In the 1960s, India was losing around 1.3 million hectares of forest every year. Many people’s livelihoods depended on the forests and that was threatened by the rate at which India was losing forest cover. People living in the Himalayan region of Uttar Pradesh (later Uttarakhand) felt that things were getting out of control. Women living in the Himalayan region used to visit nearby forests at 4 in the morning to get around 30 kgs of wood every day for their daily needs – the source for which now seemed uncertain.
The spark in the Chipko Andolan
Chandi Prasad Bhatt believed in Gandhi’s ideology of – “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed”. In 1964, he established the Dasholi Gram Swarajya Mandal (DGSM). The objective of DGSM was to empower people who coexisted with the forest. In 1973, Chandi Prasad Bhatt and DGSM inspired the birth of the Chipko Andolan.
The Chipko Movement became an ecological movement – the word ‘Chipko’ means to embrace the tree to avoid it from being felled. People from the Mandal village in the Himalayas of India ‘hugged’ the trees to prevent its felling, so that local communities could have control over their natural resources. The forest department refused to grant permission to the villagers to fell ash trees for making agricultural tools – instead, they allotted some patch of land to a sports manufacturer for commercial use. The people, led by Gaura Devi, stood up to the loggers, surrounded the trees and sang, ‘This forest is our mother’s home; with all our strength we will protect it”. They also raised the issues comprising ecological and economic exploitation of the region.
The women kept an all-night vigil guarding the trees. The news of the movement spread to neighbouring villages and many more people joined the movement. This news soon reached the state capital – to the government officials of that time. Then Chief Minister Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna set up the committee to look into this matter raised by the villagers, which eventually favoured the decision of the villagers. This became a turning point in the history of the eco-development struggle in the Himalayan region. Over the next few years, the Chipko Movement gained popularity in the country and spread to more parts of the Himalayan region.
The campaign achieved its victory when the central government of that time issued a ban on the felling of trees in the Himalayan region for 15 years until the green cover was fully restored.
Women’s Role in the Movement
Women around the world have played a vital role in creating networks with regards to critical issues and drawing public attention to their demands on an international level. In India, women also participated in several mass mobilisation movements – one of them was the Chipko Andolan, which eventually gained fame throughout the country.
In the context of gender equality, Indian women have cultural and socio-economic reasons for struggles with social systems. In Indian culture, women’s rigid and conventional roles restrict their power and lower their social status. The current nation-state builds on patriarchal attitudes and behavioural expectations which have contributed to women being excluded from the power arenas. Carol Pateman described the ‘social contract’ between state and citizen as a “personal contract” based on the exclusion and subordination of women (Pateman, 1988). Given this divisive existence, as Shaheeda Lateef said, one of the notable characteristics of the Indian women’s movement has been that women from various groups work together in a cohesive way on women-specific issues, given the unbridgeable political differences between men from these groups. (Lateef, 1990:88).
Ecofeminism has been a significant influence on the movement’s growth and stresses on the connections between natural exploitation and women’s oppression. The organised mobilisation of women to protect forests has contributed to a dispute in terms of their role in society. Women who were driving the Chipko Movement also requested that they should engage alongside men in the decision-making process. Predictably, the men opposed the involvement of women in the movement.
In the Chipko Movement, women became involved in a different process. Women who were solely responsible for farm, cattle and children lost everything they had due to repeated floods and landslides. The Chipko workers’ message appealed directly to them. They saw that their oppression and the denudation of mountain slopes was connected to commercial interests, which made women support the movement.
The patriarchy is deep-rooted in our society. Nevertheless, women at that time came together and showed solidarity to fight for their survival due to the commercial use of forest resources. This shows their awareness towards the environment and how they played a pivotal role in managing and leading the movement, even though society had repeatedly held them back. These women were and still are role models for the future generations. Global attention was given to the peaceful means of movement employed and the widespread participation of women brought ecofeminism to the forefront of global environmental debates.
This movement made a positive change in the community that had worked so hard for the conservation of natural resources. It tried to preserve the environment as well as the Gandhian principles in the area by encouraging ecologically sensitive initiatives along with the growth of the village. But today, people have forgotten the legacy of the Chipko Movement. The Uttarakhand 2013 floods is the living proof of this. The Char Dham Corridor is yet another example. The first major impact of the project will result in the dwindling forest cover of the state. As many as 25,300 trees have been cut and 373 hectares of forest land diverted for the Char Dham Mahamarg.
There is a rising attempt at increasing state economic growth, although the activities that accompany it contribute to environmental degradation as well. In reducing deterioration, government agencies need to play a critical role and should promote sustainable development.
Featured image used for representational purpose only. Image source: World Rainforest Movement