hesitant labourers, “Why are you waiting? Saw it, chop him down. This happens here every day!” As the labourers applied their saw to the trunk, the teeth ripped Jaddhari’s pyjamas and left a mark. “Humped katne aaye hai, aadmi katne nahi,” (we have come to chop trees, not men) said one of the labourers as they flung the saw away.
On 31 January, a 50-year-old villager named Saroop Singh came running with a lantern in hand, shouting “Aaj Himalaya jagega, kroor kuladha bhagega” (the Himalaya will rise today, the cruel axe men will be chased away). He had just heard in the 8:45 radio news bulletin that the felling permits of Amarsar and Malgaddi forest had been cancelled.
First, there was the ban on commercial logging in Garhwal, then the voiding of auctions in Kumaun, and now cancellation of permits in Tehri. The Chipko movement had covered the whole of Uttarakhand. The harvesting of wood was down from 62,000 cubic meters in 1971 to 40,000 cubic meters in 1981. Chipko, a villager’s movement, had ensured that indiscriminate commercial forestry was ended.
Then, in April 1981, Bahuguna went on an indefinite fast, demanding a blanket ban on felling of trees above 1000 m in the Himalaya. Even though an eight-member committee constituted to look into the demand did not feel the need to do so, the Central Government imposed a 15-year moratorium on commercial felling in the Uttarakhand Himalaya.
Media and Khadi
The 1972 Stockholm Conference on Environment heightened the media’s interest on ecological issues and Chipko provided all the ingredients of a riveting story. The outside press, whether Delhi-based or overseas, took to it with alacrity. As journalist Mark Shcpard wrote in the Fall 1981 issue of the CoEvolution Quarterly, “…I knew I had to write about Chipko. Themore I learned, the more the story seemed like a near-perfect parable of the struggle of common people against big government and business— a struggle for the control of the natural resources, that underpin survival and well-being.”
Like practically every journalist that has reported and mythologised Chipko, Shepard too wrote as if what he saw and whom he met alone made up the movement. History was centred entirely on Chandi Prasad Bhatt and DGSM, withnary a passing reference to others of Uttarakhand.
It was deja vu all over again 12 years later, when, in a Fall 1993 article in the Whole Earth Review, writer Brian Nelson wrote: “It is difficult to find out who started Chipko, or who is in charge of the movement today. There are no formal titles, no board of directors, not even any business cards… There is one individual, however, whose name is mentioned at least once in every conversation about Chipko. He is the consistant presence, the overall coordinator if there is one. Chandi Prasad Bhatt is a tall, bearded man, with penetrating blue eyes and deliberate mannerisms. He is one of those rare individuals, who though remarkably gentle, somehow leave a deep and indelible impression on everyone he meets. He exudes a kind of controlled inner energy that is difficult to describe but easy to feel.”
Such penetrating insights developed on the basis of all-too-brief interviews by parachutists might be automatically suspect, abut they abound in the myth-making of Chipko’s leadership. Indian journalists are as .3–prone to glorifying selectecrChipko superstars as Western ones. In an article entitled “The Chipko Architect”, journalist Veena Sandal wrote: “In certain circles he is known as ‘the only true Gandhian after Gandhi’, Many address him as the ‘Saviour’. Yet others call him a politician. Serene and unruffled in the midst of this controversy stands Sunderlal Bahuguna… He is the man who went to meet an applauding Kurt Waldheim, the then UN secretary general, with a bundle of firewood strapped on his back…”
Journalists who rush up from Delhi to do their Chipko story rarely spare the time to visit the sites of the forest protests and meet the villagers who fought the battles of the 1970s. It is much easier to make one person the fountainhead of the movement and not to get into detailed analyses of the complexities and contradictions which Chipko, like any movement, has aplenty.
The vernacular media of Uttarakhand is much more realistic about Chipko, but is also more vicious, enmeshed as the journalists are in local politics and personality clashes. Thus, while the Uttarakhand papers do cover issues at the ground level, stories of corruption, connivance with authority, international funding, etc. abound. And, unfortunately, one cannot expect much in terms of perspective or fairness.
Kumaun University Historian Shekhar Pathak notes that popular movements have never received a fair deal from outside interpreters. He cites the abolition of the begar system of forced labour in British Kumaun as an example. “It was the popular upsurge in the villages, rather than the initiative of a few leaders, that delivered the decisive blow to begar,” he says. “But as time went by, the role of peasants and village activists got underplayed and it was (later) claimed that only God, Gandhi and Govind Ballav Pant were responsible for abolishing begat in Kumaun.” (G.B. Pant, freedom fighter and Independent India’s first home minister, was a Garhwali.)
Two groups that suffered from mainstream media’s search for politically correct icons to represent Chipko were the Uttarakhand Sangharsha Vahini and the CPI. Their role in the forest movement of Uttarakhand has gone virtually unremarked and is unknown to most outsiders. The media’s appointedChipko exponents were, as expected, the Gandhian Sarvodaya activists Bhatt and Bahuguna.
Says P.C. Tiwari, a lawyer in Almora and a worker with the Vahini, “We did not have khadi personalities like Bhatt and Bahuguna. Ours was a completely political movement involving students and other young people. Our aim was to challenge the existing political system. And such an agenda naturally meant alienating the media.”
For the CPI, the protection of the exploited kataani shrarnik (saw labourers), whoreceived poor rations and inadequate compensation, was the motivating factor. An appeal issued in July 1974 read, “Aa gaya hai Taal nishan, van sampada ke litter° savadhan.” (the red sign has arrived, beware you robbers of forest wealth). The workers of the Left wanted that: the forests be auctioned in smaller lots at prices not exceeding IRs 25,000; the contractors whose blades left deep marks on the chir trees be blacklisted; small cottage industries based on raw materials found in the hills be established; and technic altra ni ng for forestry-based work given to high school and college student.
“We were ready for everything, and there was violence in our Chipko,” says Karnla Ram Nautiyal, a CPI member, now the Municipal Head of Uttarkashi town. “The media has never been sympathetic to the Communist movement.”
As time works on the memory, the village activists and the more politicised facets of Chipko — even though they were never that prominent — have begun to fade from the public record. Even as Chipko becomes part of history, it becomes increasingly identified as the creation of Bahuguna and/or Bhatt. And the two men cannot stand each other.
Bhatt and Bahuguna
Goaded by supporters, their ire fuelled by opportunistic scholars and reporters, Chipko ‘ s Big Two have been engaged in a tussle over whose work is seen to be more important and who gets the most credit. The Bahuguna-Bhatt feud is all that many know about Chipko.
Bhatt was a difficult man to try arrange a meeting with. “If you had not come from as far as Kathmandu, I would not have met you. Who knows, even though you are a pahari from Nepal, there is no guarantee that you will understand Chipko.”
By lantern light, Bhatt pulls out yellowed copies of early-1970s issues of Dehradun’s Yugvani weekly and the Rudraprayag Aniket. Poring over two-decade-old reports, he asks, “Show me where he (Bahuguna) is? Nowhere! You have to read the early papers to know the movement.”
He reaches in and brings out the first and second editions of the book Uttarakhand Mein Eek So Bis Din (120 days in Uttarakhand), by Bahuguna and points to where Bahuguna has deleted reference to Bhatt in the second edition. “He (Bahuguna) did not want the world to know that I was associated in any way with the movement.” Bhatt is bitter.
Ramchandra Guha, one of the academic chroniclers of Chipko who is with the Nehru Memorial Library in New Delhi, says he understands Bhatt’s frustration. “You have to give credit to Bhatt as the originator of the movement. He might not be as sophisticated as Sunderlal, but you cannot distort history and take away due credit. He was the one who came up with the idea of Chipko, first.”
According to Guha, before Chipko became prize property, Bahuguna was given to praising Bhatt for his role in the movement. “He has called him the mukhya sanchalak (main organiser) of the movement.”
Anil Agarwal, environmentalist and editor of the Indian science magazine Down to Earth says that when he returned from studies abroad in the early 1980s, he found Bhatt abandoned in Gopeshwar, while Bahuguna was taking all the credit for a movement he had not started.
Bhatt and his supporters accuse Bahuguna of pandering to the national and international media. Says one pro-Bhatt scholar, “The first place Bahuguna will visit when he goes to a new town is the press office; he survives on press reports.”
Whereas Bhatt is dour and tends to sound defensive, Bahuguna is suave and a quick study. “Are you comfortable with your hotel? If you are not, you can come and stay in my guest house,” he said to this writer, pointing to a tent on the side of his makeshift hut on the banks of the Bhagirathi river. He is camped here at the damsite of the Tehri project.
“You need not have wasted time waiting for me. If you had sent word, I would have come to see you,” he clucks. “Why don’t you go and meet the Chief Engineer of the (Tehri) dam? He is much more important than a simple peasant like me.”
Bahuguna, too, pulls out newspaper clippings. But what he has to show is not evidence against Bhatt but a copy of Kathmandu’s Kantipur daily. It has a picture of the three-tonne rock that destroyed the penstock pipe of Nepal’s Kulekhani hydropower station this past summer. “The Indian papers did not carry this news; they suppress anything that might heighten the opposition to Tehri dam. This needs to be talked about.”
Bahuguna is a stringer correspondent for the UNI news agency. Quite early in life, he sayS, he decided to earn his living by “the most respected profession in the world”. Which, intentionally or unintentionally tends to flatter the interviewing reporter.
For journalists making the two-day trip to meet him, Bahuguna makes available, hard- to-get background material —reports, “secret” government documents—as well as copies of his writings, and articles about himself.
Bahuguna is known for his international forays, and is a master at maintaining his image as a man of the people. He insists on wearing coarse khadi, so much so that that a European researcher was astonished when he arrived in India to fmd the indigenous cloth could be quite fine, too. Bahuguna, perhaps because he is a journalist himself, provides masaala– crisp quotes and useful anecdotes — and takes account of the reporter’s needs and deadline pressures. Tehri, which is Bahuguna’s base, is much closer to Delhi than Gopeshwar, where Bhatt and DGSM are located. Bahuguna is conversant in English, is more photogenic and laughs easily, while Bhatt is prone to moods.
As the media applauds and thrashes personalities, the tolerance level of the Chipko leaders has become razor thin. Bhatt resigned from the board of Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi in June 1993, just after Down to Earth ran a Chipko story. “Pitaji is upset with Anil,” said Bhatt’s journalist son Om Prakash. When reminded that the article was not written by Anil Agrawal he replied, “But it is his magazine.”
This writer was advised by journalists who know (for good reason, it turned out) not to tell people in the Bahuguna camp that she had been to Gopeshwar to meet with Bhatt.
Similarly, Bhatt was not learn that she had already met Bahuguna. When 13 Thai NGO representatives visited Gopeshwar in May 1993, Bhatt would not see them because their chaperone Vir Singh of G.B.P. University in Ranichauri is considered close to Bahuguna.
Bhatt talks appreciatively of writers such as the late H.C. Kala, Anupam Mishra and Ramesh Pahari, all of whom, it turns out, have written abouthis pioneering role in Chipko. Mishra, in his 1978 book, practically equates Chipko with Bhatt, and Pahari, Editor of Rudraprayag Aniket, is Bhatt’s good friend and has always written glowingly about him.
Bahuguna’s public relations ability and international appeal and Bhatt’s organising ability, put together, might have taken the people of Uttarakhand further than where they are today. Some, like Radha Bhatt of Laxmi Ashram in Kaushani, which promotes education of women, have tried to bring about a conciliation, but without success. Most are of the view that media’s need to maintain tension and cultivate heroes, and the over zealousness of followers and hangers-on, has made the rift between the two so wide that it catano t be bridg ed.
It is likely that the two personalities would never have mixed anyway. “The media might have aggravated the situation, but it certainly was not the cause of (the rift),” says Shamsher Singh Bist. According to him, Bhatt had already stopped talking to Bahuguna in 1973.
“You cannot say that there was a split,” exclaims an exasperated Bhatt. “When were we together to begin with? Both of us axe happily working in our own areas.”
While Bahuguna has been the vanguard in today’s fight against the Tehri dam, Bhatt has been criticised for not showing support for the anti-dam activists. Says Dhoom Singh Negi, “We went to Gopeshwar twice to meet him. We sent him letters and he did not reply, When Bahugunaji and I visited him, Bhattji left us standing there and went off to attend a mahilamangal dal (women’s group) meeting,”
When asked to explain his silence on the anti-Tehri dam movement, Bhatt’s answer sounds lame. “If I had gone, the media would have focuSed on me. It would not have helped the movement. I do not believe in going to art area to take credit away. If we can do things separately, we do not have to be together.”
Bahuguna, for his part, says, “I am a dynamic person. I do not want to remain stagnant. Do you see the Bhagirathi there (points dramatically to the river). I am like this river. If my Sarvodayi friends do not want to flow with the current, I cannot force them to.”
Bhatt is today involved through the DGSM and the malaila rnang al dais in reforestation and eco-development camps in Chamoli. These, he maintains, are the ” rachanatmak karya” (creative works) required by hill society today.
Bahuguna is critical of Bhatt for going the NGO way. Calling NGOs “modern-day contractors”, he says: “I do not want to be a contractor. People like us have to do more. NGOs segment the hill people. They try to bring development through foreign or government funds, which is never sustainable. The community has to be empowered to do things by itself. Even the interest to plant trees should come from within the community, not through external agencies and guidance.”
But how can you speak for v illage-based development when you are always travelling to Europe or North America, he is asked. Bahuguna replies that he does not want to remain aloof from what is happening in the rest of the world, “Developments that occur internationally affect what happens in this country. And it is not as if I go there on my own. They send me invitations because they want to listen to me.”
There is continuing activism in the hills of Uttarakhand today, against the Tehri darn, for example, and against liquor licensing and limestone quarrying, and for better health care, education and women’s rights. These, says Bahuguna, are what he and his “friends” need to support.
But That’s Not Chipko Ironically, for the man who proposed hugging trees as a strategy, Bhatt insists today that the Chipko movement did not require anyone to actually hug a tree. And what of those activists who actually hugged trees? They were not really part of Chipko movement, says Bhatt.
All of which sounds a trifle disingenous, for in the p ast Bhatt has fully endorsed hugging, as when he wrote in Hugging the Himalayas: The Chipko Experience, published in 1978 by DGSM: “…the Chipko soldiers in 1973 took to the task of clinging to the marked trees in the Mandal forest, and later in Phanta-Rampur repeated the action.”
“Who told you we did not have to hug trees to protect them? Who says ours was not a movement?” retorts Swadesha Devi, the activist of Tehri. “I challenge anybody who says we did not hug. Not only us, but even our menfolk hugged the trees to protect them. Dhoom Singh Bhai did it in Adwani. When the forest ranger used his aara (saw) on Jaddhari, his trousers were torn and he was left with a scar.”
When pressed further about the pro-forest agitations in Tehri, Bhatt replies, “I do not consider that Chipko. There the word was not powerful enough. Not only did they physically have to cling to trees, but they also had to employ methods such as reading from the Bhagwat, going on fast beneath trees and getting arrested. There was a byatha, a story, behind the word— it was so powerful that it drove away the biggest contractor. These things to get attention cannot be called Chipko.”
Anupam Mishra agrees with Shaft. “Qiipko was a movement born of unique circumstances,” he says. “That it did not spread but remained localised in Chamoli is not the movement’s fault.”
“Just because your Chipko was finished and done within 1974, you cannot say that the movement did not happen in other places,” says Kumar Prasoon. “Ours (in Tehri), was an organised movement. We travelled the region, convincing people that trees had value. Many of us were arrested, but we always had enough left behind to continue with the work. When things got rough, Bahugunaji would come and do a fast.”
Bhatt disagrees with this interpretation. “The Forest Department was already asking my advice about felling trees in different areas by 1975. When your demands have been met, and the authority is cooperating, protest for the sake of protest is foolish.” He produces letters from as early as 1977 to prove his point. One is from the Divisional Forest Officer of KedamathDivision, H.C.Khanduri, informing Bhatt that the trees of the Malari forest were to be auctioned, asking him if the area was ecologically sensitive and whether the auctionshould be stopped.
“The movement was not finished,” says Bhatt, “it had only evolved.”
Decline and Fall
As a group, Bhatt’s Dasboli Grain Swarajya Mandal is considered by some to represent most faithfully the ethos of Chipko. That the DGSM seems to be a spent force is, therefore, the prime indicator of Chipko’s weakening.
In an interview with this writer in November 1993, Bhatt said that all of DGS M’ s activities were funded with interest from the prize money he and DGSM have received (the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1982, the Indoman Trust Award in 1990, the Indira Gandhi Paryavaran Puraskar in 1991). Reports of some scholars who have studied DGSM, however, tend to paint a depressing picture. One of these scholars is Pierre-Andre Tremblay, a F ench-Canadian anthropologist who is studying DGSM’ s role in organising Garhwali villagers. He visitedGopeshwar in October 1993. “At first, they were quite open,” he recalls. He was told about the organisation’s resin and turpentine unit, the tree nurseries, and the eco-development camps.
A couple of cancelled appointments later, Tremblay decided to visit the DGSM work sites himself. He reports of being shocked at what he saw. Other than the caretaker and his family, the resin and turpentine unit did not provide employment to anyone in the hills. The unit worked only three months a year, with the help of workers who came up from Lucknow.
“The DGSM’ s nursery is doing very badly and the eco-development camps are all state-funded,” says Tremblay. When he asked for the date and the venue of the eco-development camp, Bhatt first cautioned Tremblay that the food in the villages would not taste good and the sanitary conditions were quite poor. When this did not deter the anthropologist, Bhatt said that DGSM had not• been able to decide between two villages. “When I asked him which two villages, Bhatt said it was a ‘secret’ until it was decided,”
While this does not say much for Bhatt’s confidence in his own group, it might also indicate his wariness of foreigners. As he was meeting Tremblay, Bhatt turned to someone else in the room and said in Garhwali, “You have to be careful with Westerners, you know. Who knows what they will write; it might harm us ten years from now.”
If Bhatt’s organisation is but a ghost of Chipko, Bahuguna, too seems today a holdover from a more involved past. Today, as he camps by the Bhagirathi river and agitates against the Tehri project, one cannot help but feel that without the dam he would be a man without a cause, a following, and an audience.
While Bahuguna gains much-deserved credit elsewhere for standing up against the Tehri dam, within Uttarakhand he seems to be strangely alone. Says Raghunath Singh Rana, a left-leaning Block Pramukh of Jakhanidwar village, one of the villages to be submerged by the Tehri Dam Project, “If Bahuguna understood what the people want, he would join us and agitate for maximum compensation for the land that is going to be submerged.”
“How can I demand c ompensation?” says Bahuguna, “I do not even believe that the darn is going to be built.” While his supporters in Delhi and Dehradun speak glowingly of “the memory of Gandhi and the voice of Ganga”, Tehri and the New Tehri residents are handed out glossy booklets like the one titled, Silyara ke sant ka asali chehara (the true face of the saint of Silyara Bahuguna’s Bandyopadhyay village), which claims that Bahuguna is anti-development and is protesting the dam only because he has his eyes on the Nobel Peace Prize.
In his work, which is more organisational, Bhatt comes into contact with bureaucrats and participates in Government committees. As a result, he is more sympathetic with authority than the idealistic Bahuguna. Because he is an NGO worker himself, a larger number of Delhi, Dehradun, Nainital and Almora-based NGO organisers also gravitate towards Bhatt. Bahuguna, meanwhile, has remained aloof from most other activities and NGOs.
Adopt a Leader
If the media took sides in the Chipko debate in order to make a good story, the partisanship among Delhi academics have had much deeper implications. The scholars have had aro le in defining the battleground itself. The villagers agitated, but it was up to the Chipko scholar to interpret their movement, establish its antecedents, anoint a leader, and provide him with a vocabulary.
One academic battle of Chipko was fought in the pages of Seminar in 1987. Responding to what he considered was an overly pro-Bahuguna article by the academic couple Jayanta Bandyopadhyay and Vandana Shiva, social historian Ramchandra Guha wrote that Chipko was undergoing a mutilation, “its body torn in half as environmentalists lay claim to its heritage.”
An issue later, Bandyopadhyay and Shiva had a response. “…Guha displays the blinkered vision of academics,” they accused… The dynamism of movements does not exist in archives and libraries. It lives in peoples’ space.” They concluded that Guha’s focus on personalities was “symbolic of the dominant view of external analysis based on fragmented reading of events and exclusive dependence on the printed word to reach the oral culture.”
Saying it was the scholar couple’s effort “to rewrite the history of Chipko from a sectarian perspective” Guha retaliated that Bandyopadhyay and Shiva’s historical treatment of Chipko was “seriously vitiated by their partisan stance in favour of Sunderlal Bahuguna” and that they painted “certain groups in the brightest colours, others in darker hues, and leave still others out of the picture altogether.”
Guha accused that the two had not bothered to “elicit the views and experiences of the participants in two of the three major groupings of Chipko.”
Bandyopadhyay, who has since had an acrimonious divorce and intellectual parting of ways with Shiva, today concedes that Bahuguna’s facility with media andresearchers tends to produce biases in his favour. When he and Shiva begun research on Chipko, Bandyo-padhyay says, he had addressed letters to both Bhatt and Bahuguna. True to character, Bhatt did not respond, while Bahuguna did, and his letter was welcoming. Bandyopadhyay says that he got so involved with research in Tehri that he did not attempt to contact Bhatt again.
The Chipko fault line, it seems, is deeper than the gorge of the Alaknanda. It pitches academics, journalists, activists, villagers and leaders against each other. The situation is so tense, reported one job applicant at the G.B.P. Institute of Himalayan Environment and Development, that when scientists are interviewed, they are likely to be asked which side of the Chipko debate they are on.
Guha does not quote Shiva in any of his works, while for her part, Shiva’s bibliographies contain no reference to Guha’s important works on history of social movements.of Uttarakhand. Bandyopadhyay maintains today that Chipko was never a feminist movement as claimed by Shiva in her book Staying Alive, even though Shiva acknowledges his contribution at the front of the book. And Anil Agarwal does not think Shiva’s work warrants attention.
It is surprising how little time these scholars who have defined Chipko have actually spent in Uttarakhand hill s, particularly during the critical years from 1973 to 1979. Guha’s field research in Uttarakhand was all of three weeks, and he met Bahuguna only once in 1983. Agarwal was away studying in the United Kingdom when the Tehri demonstrations were taking place, and Bandyo-padhyay and Shiva started their research in the latter half of the 1980s and did not go beyond Tehri, Bahuguna’s home court.
Guided by their academic support groups, Chipko’s acclaimed leaders have differing interpretations of the directions the movement has taken. Bahuguna says the movement became ecological after 1977, while Bhatt insists that it was an economic struggle from the start. The CPI member would define Chipko as a movement to counter “exploitation of forest labourers and to set minimum wages”. Meanwhile, yet other academics, such as Shiva, insist that Chipko was the high water mark of rural feminism.
Activist to Project Director
Bahuguna’s criticism of NGO-based development rings true. Many of the leading activists of Chipko have, in fact, become NGO directors and coordinators. Bhatt’s DGSM, itself, is now a more passive NGO than a grassroots initiative taking organisation. All this means that the activists of Chipko, most of them now in their middle age or older have transformed themselves into managers of development projects. Under such a guise they are less likely to politicise society in order to bring change.
What Chipko activists lacked after the forest battles were won was leadership. “We had a meeting to discuss what was to be done after the moratorium was imposed on green felling,” says Pratap Shikhar, who now heads a J ajal-based NGO, the Uttarakhand JanJagriti Sansthan, which works in reforestation and drinking water.
Continues Shikhar, “The movement phase was over. We turned to Bahugunaji for leadership. I felt that we needed to work more with the people, win their trust so that they would fend for themselves.” But Bahuguna, he says, would not listen. “Instead”, says Shikhar, “Bahugunaji went for his Kashmir to Kohima march with Dhoom Singh Negi.”
Kumar Prasoon, who writes occasionally for newspapers, says, “There is nobody in Uttarakhand that people can look up to; and there is nobody that the government responds to. With people involved in government-funded projects, the future of Uttarakhand looks bleak. The donors and the government money will buy us out and when the time comes, we will not be able to fight for our rights.”
Samsher Singh Bist of Almora agrees with Prasoon. “The activism in Chipko got killed,” he says. “The activists have all started projects and got lost in the project documentations and reports.”
Some of the younger activists of Uttarakhand, meanwhile, are all too willing to give Chipko a w ell-deserved rest. “t litarakharid today faces more important issues than the 20-year-old Chipko,” says Pradeep Tamta, who stood as a Uttarakhand Kranti Dal candidate for the November 1993 Vidhan Sabha elections from Bageshwar in Almora. “Only when you have a house will you be able to decide how you want to decorate it. Unless Uttarakhand is a separate hill state, where we paharis can decide our own future, hundreds of Chipko and the hill society will still not develop. After all, how many trees can you chipko to?”
He says, “Policies have to be conducive to hill development, and that is impossible until Uttarakhand becomes a separate hill state.”
P.C. Tiwari agrees with Tamta and cites the anti-alcohol movement of the 1980s to prove the point. “Our three slogans then were, against those who drank liquor, against those who made it and against those who sold it. We took care of the first two, but we failed when we came to the third. What could we do when the government itself was the biggest merchant?”
“Chipko died in 1980 with the moratorium,” says N.C. Saxena, a prominent forester who is now the director of the Lal Bahadur Shastri Institute of Administration in Mussoorie. “This obsession with Chipko has stifled other initiatives in Uttarakhand.”
Such has been the stifling effect of the real and imagined Chipko that, 14 years after the moratorium was imposed, other issues of Uttarakhand have yet to be pushed through with any degree of success. While the contractor system was abolished, and the indiscriminate felling in the hills stopped, the much vaunted small-scale cottage industry has been a non-starter. Market penetration from the plains continues inexorably, and the hill people have not been able to tap economic wellbeing from their comparative advantage in, say, tourism or horticulture. The people have more control over the forest than before, but oddly enough, for a hill region so full of activists and leaders, there has been little rise in consciousness of the responsibilities that accompany the rights. While Van Panchayats of Uttarakhand are shown to visitors as examples of how well community-managed forest do and how green and lush they are, this has often been at the expense of Reserved forests which the villagers do not have rights to.
Chipko’s legacy does not seem to have reduced the number of young Kumaunis and Garhwalis departing to the plains in search of employment. In fact their numbers increase every passing year. While the demands of the hill people decorate forest policies, they hardly are implemented on the ground. Meanwhile the Uttar Pradesh state government continues to dream of hydropower from dams constructed in this critical seismic zone.
Chipko’s legacy might have been to prepare the ground for the demand for Uttarakhand state, but these efforts too have been stymied. As long as the hill people were fighting isolated commercial interests through a movement that had a resonant title, the central and the state governments were willing to allow them the privilege. But when it comes to larger economic and political issues that are enmeshed in the demand for a separate Uttarakhand hill state, the power centres seem quite unwilling to rock the sluggish boat.
The political issues important for the Uttarakhand hills today outstrip the limited focus of what was Chipko even at its widest conception. Only when the people of Uttara-khand are able to manage their own affairs, will policies emerge which benefit the Kumaunis and the Garhwalis and lead towards a more sustainable economy. But then, others are not so sure. They feel that statehood is only good as a rallying cry, and much more will have to be done to make the hill economy resilient, which will mean more and not fewer interactions with the plains economy.
As for Chipko, it still exists. But it has migrated from the hills of its origins to seminars and conference halls further south and overseas. It lives in university courses, academic tomes and in articles like this one, which keep the controversy, but not the issues, alive.
Research for this article was made possible, in part, by a fellowship from the Panos Institute, London. The views expressed here are the writer’s own.