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Ila Gupta
27 Feb 2021

The Chipko Movement - A People’s History

Ramachandra Guha, Shekhar Pathak and Manisha Chaudhry in conversation with Mukul Sharma

The flash floods on 7th February 2021 formed with ice, frozen mud and rocks fell from a mountain in the Nanda Devi Sanctuary in Uttarakhand and rushed through the Rishi Ganga Gorge near Reni leaving devastation and death in its wake. This is the same village where Gaura Devi and her sisters saved their forest in 1974 during the Chipko movement.

Shekhar Pathak, historian and writer, rues the continued indifference from state and industry towards the clear and present danger in a hard-hitting and fact-filled column in Indian express dated 13th February 2021. Sounds familiar right? Can we spare a thought for the villagers and local residents whose livelihood and homes are in these hardy mountains and who are frequently in the front line of the destruction brought about by criminal and rapacious deforestation, damming of rivers and cutting into mountains for roads!

'Chipko – A People’s History' maps a journey of the people of Uttarakhand and a century of peaceful agitations to fight for the very survival of their habitat and their existence. "Pathak focuses on the ordinary, often unlettered, men, women and children who shaped the forest rights struggle," says Ramachandra Guha. “In India, the modern environmental movement was inaugurated by a grassroots struggle, the Chipko Andolan, in 1973. Chipko attracted worldwide attention because of its innovatively non-violent techniques of protest because it was led by Gandhians, because many of the participants were women, and because it took place in the Himalaya, a place of deep symbolic and spiritual significance.”

However, the Chipko Andolan was a part of many Jan Andolans – a 'sagar' (ocean) over a century of time across the Himalaya. It was like a river carrying with it stories of the lives, ideologies, initiatives, differences and diversity of a cross-section of people in the region – a century of peaceful protests from the time of our colonial rulers and their takeover of the forests and sadly, even today. State encroachment of forests dates back to the late 19th century in British Tehri Garhwal and Kumaon. Token change came after the 1919-20 jungle Satyagraha when 3000 jungles were reclaimed and post the 1980 andolan when The Forest Conservation Act was enacted in 1980.

Much of the development work in the Himalaya is being carried out without any understanding of its fragility, seismicity, glacial behaviour, climate changes and their collective destructive power. The book talks of all that we, the people, receive from our forests – land, water, flora, fauna and all-encompassing life-giving biodiversity, livelihood and shelter.

Pathak tells us of the multiplicity of the historical materials that were his source material – archives, newspaper and journals, legal records and works of seasoned journalists and most importantly, interviews with people over a period of twenty years! He interviewed and researched on documents and papers written by some of the most prominent thought leaders and experts across that period of time including Chandi Prasad Bhatt and Sunderlal Bahuguna, Sarla Behen, M S Swaminathan, Madhav Gadgil, Anil Aggarwal and Anupam Mishra.

Ram Guha's introduction to the book is redolent of the enormous respect he has for the dedication and scholarship of Pathak. Calling the century-long history of andolans in Uttarakhand 'a panoply of agitations', Guha talks of the 1940s Salt Satyagraha in the hills to support the national Salt Satyagraha led by Gandhi, the Statehood movement for Uttarakhand and many more.

Chipko was most famous and was celebrated globally, as it inaugurated the birth of what is called the 'environmentalism of the poor'. Till then, it was commonly believed that environmental concerns were for the rich who first 'developed, polluted and then cleaned up'! However, the Chipko movement demonstrated that wise use of nature and its biodiversity and environmental sustainability were even more important in densely populated and poorer countries with a deep dependence on natural resources for sustenance. Chipko brought sustainability centre stage in India and across the globe.

Pathak's book is deeply researched and has profound insights, and therefore is a fundamental contribution to the history of Uttarakhand and the environmental history of India.

Manisha Chaudhry, the intrepid translator of the Hindi original (Hari Bhari Umeed) into English talks about her exciting journey in translating this work, as she was able to reconnect to Uttarakhand where she had spent her growing years. She spoke particularly about Pathak's foregrounding the contribution of women which was so important, especially with her own engagement with feminism. Chaudhry's final summation on Pathak is of a master – Historian, Chronicler, Observer, Participant and Scholar.

"I am doing my best to present the actual Chipko in its total historical perspective," says Pathak, who continues to inform and educate us on the dangers, and the continued patterns of visible change in climate and environmental factors that exist and persist as markers of imminent calamities.

Are we, even today, any closer to understanding the ecological importance of the Himalaya as deforestation and 'development' devastates the fragile ecosystem of this mountain state?

What can we do to support the movement; to understand and ensure that the efforts of the unlettered Gaura Devi and many others who participated in Chipko for the first time, when they successfully stopped forest felling by loggers in the last week of March 1974, will not be in vain!