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How long the women of Chamoli could hug the woods? OR Who is responsible for Uttarakhand Calamity?

Sibichen K Mathew

When I did a field work in Chamoli and neighbouring villages in Uttarakhand several years back for my study on ecological movements, the women in those villages clearly said: ‘This terrain cannot stand even a controlled deforestation in the name of development. Unless there is total moratorium on the felling of trees, entire villages will be submerged in flood in the future. They said ‘No’ to any industrialization in the area’. I thought at that time that they were over-apprehensive! They were right; I was wrong.
 It is saddening to note that such a huge calamity has happened to a generation that fought incessantly for the protection of environment.

compiled by Goonj (FB)

How Uttarakhand was saved by women folks for many decades?

Uttarakhand has a history of several protest movements for protection of their land from deforestation, landslides, floods etc. Earlier forest movements in the Grhwal-Himalayas were against the colonial destruction of forests. Large scale felling of trees for non-local commercial needs for British resulted in the destruction of forests. In 1930, a group of people who agitated against the restrictions of their forestry rights by commercial interests were indiscriminately fired by the armed forces, killing many. That agitation at Tilari of Rawai region initiated a long chain of protest movements in Uttarakhand.

In 1972, the villagers in the region protested against a sports goods company from Allahabad which came for felling the ash trees auctioned to them by the Uttar Pradesh government. Villagers were previously denied even small scale consumption of these trees. Led by Alam Singh, the headmen, all villagers of Mandal resolved to hug the trees even if axes split open their body. The agents of the company were forced to leave the village without felling a single tree. This remarkable event was led by Dashauli Garam Swarajya Sangh (DGSS), a labour co-operative formed in Gopeshwar town of Chamoli in 1964. C P Bhatt, a sarvodaya worker, who later became one of the prominent leaders of chipko movement, gave the leadership for their early resistance. Villagers led by Sundar Lal Bahuguna applied bandages of mud to the ‘wounds’ of pine trees and removed the blades fixed on them to extract resin.

Collective efforts of the women in Chamoli village and adjoining areas resulted in a virtual halt to tree felling in most of the area.  Similar protests happened elsewhere too. In the Reni forest, near to the badly denuded catchment area of Alakananda  and its tributaries , about three thousands trees were auctioned by  the forest department. On 3rd March 1974, when all menfolk went to Chamoli town for receiving their overdue compensation, agents along with the labourers marched towards the forest. Women under the leadership of Gaura Devi resisted the felling. That night the women of Reni guarded all possible routes leading to the forest to resist any intrusion. Similar incidents of collective resistance were occurred in Rampur, Nainital, Henwalghata, Bhyuder valley, Dungri-paitoli etc.

Ideology and personality clashes killed the movement

Although Sarvodaya ideology was an inspiration to these ecological protests, in some areas the movement identified with Bahuguna and in some other areas with Bhatt. Studies on chipko movement often mentioned about the differences in the approaches and strategies of two leaders. Ramachandra Guha who studied extensively on this had said that Bahuguna, ‘like those American historians Lynn White and Theodor Roszakk’, stressed the role of religious belief in man’s attitude towards nature and proposed a return to pre-industrial mode of living. However, Bhatt stressed integration of people’s needs with the sustainability of the forests. DGSS also did not totally endorse Bahuguna’s approaches and wanted continuation of industries and setting up of new industries in the area. Bahuguna, therefore undertook a march from Kashmir to Kohima to learn about the widespread problem of degradation of Himalayas and to spread the message of Chipko to a wider audience. He covered a distance of 4870 kilometres to talk to people about the harmful effects of deforestation.

Industrialization, large scale commercialization of the area and urbanization created havoc in the area in the past few decades. Improper planning and action by the civic authorities and uncontrolled exploitation of forests and ideological battles resulted in the current scenario.

All social movements aim in bringing social change. But, after some time, it fails when faced with resistance from various political, ideological and commercial interests. All movements, once get institutionalized, face slow death. This happened in the case of Chipko movement as Bahuguna and Bhatt fought each other through their ideologies and strategies.

Conclusion: Forget about the politicians and bureaucrats, where were the people’s movements in the last few years?

The calamity that happened in the Uttarakhand area now  is the result of a ‘compromise’ to the developmental agenda and the surrender to the commercial interests without understanding the unique characteristic features of the region and the sensitivity of the terrain that illiterate women folks clearly told to the authorities decades back. Blame the politicians and bureaucrats, as we always do. But where were the people’s movements all these years? When did they also fall prey to the commercial interests?

(Tailpiece: Same is happening to the Hazare-Kejriwal movement

Look at  Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal. The moment differences emerged between them based on ideology, institutionalization, and political vision, the movement died prematurely. What is the result? Checking corruption through public awareness campaign, the very purpose with which the movement was started, lost vitality. As happened in Chipko, if the leaders fight over petty ideological battle, and the succeeding generation fail to take any interest in the struggle, floodgates will be open for large scale corruption. )
(Historical facts narrated are based on certain references in the dissertation submitted by me to Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi )


  1. Uttarakhand was a sad event, everybody would like to forget. But its time to remember the lessons and implement them :-)

    1. The people, policy makers and the NGOs need to come together to formulate strategies in preventing such calamities in future

  2. Inclination towards industrialization had to cost .. and will cost .. and is costing humanity !
    Political movements be it on the Hills or the Anti-Corruption ones needed oneness and continuity !!

    1. You are right. The policies and strategies should be wise!

  3. I pray and hope we don't have an Uttarakhand-scale slide in our corruption and morality.

    Well analysed and neatly presented article. Thank you.


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