Home india-news ‘Chipko movement was about rightful access to resources’, says Ramesh Pahari | Latest News India

‘Chipko movement was about rightful access to resources’, says Ramesh Pahari | Latest News India

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‘Chipko movement was about rightful access to resources’, says Ramesh Pahari | Latest News India

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Rudraprayag: Chipko was a movement to make locals self-reliant and give them rightful access to environmental resources, said Ramesh Pahari, one of the foremost leaders of the Chipko Movement.

Ramesh Pahari was one of the foremost leaders of the Chipko Movement and its unofficial spokesperson in the 1970s and 1980s (HT Photo)
Ramesh Pahari was one of the foremost leaders of the Chipko Movement and its unofficial spokesperson in the 1970s and 1980s (HT Photo)

The Chipko movement is a non-violent resistance aiming to protect forests, which began in the 1970s in response to the increasing deforestation.

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“The biggest lie ever told about Chipko is that it was an environmental movement,” said Pahari, 74, who also was an unofficial spokesperson of the movement in the 1970s and 1980s.

Pahari began his career as a journalist for a Hindi newspaper in Nagpur. He married one Rama Gairola from Rudraprayag in Uttarakhand at the age of 24. When he came from Nagpur to Rudraprayag for his wedding, he got to know that a relative of his had been trying very hard to register with the employment exchange in Chamoli.

He accompanied the said relative to discuss the problem with the enquiry officer posted there. After a heated exchange of words, especially when both he and the relative sensed that the officer was hinting at a bribe, Pahari lost his cool.

“I said you are the enquiry officer, your job is to address our concerns. Those days I was highly influenced by the Communist philosophy and leaders like AB Bardhan. I was not a communist but I was influenced. I was angry with what was going on and how local people were completely dependent on the whims and fancies of the administration. I decided to stay put in Uttarakhand thereafter,” said Pahari who met this reporter with his daughter, Sushma Gairola, a space scientist on March 10 at the Rudraprayag Garhwal Mandal Vikas Nigam.

After coming back from Nagpur he joined the Hindi Newspaper Devbhoomi in Nandprayag as one of its chief reporters for the entire Alakananda and Mandakini valleys.

In 1975, another event moved him. “As a reporter doing his rounds, I was visiting the collectorate when I saw a very old man screaming and shouting helplessly because the district magistrate (DM) had been missing for a long time and there was nobody to listen to his problems. So on the old man’s behalf, I enquired why the DM was missing. I got to know that DM was busy organising milk for 82 persons who would be visiting as part of then Governor M Chenna Reddy’s official visit to the border districts in Uttarakhand. In those days, milk was not as free free-flowing and ubiquitous as it is today. Villages were very far off in remote areas and here the DM was busy organising milk for the officials instead of addressing problems on the ground,” Pahari recalled.

Parallelly, the ground was being laid for an upsurge that India had not seen before. In Gopeshwar, Pahari’s distant uncle Chandi Prasad Bhatt had already founded the Dasholi Gram Swarajya Sangh (DGSS), which was working on issues of labour, equal rights for women, equal wages, access to forest produce, campaigning against casteism and a rights-based approach to livelihoods.

“I did ask the governor to hold a press meet where I also asked why the DM should be busy organising milk for the administration. You understand that I was an angry man. In the background, the DGSS had started a lot of groundwork with a focus on starting small industries in the valley that can help locals become self-reliant. These were wool, wood, herbs and other industries. I had still not joined them,” said Pahari, who later switched his job and worked as a reporter for the Uttarakhand Observer in 1975 in Gopeshwar. This was also the year when he came across DGSS, the parent organisation of the Chipko Movement.

“Casteism was rampant in Uttarakhand. Even today. But, in those days, harijans and scheduled tribes would not mingle at all with the savannas. They could not eat together and here DGSS was talking about equal rights to all castes. They would call for equal rights for women. Women were taking up movements against alcoholism. I was very inspired,” reminisced Pahari with a glint in his eyes.

In the background, the Chipko Movement had already begun. One of the focus areas of DGSS was to ensure that small and local organisations had access to wood from forests.

“There was a focus on building small-scale industries to make agricultural equipment like the wooden plough and several others, including the wooden structure that is mounted on the bull for farming. But the forest department favoured large contractors who would buy in bulk and ignored the needs and rights of small-scale local organisations,” said Pahari.

This equipment, the one to be mounted on the bull was preferred to be made with Ash trees (Angu in Hindi). These were also the preferred trees for the sports industry.

Symonds, a sports goods company had got a contract for these Ash trees in the valley. It so happened that the contractors of Symonds happened to visit DGSS and reveal in casual conversation that they had got a huge contract for these trees. The conservator of forests had earlier denied the permission to local organisations and asked them to use chir pine instead.

“Chandi Prasad Bhatt decided that they will not allow these trees to be cut. He said we will hug the trees and stick to them so they are not cut,” said Pahari. The word spread in several parts of the valley. Govind Singh Rawat, another leader in Joshimath, also joined in declaring that they will not allow the felling of trees.

The forest officials had to find a way to give the trees to Symonds. So, they decided that the trees would be cut on a day when the men were away. On March 26, 1974, it was decided that border villages would be compensated for the loss of land to build border roads. Most men left their villages to attend the compensation talks when forest department staff and Symonds contractors began felling ash trees near Raini village. Gaura Devi, a young woman leader who was inspired by the Chipko Movement, hugged a tree and urged other women to do so.

Symonds’ men had to go back. “Later a Bageshwar DFO (divisional forest officer) had also warned that he would hug trees in protest of the injustice caused to local folk. It shows how strong and deep the movement had become,” recalled Pahari.

But, in 1978, DGSS decided that they would not allow the felling of trees in general and would work on planting more trees. “I was disappointed and I had protested. Chipko had nothing to do with the environment. It was about the rights of locals on forest and other local resources,” Pahari said.

Pahari has also been a critic of the widening of the Char Dham road. “A smaller width would do. When I protested people said I am anti-development. I am, in fact, anti-disaster. Look at the number of landslides now.”

Pahari said that Chipko has found new mediums. He, for example, is now focused on recharging local streams and water bodies and ensuring the groundwater level remains healthy.

This he said he and other like-minded leaders do through local people, especially women. “We pay them a token amount for the work and also call these women water conservators (from forest conservators). They make small trenches and take up plantation works,” explained Pahari.

These works are being guided by Pahari in the upper reaches and along the Alaknanda River. At a local level, each such committee is called Gram Jalagam Samiti.


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