Chipko: Environmentalism of the poor

Friday 30 April 1993

WHENEVER a dictionary of green terms is written, even if it is in English, it will contain at least one Hindi word. And that word is Chipko.

The idea that people are prepared to hug trees to save them from being felled excited and enthused so many people across the country, that it built the foundation for a nationwide environmental concern and a whole generation of home-grown environmentalists. Given the fact that there was a powerful environmental concern growing in the West, there would have been, sooner or later, a fallout of this Western phenomenon in India. But this country did not have to wait for it. Chipko had a deep intellectual impact and helped to resolve the conflict between the concepts of development and environmental protection, without which the environment concern could not have come to enjoy a reasonably widespread acceptance in a poor, developing country.

Whereas Indira Gandhi had told the 1972 Stockholm Conference in no uncertain terms that "poverty is the biggest polluter", Chipko told Indians and the rest of the world that it is the poor who suffer the most when the environment degrades. They depend on their immediate environment for their daily survival. And, therefore, they have a vested interest in its management on a more sustainable basis.

Chipko has been the subject of hundreds of articles, numerous films and quite a few books. Various aspects of the movement have been highlighted, including the nature of the environmentalism of the poor; the interest and role of women in environment movements; the demand for community control over natural resources, and the role of the state in dispossessing the poor from their resource base. All of this has been most inspiring and will continue to be a beacon in the days ahead.

Twenty years after the start of the movement, a Down To Earth correspondent visited many of the villages where the movement had begun and grown. His report, however, is unexpected and demands introspective study by all those interested in the environment, the poor and the larger Indian society. It seems that in all the writings on Chipko, what was neglected is that which the local participants of Chipko most wanted. The interviews show that for them Chipko was an assertion of local people's rights over their resources, but in a very developmental context, though, of course, the nature of development they were seeking was integrated with environmental concerns.

But with the conservationist element receiving greater emphasis, a gulf widened between the local reality and the national and international perceptions. And, it now appears, this expanding gulf finally began to alienate many of the youth who came into the movement hoping for radical political change. A few of them even started a Ped Kato Andolan -- the very antithesis of the perception of the Chipko Movement -- when the centrally controlled Forest Conservation Act began being an obstruction to the construction of village roads, ropeways, bridges and electric poles in the region.

But, looked at in another way, both actions amount to the same local concern: the right of local communities to decide how they should manage and use their resource base. The state has, meanwhile, used the growing environmental concern to centralise environmental management without any concern for devolution of environmental rights and obligations. Not surprisingly, even women from the legendary villages of Reni and Doongri-Paitoli, now ask: Hamen kya mila (what have we got)?

There is every possibility that many will disagree with our report on Chipko. We, too, are sad in presenting it because knocking a legend is painful. But our correspondent's report shows one thing: A deeper analysis of Chipko and its gains is needed, for only then will we get a better understanding of the true environmentalism of the poor.

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