Your updated source of information about Dehradun & Uttarakhand.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

BIOGRAPHY of Chandi Prasad Bhatt

Chandi Prasad Bhatt has been awarded the 1982 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership

Chamoli District in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh lies next to the Tibet border in the center of the eight northernmost districts, collectively called the Uttarkhand. This Himalayan region includes the sites of many ancient temples sacred to Hindus, and is the source of the major rivers which water the plains of northern India. Over 35 percent of the Uttarkhand is forest--on which the hill people depend for their very existence.

The town of Gopeshwar, the headquarters of Chamoli District, in the 1960s was a small village typical of the settlements in this remote area. Located a mile above sea level, its economy was based on milch cattle and subsistence farming of wheat, rice, and some coarse grains. The women traditionally worked the fields and attended the cattle in addition to fulfilling their household tasks and caring for their children. They also gathered fodder for the animals, fuel for cooking and supplemental food from the nearby forests. Almost one quarter of the adult males either joined the army or sought jobs on the plains.

CHANDI PRASAD BHATT was born in Gopeshwar on June 23, 1934, the second child of Ganga Ram Bhatt and Maheshi Devi Thapliyal. Ganga Ram was a high order of Brahmin, a farmer, and a priest at two of the most famous shrines in the area, Gopeshwar's own temple where the Lord Shiva is said to have meditated, and the shrine at Rudranath, 12,000 feet higher in the Himalayas. Considered a "Brahmin among Brahmins," he also performed rites in the homes of villagers on the occasion of births, marriages and funerals.

Already the father of a girl, Ganga Ram Bhatt had prayed for the birth of a son and performed a costly "century of pujas," 100 ritual ceremonies in honor of the goddess Chandi to request a male child. When his son was born on Niejala Akadashi, a sacred Hindu fast day on which the devotees do not even take water, he felt that his prayers had been answered and named the boy CHANDI PRASAD--"gift of Chandi." But within a year of the child's birth Ganga died, leaving his family and his widowed sister, who was living with the family, with no money and only a few head of cattle and a two acre marginal farm for its support.

BHATT's mother worked--as did the other village women--from before dawn until late at night looking after the fields, tending the cattle, drawing water, collecting fodder and fuel and caring for her two children. In 1941 her son entered the Gopeshwar Basic School for his primary education but had to leave at the end of the second grade because she had no cash to pay the tuition of one anna (US$.03) a month. Upon the advice of village elders he was sent instead to the tuitionless Gopeshwar school to be trained in Sanskrit and the conduct of religious ceremonies. He continued this training for five years, and after receiving the sacred thread signifying his "twice-born" status as a Brahmin he began to participate in priestly duties. (The sacred thread is also given to Kshatriyas and Vaishyas, or three out of the four castes, in a ceremony usually performed in childhood before the age of 10.) From the small donations received for his assistance in religious rites he was able to afford to reenter Basic School in the seventh grade.

When he completed the ninth and last grade offered in the village, he was sent 70 kilometers away to the town of Rudraprayag to attend the intermediate school and work toward a certificate, the equivalent of a high school diploma. His school expenses were paid by an uncle, a well-to-do villager of Gopeshwar, who instructed his son in Rudraprayag to take the boy into his home. Although BHATT's mother sent her son enough grain to feed himself, the cousin was resentful of the obligation imposed upon him and deliberately tried to make the youth unwelcome and uncomfortable, forcing him to spend his time helping in the shop and carrying water from the river in the valley below. BHATT soon found it impossible to live in such an atmosphere and left, moving in with three schoolmates in a rented house.

At the end of the school year he returned to Gopeshwar. While helping his mother graze cattle in the upland meadows he caught malaria and was confined to bed for several months. His mother spent anxious hours by his bedside, treating him with herbal remedies. She was unable to plant her crops and her financial situation became so serious that she could not buy the rice which was prescribed to speed his convalescence. A village schoolmate, Shambu Prasad Bhatt, sought to aid his friend by sneaking handfuls of grain from his own mother's larder, leaving the paddy surreptitiously in CHANDI PRASAD's kitchen.

When his strength returned it was too late to reenter school so BHATT decided to try to pass the intermediate examination without completing his formal education. At the same time the village elders began to promote a marriage for him with the daughter of a rather well-to-do Chamoli Brahmin shopkeeper. He was considered a highly desirable mate because he came from an excellent background, was of upstanding character and had completed tenth grade, a rare accomplishment at that time in the hills. Although both BHATT and his mother were reluctant, village pressure forced the match, and in 1955 he married Deveshwari Dimari and took her to live in his mother's home.

Failing on his first try at the intermediate exam, BHATT persisted a second and then a third time to gain the coveted diploma. In the meantime he had to seek work and was fortunate to get a position with the local bus company as a booking clerk. After working for the company for two months he received the welcome news that he had passed the examination on his third attempt. He therefore resigned from his job to become a village high schoolmaster. However, although he enjoyed teaching, his salary of Rs.50 a month was paid so irregularly that he was forced to rejoin the bus company after a year.

BHATT was assigned to a bus station far from Gopeshwar--at the end of the road being built toward the famous Hindu hill temple at Badrinath. As the road was extended, so was his posting; it was always the last stop. His duties included selling tickets and handling the seasonal crowds who rode the bus to the end of the line and dismounting, continued their pilgrimage on foot. Among the travelers BHATT met many workers in the sarvodaya (welfare for all) movement, an amorphous organization inspired by Mahatma Gandhi's exhortation to work for the uplift of Indian society, beginning with the lowly village.

In 1957 Jayaprakash Narayan (1965 Magsaysay Awardee for Public Service for "his constructive articulation of a public conscience for modern India") traveled with a group of sarvodaya workers to the temple at Badrinath and stopped at Pipal Koti, where BHATT was stationed, to promote the movement's aims. The public meeting was organized by Mansingh Rawat, a brilliant young man who had been a gold medal scholar at Bombay's peerless Tata Institute of Social Sciences, and who had abandoned a promising professional career and joined the sarvodaya campaign to restore autonomy and self-sufficiency to Indian villages. This charismatic young man made an enormous impression on BHATT because he had renounced the fruits of scholastic prestige to serve society. At the end of the meeting BHATT impulsively handed him a donation. Observing the donor was a low-paid bus clerk, Rawat tried to return the money, but BHATT insisted that his gift be accepted.

Rawat became BHATT's inspiration and model. Using his holidays and leave time, BHATT began to travel to mountain villages where sarvodaya workers were organizing meetings and starting self-help projects. By August 1959 he was so involved with the movement that he sought and gained permission to join a padyatra (footmarch) through Kashmir and Jammu states led by Vinoba Bhave (1958 Magsaysay Awardee for Community Leadership in recognition "of his furtherance of the cause of arousing his countrymen toward voluntary action in relieving social injustice and economic inequalities"), the great Indian leader responsible for originating the bhoodan (gift of land) movement and a guiding light in sarvodaya. During his 15 days on the march BHATT had the opportunity to absorb the teachings of this outstanding leader and told Rawat he wished to leave his job and become a fulltime worker. Rawat however advised him against the move, emphasizing the need to support his family which now included a son, Bhuvanash, born that year.

In 1960 the brewing conflict which culminated in the Indian-Chinese Border War of 1962 brought new influences to bear on BHATT. Living in an area close to the border of Chinese-controlled Tibet, and committed to the philosophy of non-violence, BHATT responded to Bhave's words that, whereas the army could defeat China's guns, India's best defense against China's ideology was the development of citizens with strong commitments to remake their own society: "it is ultimately the strength of the village which will buttress our self-defense," he said. Steeled by these statements BHATT decided to make a complete break with the bus company and devote himself to the service of the village.

1960 also marked a period of change in the Uttarkhand. The threat of war led the government of India to make a massive effort in defense roadbuilding, and to make a lesser effort in developing the area economically. The influx of government civilian and military personnel put great pressure upon the fragile ecology of the Himalayas. At the same time, the new road and government building projects were contracted to men from the plains, and the contractors brought into the area massive numbers of skilled and semiskilled laborers, further straining the ecological support system and bringing little economic benefit to the hill people who were hired only as menial laborers at minimal wages.

The Himalayas are new mountains, still subject to great internal stress. Earthquakes are frequent and landslides can easily be started by disturbing the rocks through bulldozing or dynamiting, or by heavy water runoff as a result of deforestation of the steep slopes.

As B. George Verghese (1975 Magsaysay Awardee for Journalism, Literature and Creative Communication Arts for "superior developmental reporting of Indian society, balancing factual accounts of achievements, shortcomings and carefully-researched alternatives") has written: "A primordial forest is more than a mere aggregation of trees. It is an integral part of an ecosystem and environment. . . .Forests interact with the atmosphere to influence climate and with the soil to retain and infiltrate moisture. . . . " They act as sponges to soak up rainfall, retard runoff and regulate springs and streams.

Unrecognized for the danger it is, deforestation of the Himalayas accelerated sharply after 1960. As the population of the hills increased, so did the demands on the forests near the villages, which were fast becoming towns, for timber, fodder and fuel, and forest cover was cut for farmland and pasture. Moreover, the demand for timber throughout India increased dramatically and the roadbuilding which gave military access to the frontier opened previously inaccessible virgin timberlands to commercial exploitation.

In the cause of scientific management the British in 1917 had established a pattern of village and state ownership and management of forest lands. The forests near villages were placed under village van panchayats (forest councils); some forests were left in private hands, but the vastly greatest portion of the timberland was placed under the management of state forestry departments, which in this case was the Forest Department of Uttar Pradesh. While village forests which were barely able to support the original village populations were being cut down to supply timber and fuel for the large number of newcomers, and to make way for new roads and building sites, the state government continued to give cutting rights in the state forests to commercial exploiters, most of whom were from the plains.

Finally, Gopeshwar in 1960 became the seat of government of Chamoli, which had been newly upgraded to a district. BHATT saw the village of his childhood grow from 250 inhabitants into a town which by 1982 exceeded 10,000.

Although he was to become deeply involved with saving the forests during the next decades, BHATT at first was concerned with the problem of helping the hill people benefit from the sweeping changes taking place in the region. With two or three colleagues he therefore organized the Malla Nagpur (name of a place) Labor Cooperative in 1960. The cooperative, with 30 permanent and 70 temporary members, then competed with commercial firms from the plains for public works contracts. Since coop members were unskilled laborers, the contracts were for heavy manual work, primarily roadbuilding. BHATT himself, refusing a salary as an officer in the organization, worked as a laborer at laborers' pay.

Before embarking on his new career, BHATT resigned from the bus company and returned home to tell his wife and mother of his decision. Both company and family were aghast that he should give up a regular salary to undertake this venture in community welfare. However, BHATT was determined to proceed, and after two days trying to explain his reasons to his family, he left in December 1960 for Benares where the Sarva Seva Sangh, the central coordinating office of the Sarvodaya Movement, was located. There he sought training in the Shanti Sena (peace school) which had been formed to train volunteers for the Peace Brigade. Established by Bhave, the brigade originally was designed as a non-violent alternative to police or army in the control of communal riots. Trained in first aid, fire and rescue work, volunteers were expected to work for peace even at the sacrifice of their lives. To prevent outbreaks of violence they were to set examples of community service and leadership by strength of character. Women as well as men joined the Peace Brigade, and the initial training which BHATT received was in a course being conducted for women. This was, perhaps, his introduction to the role women could play in the community. During the training period, which ended in May 1961, he again accompanied Bhave on tour, this time through Uttar Pradesh and Bihar states.

In June BHATT returned to Gopeshwar to assume the duties of his new life. He was accompanied by two women from the sarvodaya center Parvadiya Navjeeran Mandal, whom he was commissioned to help organize a meeting of village women to inform them of the movement's aims and activities. His family had not heard from him since he had left for Benares and, though he did not know it, Gopeshwar was alive with rumors concerning his irregular behavior. It was whispered that he had left to marry another woman and that he was suffering from mental derangement. BHATT's mother and pregnant wife, unsure of him and his relationship with his women companions, performed the rites of hospitality in an atmosphere of tension and uncertainty.

BHATT himself was preoccupied with organizing the five-day meeting which was initiated within two days of his arrival. During this time his wife gave birth to their second child, a girl, Sanshayita. When the meeting disbanded BHATT felt obligated to accompany the women organizers to a nearby town where he could put them on a bus to send them on their way. He visited his wife who was confined with the infant in the cattleshed where village women gave birth. When she heard that he was leaving Gopeshwar again, she threw the newborn babe to him and told him to take care of it himself. But BHATT did not tarry and went about his duties. The bewilderment of his wife at the change in his life--his wholehearted commitment to his new work, which required extensive travel and separation--led to a three year period of estrangement.

BHATT and the other permanent members of the Malla Nagpur Cooperative lived communally. Although from several different castes, they cooked and ate together and shared equally all money earned by their work. Part of their time was spent in prayer and spinning--which Gandhi had recommended to all Indians so that they could provide their own clothing. The members, however, soon discovered that their path was not an easy one. Inexperienced in bidding for jobs, they sometimes found themselves bound by contracts--based on estimates by government officials--which did not provide them an honest return for their labor. In one case they were committed to an unrealistic contract which paid Rs.6,000 (US$1,000) to 100 men for three months of road building. The government engineers had underestimated the difficulties--and therefore the length of time--of the construction. The members refused to accept any payment until the contract was renegotiated, although they continued to work on the road as a demonstration of their earnest intent. The public works department finally recognized that the contract was unfair and doubled their compensation. At other times government officials themselves were the problem, demanding kickbacks and bribes.

In addition to his work as an officer and a laborer with the cooperative BHATT devoted half his time to the propagation of sarvodaya ideals. He traveled extensively through Chamoli District, organizing village meetings, and kept in contact with movement workers throughout the Uttarkhand. On the afternoon of July 21, 1961 he was traveling in the mountains when the bus he was riding came upon a landslide where an oncoming bus had been swept from the road, plummeting 300 feet into a gorge. Passengers from other vehicles were standing beside the road looking down. Trained as a rescue worker by the Peace Brigade, BHATT stripped off his outer clothing and, wearing only his underclothes, scrambled down the dangerous slope. Although 24 of the passengers were already dead, some survivors were pinned in the wreckage. Another bus driver followed BHATT down and the two men lifted the wrecked bus away from the injured. They somehow managed to carry eight persons up to the road before police officers arrived to aid in the rescue operations which continued late into the night.

No more than six days later, while on another sarvodaya trip, BHATT and a sarvodaya co-worker were informed that rains had caused a severe landslide which had covered an entire village. They rushed to the site, arriving before any other help, to find that of those in the village at the time of the slide, only a child had survived. His work in these instances drew the attention of Sunderlal Bahuguna, a fellow sarvodaya worker and journalist, who wrote an article in which BHATT was praised as a worthy member of the Peace Brigade.

These two catastrophes increased BHATT's awareness of the dangerous forces of nature at work in the fragile mountain environment, but the concept of environmental balance had not yet become a determinant in his life. At the time he was still concerned with the economic problems of the mountain people. Because the cooperative was under pressure from outside contractors, and could in any case secure only low-paying, menial jobs, he began to think of establishing some forms of forest-based industries which would provide better paid, permanent employment for the men--to keep them from leaving the hills for the plains.

In 1964 in Gopeshwar BHATT formed the Dasholi Gram Swarajya Sangh, later renamed the Dasholi Gram Swarajya Mandal, i.e., the Dasholi Society for Village Self-Rule (DGSM). (Dasholi is a block or small political unit in Chamoli District.) The aim of the cooperative was to open employment opportunities through the creation of village industries and small scale industries based on the products of the forest and to participate in projects designed for community welfare. Most of the leaders, like Shishupal Singh Kunwar and BHATT �s childhood friend Shambhu, came from the Malla Nagpur Cooperative.

In the beginning the DGSM sought contracts to cut trees and set up a carpentry shop to make agricultural and other wooden implements. Although the society won four small contracts, the commercial lumbermen, often with government connections, began to outbid it, knowing they could make up any profit-shortfall by illegal felling. The DGSM was thus forced to look elsewhere for permanent forest-related jobs. The next venture was the marketing of medicinal herbs which the villagers traditionally gathered from the forests. The DGSM purchased the herbs at a fair price from the gatherers and sold them directly to dealers and pharmaceutical companies in Pune, Delhi and Bombay, eliminating the middlemen traders who had pocketed most of the profits in the past. Between 1969 and 1972 the society was able to distribute Rs.100,000 as wages to some 1,000 collectors.

At the same time, with the help of the semigovernmental Khadi and Village Industries Commission, the DGSM and a few cooperatives in seven other villages in the Uttarkhand established small factories to produce resin and turpentine from lisa, the sap of the chir pine. Designed to promote local employment, the scheme soon fell afoul of the needs of the large turpentine factory located at Bareilly, in the lowlands, which was 50 percent state owned. Not only did the village factories have difficulty in obtaining an adequate allocation of lisa, but they had to pay more for the raw material than the Bareilly factory which received its supply at a government subsidized price.

The DGSM also participated in social welfare programs, such as the sarvodaya campaign to ban the sale of intoxicating liquor. Supported by village women, whose earnings their husbands frittered away on alcohol, the DGSM joined in demonstrations against government liquor shops in Chandrapuri in Chamoli District and elsewhere. On one occasion when 100 demonstrators from Chamoli traveled to a nearby district to support the local campaign, both BHATT and his wife--who without BHATT �s knowledge had volunteered to participate--were jailed for their activities. The movement was successful in instituting prohibition in Chamoli in 1968 and, although other districts adopted prohibition and later repealed it, Chamoli is still dry.

In July 1970 heavy monsoon rains brought about severe flooding of the Alaknanda River and its tributaries, the drainage system of the Uttarkhand. In Chamoli District the entire village of Belakuchi was washed away. Flood waters destroyed roads and bridges, caused serious damage to crops and cattle and deposited enormous loads of silt in lakes and canals. Fifty-five people lost their lives. Carrying 20 kilograms of relief supplies on their backs, four teams of DGSM workers moved to isolated villages in the devastated areas to provide food and help. At the end of the long relief operation the organization prepared a report that linked the damage caused by the floodwaters to the previous deforestation of the region. Floods occurring in the next monsoon season reinforced these findings.

Anxieties aroused by the flooding added to the existing tensions caused by government forest/forest product policies. On October 22, 1971 indignation at the "two-tier" system of pricing lisa led to a protest. The DGSM joined other village organizations in a demonstration in Gopeshwar, the district seat. Demands were made to the government to: 1) put an end to the unfair pricing policies, 2) stop using outside contractors to provide forest laborers and 3) review, and in cases restore, the villagers' traditional rights to gather forest products. Not receiving satisfaction from the government, BHATT and the DGSM assumed the responsibility for voicing the dissatisfaction of the forest people. Traveling throughout the district for a year to solidify support for his mission, BHATT journeyed to Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, and Delhi, the national capital, to try to gain the attention of the state and central governments to the villagers' demands. Meeting with no success in government offices, he fumed to the media. Bahuguna, his sarvodaya colleague, introduced him to some newsmen in Lucknow who wrote articles highlighting the inequity of the pricing system for lisa, and emphasizing the difficulties experienced by the DGSM when faced with government apathy.

In November, after BHATT had returned, the chiefs of various villages met with society and cooperative workers and decided on a major demonstration for December 15 unless the government agreed to a change in forest policy. The government failed to respond and on the decided day more than 1,000 villagers from near and far gathered at Gopeshwar, each village representation accompanied by traditional drummers and trumpet players. The women joined in. At that meeting the DGSM workers declared that for 12 years they had experimented with the society in an attempt to live with dignity; now they had decided, if necessary, to die with dignity. But again they gave the state one month's notice that they were prepared to take action if nothing was done to right their perceived wrongs.

When by January their grievances had not been redressed, the DGSM began to consider ways to dramatize their protest, always seeking to work within the Gandhian model of non-violence. The complaints now included a refusal by the forestry department to grant the DGSM carpentry shop its annual quota of ash trees for the production of agricultural implements; instead the government had given the rights to these trees to Simon Company, a large Allahabad sporting goods manufacturer. Indignation was further aroused when the department suggested that the society substitute pine for ash, a wood inappropriate for agricultural use.

Matters came to a head in April 1973 when agents of the sporting goods company came to Gopeshwar to arrange for cutting the trees in Mandal forest. The DGSM began a feverish search for means of stopping them. Some hotheads suggested cutting the trees themselves, or burning the forest; others suggested demonstrations in front of local officials. It was BHATT who proposed a mode of protest which was non-violent, personal and vivid. Let the people go into the forest, he said, clasp their hands around the trunks of the trees, and defy the woodcutters to let the axes fall on their defenseless backs. His strategy was accepted and the Chipko Andolan (literally "movement to embrace"), the Hug the Trees Movement was born.

On April 2 a resolution was drafted informing the government of the people's intention to resort to Chipko action if their demands were not met. The government responded by inviting BHATT to Lucknow to present the DGSM case to the Chief Conservator of Forests and the State Forest Minister. He was also invited to attend a two-day seminar on development in the Uttarkhand. Although no definitive action was taken, BHATT's summarization of the hill people's complaints led to the appointment of a subcommittee on hill development, on which he was the only non-official member.

Upon his return to Gopeshwar, however, BHATT discovered that the disputed ash trees had already been marked for felling. Therefore on April 24 members of the DGSM led a group of 100 demonstrators into the forest to confront the lumbermen and company agents. Cowed by the size of the gathering, the latter left the forest without cutting a tree, but did not give up hope that they eventually would be able to force acceptance of their rights to the timber.

The government now attempted a policy of conciliation. It offered to give the previously requested number of ash trees to the DGSM workshop, but BHATT and the society reiterated their demand that massive commercial exploitation of the forest cease. The society organized another Chipko meeting in Gopeshwar on May 2 to which village chiefs, social workers and political leaders of all persuasions were invited. The demands were restated: 1) a complete review of forest policy to ensure the hill people's natural rights to their share of forest wealth; 2) priority to local cottage industries in the allocation of forest wealth and 3) a voice in forest management and administration by the local populations. But for the first time the DGSM recognized that the forest had to be protected, not only from exploitation by outsiders, but from poaching by local inhabitants as well.

Almost imperceptibly the Chipko movement thus entered into a larger area of concern--it now began to consider the mountain people as guardians of judicious forest use. Forest preservation and the well-being of the people were so closely meshed, it reasoned, that both could be assured only by making the people the forest's beneficiaries, and, simultaneously, active participants in its safeguarding.

Continued Chipko agitation brought further attempts at compromise. Government officials informed BHATT that Simon Company's permit to cut trees at Mandal would be canceled, but let slip that the company would be given trees in Phata forest instead. BHATT immediately alerted Kedar Singh Rawat, a sarvodaya worker in the Phata area, who agreed to enlist villagers of the region in a Chipko action. Therefore when news was received in early June that trees were being marked for cutting in Phata forest, the villagers set a forest watch. After three days of fruitless waiting for an opportunity to enter the forest unobserved, the company agents left.

In late June the government made a further concession; it announced it had ended the two-tier pricing of lisa, but it failed to agree to Chipko's other requests. The sarvodaya organizations of the entire Uttarkhand thereupon threw their weight behind Chipko and instructed workers to spread word of the movement throughout their villages.

Meanwhile Simon Company agents and forest department officials returned to Phata forest. BHATT, Kadar Singh Rawat, Shishupal Singh Kunwar and fellow DGSM members hurried to the area to rally support against the fellings. A wily effort was made to sidetrack Chipko action by circulating word that a film would be shown that night at a village 12 kilometers distant; a movie was a rare treat for the people in this remote area. When the villagers returned the next day they learned that woodsmen had entered the forest. With drummers in the lead, 70 men ran to the woods to find that five ash trees had already been felled but that the woodcutters had fled. After a consultation it was decided that a 24-hour watch--manned in turn by one adult from each family-- would be set to prevent the fallen trees from being removed. A rally was held on December 25, and on the next day agents were turned back from an attempt to enter the forest. Another demonstration of 400 people, led by five women from Gopeshwar, was held three days later. The vigil was kept up until December 31, the date the company's cutting permit expired.

Although both the central government's minister of irrigation and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had publicly recognized during 1973 that deforestation was the cause of the increasingly devastating monsoonal floods, the forest department of the state, which was judged by its ability to bring in revenue, continued to auction felling rights, this time in Reni forest.

In January 1974 BHATT traveled to the auction site at Dehra Dun but his arguments against deforestation were brushed aside and cutting rights to 2,451 trees in Reni were sold for Rs.471,000. BHATT informed the contractor that he could expect a Chipko action and resumed to Gopeshwar to plan the strategy.

In February a resolution was submitted requesting the government to block the cutting, and an appeal was circulated through the Reni Joshimath area protesting the proposed fellings. In March BHATT wrote a letter to the Chief Minister warning him of the danger of cutting trees in the sensitive region and requesting him to order a geological survey. Although the minister agreed that "tree-cutting should be stopped immediately," BHATT had come to recognize the dichotomy between public statements by politicians and actions by government bureaucrats. Members of Chipko's Reni Action Committee therefore continued to trek from village to village, explaining the necessity of hugging the trees and preventing the depletion of the forest. A mass demonstration of villagers was conducted March 15.

Two days later BHATT had to return to Gopeshwar to obtain a government permit to be in this region near the Tibetan border. Within a day of his departure a group of hired woodsmen appeared in the town of Joshimath but were detained because they too lacked the necessary permits. Meanwhile 60 students from Gopeshwar went to Joshimath and staged a demonstration.

Then a curious chain of events occurred. While waiting in Gopeshwar for his pass, BHATT was asked to receive a delegation of forest officials who professed an interest in the DGSM. Their visit coincided with the day the government announced it would pay compensation to those who had suffered damages during the defense buildup in connection with the Indo-Chinese Border War. Payments were to be made at the town of Chamoli. Along with others, men of the Reni area flocked to Chamoli, leaving the women and children behind. Taking advantage of the absence of BHATT and the village men, other forest officials, the contractor and his laborers set out for Reni forest.

The bus carrying the workmen had sealed windows so that the men could not be seen, but when they dismounted at Reni village a small girl noticed them and reported their movements to some women. Gaura Devi, a 50 year old housewife, rounded up 21 women and 7 girls to follow the men into the forest. They caught up with the laborers, who had stopped to cook a meal, and pleaded with them to leave, but were rebuffed and threatened. However the women refused to be daunted. Finally the men gave in and started back along the forest track with the women following in the rear. At a narrow portion of the path, the last women to cross the cement slab, which bridged the gap where a landslide had swept away a portion of the track, dislodged the block, sending it crashing down into the river below. The way back was now cut. The women nevertheless huddled on the path, guarding the forest through the night until the village men returned late the next morning and relieved them.

BHATT received word of what had happened and rushed to the area to organize a rally, the largest in the history of the valley, to bolster the villagers' will to resist. At the same time he assured the cutters: "Our quarrel is not with you, neither are we eager to fight your employer or the forest department. We just want to save our forest. So do not be frightened.

The contractor's representative and the forest officials left after four days. This signified the end of the sortie, but not of the battle. The government fought back. An official protest was written by a forestry official in which the Chipko activists were accused of obstructing the work of the government and causing loss of revenues; the cutting of trees was defended as being part of the scientific management of the forest and as representing no danger to the environment. A six-man state government committee, appointed to suggest changes in forest policy, released a report in which the Chipko movement was described as "utterly senseless." The department requested that the police be employed to ensure the tree cutting, but the district magistrate advised against such a provocative move. Thereupon, in an effort at compromise, the forest officials agreed to meet some of the movement's demands if the felling of trees at Reni was allowed; the Chipko spokesman refused to yield.

On April 24 the Chief Minister invited BHATT and Bahuguna to Lucknow to discuss the impasse. BHATT suggested that a committee of experts be appointed to investigate the Reni situation, and the minister agreed to set up a panel of geologists, forest officials, experts from the irrigation department and representatives of the Chipko movement. When it was suggested that a non-government scientist should head the committee, the chief minister and BHATT agreed that Dr. Virendra Kumar, a botanist from Delhi College who had been a recent visitor to the Chamoli District, should become chairman. BHATT and Govind Singh Rawat, another member of the Reni Action Committee, were appointed to serve with the group.

The Reni Investigative Committee started work on May 9 and was to submit its findings on June 30. However it immediately split into rival factions, each armed with convincing arguments for its beliefs. To end the fruitless debate Kumar suggested that committee members go directly to the forest to survey the situation. Although all agreed, only Kumar, BHATT and Rawat actually made the trip.

As a result of the visit it became apparent to Kumar that a larger picture of the region should be obtained. He asked for a two year extension to study the entire area and its ecology. A subcommittee-- including Kumar; V.K. Sarkar, the Director of the Geology and Mining Department of Uttar Pradesh; H.N. Mathur, a plant scientist of the Central Soil and Water Conservation Research Institute at Dehra Dun; Rawat and BHATT--began work on the survey in October 1976. In other districts Chipko resistance inspired similar movements, often led by sarvodaya workers. As a result the chief minister established another committee "to make a comprehensive study of forest abuse in the entire region." Its members included Kumar and Dr. M.S. Swaminathan (1971 Magsaysay Awardee for Community Leadership in recognition of his role as "scientist, educator of both students and farmers, and administrator toward generating a new confidence in India's agricultural capabilities"), Director General of the Indian Council for Agricultural Research.

In October 1976 the Reni Investigative Committee presented its report. Corroborating the warnings of Chipko activists, it recognized that the entire Alaknanda River catchment area--in which Reni lay--was in such ecological peril that all tree fellings should be stopped for a decade and regulations enforced against the overgrazing of cattle and the building of fires in the region. Furthermore it recommended that areas below the 10,000 foot elevation should be reforested and suitable varieties of grasses planted in the section above the tree-line. The government accepted the report's recommendations in April 1977, banning all tree felling in a 1,200 square kilometer (463 sq. ml.) area for 10 years. Felling operations in another 13,000 hectares (50 sq. ml.) of land were also halted. The ban extended far beyond the Reni area-- and was for five years longer than originally demanded by Chipko! Later in the year forest department representatives arranged to go into another region with Chipko workers to survey the forest before cutting; in consequence the department agreed to add 161 square kilometers (about 62 sq. ml.) to the protected area. In 1978 forestry officials went even further, asking BHATT to check in advance a forest the department wanted to auction, with the result that another 64 square kilometers (27.7 sq. ml.) were placed under ban.

As early as January 1974 the DGSM, under BHATT's leadership, had taken a positive approach to forest maintenance, and had planted 150 oak trees, provided by the forest department, in the depleted village forest near the Harijan (Untouchable) settlement outside Gopeshwar. This initial venture was expanded with the planting of 100 trees in the same area during the July monsoon. In the winter of 1975 the DGSM planted 180 ash trees, and in the summer the society enlisted the help of the Malla Nagpur Labor Cooperative and the self-help society of another village to plant 9,000 saplings on barren slopes in the Gopeshwar region. By the summer of 1976 the DGSM was able to mobilize 150 representatives of voluntary organizations and students from all over the Uttarkhand to attend a 45 day afforestation camp at Joshimath where over 8,000 forest department-supplied saplings were planted on dangerously eroded slopes around the village. In addition the workers built a 1,600 meter protective wall to prevent further slippage of the land. The forest department, impressed by the work of the volunteers, paid the group's expenses. Upon leaving camp the youth and students were influenced by the Chipko example to form chapters of the DGSM-sponsored "Friends of the Trees" and begin tree-planting drives in their own villages.

During this time other Chipko actions in the Uttarkhand continued, but with a new dimension--the active participation and assumption of initiative by women. The village women, through Chipko, had learned that they could assert some control over the circumstances of their lives. It was they on whom fell the burden of finding and carrying wood and branches from the forest for fuel and fodder, and as the forest had receded, their task had become longer and harder. In the village of Pakhi in Chamoli District, for example, a study published in 1982 revealed that the average woman made two trips into the forest every three days, walked 3.1 kilometers round trip, spent four hours in so doing and carried a return load on her back of 24.5 kilograms. In another village the village forest was so depleted that women spent 7.2 hours on these chores, taking three trips in four days.

The Chipko actions now were often directed against local, rather than plains, contractors, and against their own kinsmen. In 1978 the women of Bhyudar sought BHATT's help in preventing wood from being cut in nearby forests to furnish fuel for Badrinath temple, the destination of thousands of visitors during the pilgrimage season. Bhyudar's allocation of forest land had been reduced, even as the forest department was annually auctioning off 800-900 trees for felling; even more trees were being illegally cut by contractors in collusion with corrupt village officials. Although a protest had been made, the department marked another 645 trees in 1978 and awarded the contract to a labor cooperative in a village 22 miles distant. Therefore, during a heavy January snowfall, the women of Bhyudar went to the forest where the cutting was in progress, seized the workers' tools and carried them off to the temple. A village meeting, held with the aid of DGSM members, took place a few days later at which the women persuaded the men to join in a resolution to protect the forest at any cost. The department eventually acceded to the joint demand and canceled the fellings. The following year women in a village near Joshimath stopped the cutting of trees by fellow tribesmen who had obtained a felling contract, and in 1980 they successfully defied the men of their own village--who had agreed with the government to fell the village oak forest and turn the land into a model potato farm.

In 1978 the DGSM began to concentrate its afforestation activities in a specific portion of the area that had been ravaged by floods of the Alaknanda River. On the basis of a survey by three students from Garhwal University (one of them BHATT's son Bhuvanash) the society chose a 100 kilometer square area which included 27 villages lying along the banks of the Alaknanda and the site of the village of Belakuchi which had been completely washed away by the 1970 flood. The river banks were reforested and trees were planted close to village fields so that the women would have easy access to sources of fuel and fodder. Retaining walls were built to protect the saplings and stabilize the slopes. Small streams were channeled and steep slopes were planted with fruit trees and grasses. The project was financed by the DGSM, with assistance from the central government's "Food for Work Program" by which labor is compensated with allocations of grain. Most of the work, however, was voluntary.

In 1979 the DGSM also began the organization of a series of Environment Conservation camps--based on its experience at Joshimath in 1976--which were conducted at specific villages during June, July and January. Villagers, students, men and women, members of various voluntary organizations, scientists and interested forestry officials lived together in the camps for five days. They built walls, prepared holes for tree planting after the monsoon began, and weeded and fertilized previously planted saplings. All participants were expected to follow the strict camp routine; all work was shared. Ample time however was allowed for lectures on environmental and agricultural subjects and the last day of camp was reserved for the discussion of village problems with government officials, an exchange which often led to positive government action. Participants from outside the immediate area were encouraged to spread the information they had gleaned and to start similar projects in their own villages.

As Madhav Gadgil, professor at the Center for Theoretical Studies, Indian Institute of Science, wrote in 1981, the "coming together of all these elements for an extended period of free discussion and working together itself represented a major achievement." And the camp, he described as "a model of what an ecodevelopment camp should be. Its outstanding features are a long-term commitment to ecodevelopment by a core group of people of Dasholi Gram Swarajya Mandal and a very close participation of the villagers." The camps and reforestation program are today the main emphasis of the DGSM.

Confirming BHATT's and Gadgil's belief that the most effective programs are those which are carried out at the grassroot level, the survival rate of trees planted by villagers as a result of these camps ranges from 68-88 percent; the survival rate of trees planted by government afforestation programs is from 15-56 percent. Government programs chronically suffer from lack of continuing care of the plantations and from the planting of inappropriate species. Dissatisfaction with the kinds of saplings provided by the forest department led the DGSM in 1980 to start its own seedling nursery, using broadleafed trees which are better for soil conservation and fertilization than the conifers the government had been planting for quick growth and commercial exploitation; a sister organization in Tangsa village started a nursery for fruit trees.

BHATT calls the participation of the women in the reforestation movement "essential," and the DGSM has recognized their importance by selecting six women for its members in 1982. Quick to realize the advantage of rebuilding forests close to their villages, women have eagerly spoken up, discussing where trees should be sited and what varieties should be selected. Women have, moreover, borne most of the burden of the actual planting which takes place when the monsoon rains begin after the dispersal of the camps.

Although the Chipko forest movement is his major concern, BHATT, through the DGSM, has never stopped working toward the rectification of injustices wherever perceived. The society has led a successful drive to force the local bus company to provide better facilities for riders, and stopped it from charging inflated fares to visitors to the hills. When the Jayshree Trust, sponsored by the prominent Indian industrialist family of B. K. Birla, tried to modernize the temple of Badrinath, the DGSM fought to have the shrine restored to its original condition. The DGSM has also produced a stream of reports, pinpointing inequalities in the distribution of government funds and projects in the hill districts in order to ensure a reasonable uniformity of benefits.

Chipko Andolan has gained wide recognition within India and the central government has proposed adopting environmental conservation camps for colleges and universities. It has also attracted international attention. In 1981 BHATT attended the United Nations-sponsored Nongovernmental Organizations Conference on New and Renewable Sources of Energy, held in Nairobi, Kenya, where he pointed out that "forest dwellers cannot be prohibited by law from satisfying their basic needs from the forests. . . .Unless we find a framework in which forests and people can live together, one or the other will be destroyed."

BHATT has been appointed "permanent invitee" to several organizations--People's Action for Development Programs; Society for the Promotion of Wastelands Development; Uttar Pradesh Small Scale Industries Board; Uttar Pradesh Khadi Aramodyog Certificate Advisory Committee; and Advisory Committee on Development of the Himalayan Region, Planning Commission, Government of India--and is on the Board of the Himalaya Seva Sangh, an organization headquartered in New Delhi which publishes articles and holds seminars to bring hill problems to the attention of the nation. He is regularly consulted by forest experts and government officials, and has authored articles on Chipko and the environmental movement in the Himalayas. His latest efforts include a sustained campaign against the big irrigation and hydroelectric projects in the sensitive region of the Himalayas. Nevertheless he is not a leader who seeks the spotlight. He lives at the headquarters of the Dasholi Gram Swarajya Mandal and visits his wife and five children--three sons and two daughters; Bhuvanash (1959), Sanshayita (1961), Omprakash (1964), Sandip (1969) and Sharmila (1972)-- at their small home in town from time to time. He presently holds no office in the DGSM and receives a salary no larger than that of the other members. At meetings and in the camps he is often seated in the rear, listening rather than talking. He participates rather than commands. Yet all recognize the soft-spoken, clear-eyed mountain man as a leader.

BHATT himself refers to Chipko as "the nicest kind of revolution" which represents a process of change that he feels may be just beginning. "There are many policies which need changing still and a time may come when we have to start a new front in the struggle," he says. At 48 he is both young enough and vigorous enough to assume the task.

No comments:

Post a Comment