What do the forests bear? Soil, water and pure air

What do the forests bear? Soil, water and pure air

Remembering the Chipko Movement and legacy of people’s efforts for forest conservation

Chipko movement was not some instantaneous movement which by chance was led by women. There had been a lot of work done in the past by activists to put the local women on the forefront. One such leader was Mira Behn, a disciple of Mahatma Gandhi. She visited the Garhwal region in the 1940s and was concerned about the massive deforestation which was taking place in the area. She warned that everything is not fine with the Himalayas. She later opened up a pashu-lok (cattle centre) in the region. She correlated the region’s water crisis with the deforestation. Further, she was very upset with Banj trees being replaced with commercial pine trees. She believed that Banj trees were eco-friendly for the area. She was very disturbed with exploitation of forest resources, without having any regard for the ecology of the area.
Sunder Lal Bahuguna worked closely with Mira Behn and imbibed many of her thoughts regarding the conservation of the green gold. Later, Bahuguna played a pivotal role in spreading the Chipko movement to different areas of the present state of Uttarakhand. One more notable woman who played a key role in the build-up to the Chipko movement was Sarala Behn. She was also a disciple of Gandhi. She was a staunch proponent of Gandhian principles. She worked with the women in the Kumaon region and opened an ashram for girls along Gandhian lines. Later, she formed a band of dedicated young women around her. She also strove to create environmental awareness. She formed, the Uttarakhand Sarvodaya Mandal in 1961 for the uplift of the population and protection of the hill environment.
For the protection of forest resources and sustenance of livelihood, women joined hands with co-operatives and Gandhian organisations. Their concern was the conservation of forest resources and needs of the local population. Besides, the women of the area actively took part in anti-alcohol movement which culminated in alcohol prohibition in 1965. They emphasised that local forests belong to the local people and are not for exploitation by outsiders.
They key event which took place was in 1973, when about 300 ash trees were auctioned for felling to a sports manufacturer company in Mandal village of Chamoli district. The people protested against it. The protest was led by 75-year-old Shyama Devi. Later, the plan of axing the trees was withdrawn by the government. It was shifted to Alaknanda valley, near Reni village, where the contractors were to cut down a patch of forest. The region had already suffered massively in the floods of 1970s. The people of the village and adjoining areas protested the felling of the trees. The reason attributed to the floods was the massive deforestation of the area. Women volunteers and villagers keep constant vigil on the contractors and prevented the axing of the trees. The contractors had to backtrack from the plan of axing the trees. On one such occasion, contractors sent labourers surreptitiously in the area for axing the trees, thinking that the trees would be cut down by the time the villagers would get mobilised. They failed at it. A small group of women on seeing the labourers moved into the area and hugged the trees, hence preventing them from being axed. The protest was led by Gaura Devi and Gunga Devi. Ultimately, the felling of trees was banned. So, the movement bore the fruits. The success of the movement lifted the morale of the women. They trekked for 75 days in the region and encouraged people to take part in demonstrations against the cutting down of trees and hence preventing the fragile ecosystem from dwindling further.
The concept of hugging the trees and preventing their felling was first applied by Dhoom Singh Negi, when contractors were on the way to axe Salet forest near Village Pipleth. Another incident took place in 1977, where Sunder Lal Bahuguna undertook a fast against the auction and cutting of trees in Adwani forest in Narendra Nagar district. But the order was not withdrawn. Then came the women protesters, popularly called “front line soldiers”. They tied sacred threads to the trees and vowed to protect them. The contractors didn’t bow down. They came with armed police to prevent the people from coming close to the trees which were to be cut. When contractors asked the women why they weren’t letting the trees be axed, the women sang in chorus:
What do the forests bear?
Soil, water and pure air
Soil, water and pure air
Sustain the earth and all she bears
Ultimately, the contractors gave up the plan of axing the trees. Thus, women were at the forefront of environmental protection and conservation. The Chipko movement inspired people the world over to stop governments from over-exploitation of natural resources. In Kumaon, felling of trees had a direct bearing on the lives of women of the area. They had to walk 5 kms everyday in search of firewood and fodder, which was becoming scare due to excessive felling of trees. The availability of water was also reducing. Women had to take long walks to fetch water for their domestic purposes. These things made them aware of the importance of protection of the forests. So, they started taking active part in their protection. They were quite successful and became inspiration for women across the world. Both women and men started treading on their path of environmental conservation.

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