"There can be no development without women"

REACHING Doongri, a picturesque village perched 1,750 m above sea level in the Pindar valley in Chamoli district, is a daunting task. The nearest bus stand is at Narayan Bagad, 12 km away and at a height of about 1,100 m. From there, a narrow, slippery mountain path climbs steeply and is certainly not recommended for those who suffer from vertigo. An attempt to build a motorable road to Doongri was abandoned in 1971. One of Chipko's most significant agitations took place in 1980 in Doongri, when the men of the village agreed to sell their oak forest to the horticulture department so that a potato and apple seed farm could be started there on about 20 ha. However, if the forest was cut down, the women would face severe problems getting fuelwood and firewood, for it was the only forest for miles around. But their opposition went unheeded. It was at this juncture that Chipko activists intervened. With help from the district administration, they saved as much of the forest as possible, as part of it had already been felled. In the forefront of the Chipko struggle was Gayatri Devi, president of Doongri's Mahila Mangal Dal. The organisation received the Vrikshamitra Award in 1986 and Gayatri Devi came to Delhi to accept it. But, today, Doongri still remains backward and isolated and in an interview with Down To Earth, Gayatri Devi, now 48, voiced her disappointment. Excerpts:

 
By Amit Mitra
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015 | 02:57:02 AM

What happened in your village in 1980?
The horticulture department got 10 ha in 1978 or 1979 -- I can't remember exactly when -- from Shyam Singh Bhandari, the village pradhan, to build a seed farm for potatoes and apples. This was a part of our forest of oak, rhododendron, gauriphal and atish trees. But towards the end of 1979, a contractor who was related to the pradhan came and erected a stone boundary around the entire forest, which was more than 50 ha. The pradhan wanted to bring in development projects and he thought that a seed farm would lead to officers coming to our village and staying here. He thought we would get roads, schools and hospitals. Then one day, at the end of January or early February, 50 labourers sent by the contractor began cutting down trees. We tried to stop them, but they said they were only labourers and they were helpless. We pleaded with them at first, then there was exchange of abuses and we grabbed some of their axes, while they took away our scythes. But we could not stop them and they cut down about 60 trees.

Why was the forest so important to you?
The forest is our life. It gives us fuel, fodder, medicines, almost everything. The horticulture department had already cleared 10 ha and we didn't want them to clear the rest. What would we get in return?

What did you want in return?
Well, the question of giving away the entire forest does not arise. We could have sacrificed more if we were assured of a road to the village, a school, a proper water supply and a primary health centre. We had to walk 5 km to get fuel from nearby forests. To lose our forests would have meant an even longer walk and, perhaps, a long walk to find a place to defecate.

But was that not what your pradhan also wanted? Why did you oppose his development plans?
That's what they say, but if you think I didn't want development, you are wrong. The pradhan has done nothing since 1971, when the road to our village was abandoned. Even the horticulture farm people have done nothing in the time they were here. We had no faith in them. Many men, including my husband, who is an ex-serviceman, were convinced by the pradhan's arguments. I had no faith in the pradhan. Aur woh vikas ho hi nahin sakta jisme mahilaon ki hissedari na ho. (No development is possible without women's participation.)

So what did you do?
First, we went to the then pradhan, but he abused us and drove us out. Then the present pradhan, Bachchiram, who was on our side, got in touch with Ramesh Pahadi (editor of Aniket, a weekly published from Rudraprayag). Pahadi contacted Chandi Prasad Bhatt and came to our village. He told us to form a Mahila Mangal Dal (MMD) and fight. I think this happened on February 8. Bhatt came a few days later, stayed in the village overnight and told us of the wonderful things that women elsewhere were doing. We heard of Gaura Devi and felt we could do the same things.

How did the men react?
They were letting the horticulture department cut down the forests and so they were angry at us for stopping development, opposing the government and defying them. They had been used to women as silent and uncomplaining slaves. We had a big fight and it continued through the year. I became the subject of cruel taunts.

What happened then?
Bhatt forced the sub-divisional magistrate (SDM) to come to our village. He had to ride a mule as he couldn't walk up. This was on February 23. We held him by his collar and forced him to listen to us. The horticulture farm workers had set a hut on fire and spread the rumour that it was the work of the women. The men told us we would be put in jail, but I was ready to go to prison and so were most of my sisters. However, the SDM was very nice and told the men they were wrong and that we could keep our forest. We gave the horticulture department another 2 ha. But I paid a personal price for the pradhan made sure that I don't get an electricity connection.

What does the MMD do now?
After a lot of running around, we got a high school in our village in 1990. The village men joined us in a seven-day hunger strike before the school was allotted to us. Most of us are illiterate, but we want our children to grow up educated. Each of our families contributes foodgrain to engage a guard for the forest. We ourselves put up a stone fence around the entire forest.

Doesn't the horticulture department do anything for you?
Nothing. They don't even give us seeds. We have to pay Rs 10 for a small packet of seeds and that, too, after a lot of pleading. Even then the seeds often don't germinate. They don't employ any of the villagers. Nobody cares for us and we are treated as pahadi junglis (uncivilised mountain folk).

But you and your village are famous. Surely, a lot of visitors come here?
Who comes here? Bhatt came just once in 1980. Gopa Joshi of Delhi also came, but they soon forgot about us. Then, one day, Bhatt's son came and said I would have to go to Delhi in 1986 to get an award. And, I went.

But no one came here after that?
When Bhatt and Pahadi don't bother to come, who else will? They became famous because of the work we had done. They got awards and went abroad, but they don't care for us. We hear of Bhatt's organisation planting trees, but they never came here. We too want to plant trees, but from where do we get the saplings?

What about the government?
Do you think these officials would bother? Don't ask such silly questions. And, in any case, even if they want to come, how would they walk such a long distance. There is a very good nurse in Narayan Bagad. Even if she wants to come here, she cannot. She has to spend a full day walking up to our village to attend a delivery case. How many patients can she care for this way? She has to worry about her security, too. Even the block development officer, a lady, has never come up to our village. We desperately need a road. There are times when I wonder whether we are in India or some other country.

What happens if somebody falls ill at night?
We just pray. Our traditional vaids (doctors) are no longer around and getting medicinal herbs is impossible these days. The other day a woman had a breech delivery and both mother and child died. The village dais (midwives) are untrained. I have been asking at block meetings for some kind of training for them, but nobody cares.

What did you get out of Chipko?
I don't know. We acted to save our trees. We never clung to any tree but when I went to Delhi, I was told that ours was a very big andolan (movement). Maybe it was, but we never got anything out of it. The road to our village is yet to be constructed and water is still a problem. Our children cannot study beyond high school unless they can afford to go and stay in a town. The girls simply cannot do that. Now they tell me that because of Chipko the road cannot be built because everything has become paryavaran (environment) oriented nowadays. Chipko has given us nothing. We cannot even get wood to build a house because the forest guards keep us out. Hamare haq haqooq cheen liye gaye hain. (Our rights have been snatched away.)

But why did you end the struggle?
Who said I did? I hold MMD meetings regularly, twice a month, and those who are absent without a valid reason are fined. I also insist that those who steal wood from the forest or cut down trees should be penalised. With the money from fines, we will buy utensils for wedding feasts. I plan to contest the panchayat elections and become the pradhan next year. I am alone and I'm geting old and I cannot do much but as long as I live, I shall not give up fighting to improve our village conditions. My first fight will be for the road, paryavaran wale chahe kuchh bhi kare (and let environmentalists do what they will).

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