CHIPKO was the culmination of a century of popular resistance to commercial forestry in the Uttarakhand Himalaya. And its timing was right.
Unlike past movements, Chipko's underlying message was already part of a major public debate. At both national and global levels, Chipko helped to consolidate incipient awareness that deforestation, soil erosion and floods are linked to the fragility of mountain ecosystems. Chipko was also interpreted as a critique of the overall development process and as an assertion of the rights of villagers whose labour and resources are subordinated to the demands of the urban industrial sector.
Chipko has thus become an inevitable reference point in debates on development alternatives. Its symbolic appeal has been aided greatly by its non-violent form of protest, the participation of women and the obvious sincerity and charisma of its leaders. It is certainly India's most celebrated environmental initiative and widely known (if often misrepresented) abroad. In this capacity, Chipko has been the symbol of the growing interest in a decentralised, environmentally sensitive alternative to the present patterns of "destructive development". More specifically, Chipko and similar movements in other forest areas have had a formative influence on forest policy debates and on the state's significant, if partial, acknowledgement of responsibility for past failures in this sphere.
To the extent that Chipko has contributed to and, in some respects, created a major national debate, it must be rated a considerable success. But what of its impact within Uttarakhand? Here, the verdict must be more qualified. Undeniably, Chipko helped to slow down the pace of forest-felling in the hills and sparked much interest in the Himalayan ecology. But, its potential reach and influence have been severely undermined by serious schisms within the movement. The splits were caused partly by a clash of personality between Chandi Prasad Bhatt and Sunderlal Bahuguna.
Bhatt and the Dashauli Gram Swarajya Mandal pioneered Chipko, coordinated its early protests and then involved village women with great success in the reclamation and afforestation of degraded land. The faction led by Bahuguna organised important Chipko protests in Tehri Garhwal between 1976 and 1980, but has since concentrated largely on global issues, neglecting local concerns in the process. The third Chipko faction is the Uttarakhand Sangharsh Vahini. It provided a radical thrust to the movement in the late '70s, but its dedicated core of student activists has since gone their individual ways.
The schisms within Chipko are deep-rooted and difficult to reconcile because the groups are bitterly hostile to each other. Hence, Chipko activists have contributed little to the growing movement for a separate hill state, which is at present the most significant popular initiative in Uttarakhand.
Like the Jharkhand movement, the hill state demand has raised important challenges to the concentration of political power in India even though it is in effect a one-point programme for creation of Uttarakhand from the eight hill districts of Uttar Pradesh.
---Ramachandra Guha, senior fellow at the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library in New Delhi, is the author of The Unquiet Woods, a history of social movements in Uttarakhand.
We are a voice to you; you have been a support to us. Together we build journalism that is independent, credible and fearless. You can further help us by making a donation. This will mean a lot for our ability to bring you news, perspectives and analysis from the ground so that we can make change together.