Chipko movement was not some instantaneous movement which by chance was led by women. There has been lot of work done by some women volunteers to put the women on the forefront. One such leader was Mira Bhen, a disciple of Mahatma Gandhi. She visited the Garhwal region in 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 pusholok( cattle centre) in the region. She correlated the water crisis with the deforestation. Further, she was very upset with Banj trees being replaced with commercial pine trees. She believes that Banj trees are eco-friendly for the area. She was very disturbed with exploitation of forest resources, making it only a business proposition, without having an regard for the ecology of an area. Sunder lal Bahuguna worked closely with Mira Bhen and imbibed many of her thoughts regarding the conservation of the green gold. Later, Sunder Lal Bahuguna played a pivotal role in spreading the chipko movement to different areas of the present state of Uttarakhand. One more notable lady which play a key role in the build up to the chipko movement was Sarala Bhen. She was also a disciple of Gandhi. She was a staunch proponent of Gandhian principles. She worked with the women in the Kumoan region and open an Ashram for girls along the Gandhian lines. Later, she formed a band of dedicated young women around her. She also strove to create environmental awareness. She formed, Uttarakhand Sarvodaya Mandal in 1961 for the upliftment of the population and protection of the hill environment for the protection of the forest resources and sustenance of livelihood, women joined hands with the 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 and later in the alcohol prohibition in 1965. They emphasized that local forests belong to the local people and are not for the exploitation by the outsiders. Raturi write down some inspiring words for her poem, which drive inspiration from the forest conservation movement.
Embrace our trees
Save them from being felled
The property of our hills
Saving it from being looted
They key event which took place was in 1973 was that around 300 Ash trees were auctioned for the 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 lady, Shyma Devi. Later the plan of axing the trees was withdrawn by the government. They shifted to Alaknanda valley, near Reni village. Where the contractors were to cut down the 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. The women volunteers and the villagers keep constant vigil on the contractors and prevented the axing of the trees. The contractors had to back track from the plan of axing the trees. On one such occasion, contractors sent the labours hideously into the area for axing the trees, thinking trees would be cut down by the time, the villagers would get mobilised. They failed in it. A small group of women on seeing the labours moved into the area and hugged the trees. Hence prevented them from axing the trees. The protest was led by Guari 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 the 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 The Sunder Lal Bahuguna undertook fast against the auction and cutting of trees in Adwani forest in Narendernagar district. But the order was not withdrawn. Then came the women protesters popularly called front line soldiers. They tied the sacred threads to the trees and vowed to protect the trees. The contractors didn’t not bow down; they came with the armed police to prevent the people from coming close to the trees which were to be cut. When contractors asked them, why they aren’t letting the trees to be axed. They sang in the 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. So women were at the forefront of environmental protection and conservation. The chipko movement inspired the people world over to stop the governments from over exploitation of the natural resources. The felling of the trees had a direct and more bearing on the women of the area as they had to move around 5 Kms everyday in search of firewood and fodder which was become scare due to excessive felling of trees. The water availability was also getting reduced. So women had to take long walks to fetch water for their domestic purposes. These things awared women about the importance of protection of the forests. So they started taking active part in it. They were quite successful and became inspiration for the women across the world. The women and men started treading on their path of environmental conservation.
(The author is a teacher by profession. Views are his own)