Tree Hugging In India

We use the term “tree hugger” derogatorily to refer to environmentalists, yet most don’t know where the term originated. The Chipko movement was a nonviolent ecological movement led, predominantly, by rural women in India. Chipko, in Hindi, means “to cling” or “to hug”. During the river floods of 1970s, a significant landslide hit the villagers of the Chamoli district, in the Garhwali region of Uttarakhand. This has been the direct result of reckless deforestation stripping the land of much of its forest cover. As a result, the region became the centre for rising ecological awareness. The Chipko movement became a benchmark for socio-ecological movements in India, and around the world. 

Amrita Devi & The Sacrifice of 363 Bishnois

The Chipko movement of the 1970s draws inspiration from the struggle that had taken place in Rajasthan over 300 years ago. In 1730, Amrita Devi heard of the Maharaja of Marwar’s intentions to cut down a sacred grove of khejri trees to use for the construction of a new palace. She led the villagers of Khejarli in their refusal to grant access to the trees and continued to argue against the orders of the Maharaja.

Amrita and 363 Bishnois eventually lost their lives during the protest. However, shocked by the passive resistance of the Bishnois, the Maharaja recalled his men. He personally travelled to the village to apologise for the actions of his men. The Maharaj instructed that no more khejri trees be cut down for the construction of his new palace. While this story was not one that was burned into the popular national consciousness, it was one that the women of the burgeoning Chipko movement were well aware of. 

Women Affected

Why was it that the Garhwali women were so prominent in the Chipko movement When talking about this movement, we not only talk about men such as Sunderlal Bahuguna and Chandi Prasad Bhatt but also of women such as Gaura Devi, Suraksha Devi, Sudesha Devi, Bachni Devi and others. During ecological disasters, rural women are often hit the hardest. Many have had to traverse ever greater distances to procure water, fuel and fodder. The health effects of this increased workload detrimentally affect rural women. In 1975, Chandi Prasad Bhatt remarked, “ecology was much more critical to the Garhwali women than the men”. This was because women faced many of the direct consequences of the mismanagement of the land. 

The Chipko Movement

According to the Centre for Science and Environment, Chipko began in 1973 in the remote hill town of Gopeshwar. That morning, representatives from a sports good factory in Allahabad arrived to cut down ten ash trees for their use. At first, the villagers requested them not to do so; however, it became clear that contractors were not interested in negotiating with the villagers. So, the people sought to take direct action. Villagers marched into the Mandal forest, beating drums. The contractors soon realised, the villagers were well-organised and not willing to back down. They left without cutting down the trees. The Chipko movement spread quickly as villagers marched in Rampur Phata, another remote village, just a few weeks later. However, it was only in 1974, during a significant protest, that women began to participate more and in deliberate terms.

In 1974, the government announced an auction for over 2000 trees near the village of Reni, overlooking the Alaknanda River. The Garhwali people were acutely aware of the causes and results of the last flood. There were landslides that had obstructed roads, washing away villages and other infrastructure. Following the government’s announcement, students led demonstrations. To avoid protests, the government summoned the men of the surrounding villages to the nearby city for discussions on compensation. However, the meeting had been a ruse, to get the men away from the grove. The contractors seized the chance to continue logging without any confrontation. 

Women had always taken interest in issues that dispoportiately affected their lives. Yet, up till this point, no one formally included them in such meetings. A local girl rushed to Gaura Devi, a 50-year-old widowed woman and the head of the village Mahila Mangal Dal, to inform her of the arrival of loggers. Gaura led the women of Reni and surrounding villages to the forest. They refused to move out of the forest and continued hugging the trees. The women kept up an all-night vigil to guard the trees. The next day, word spread to the neighbouring villages of Lata and Henwalghati. And as the men returned from the city, more people joined.

The contractors offered her, and the other women bribes to leave, then threatened to call the police and have her arrested. People branded women as enemies of democracy and development, but they stood resolute. The contracts withdrew after a four-day stand-off. The action in Reni prompted the state government to establish a committee to investigate deforestation in the region, and this ultimately led to a 10-year ban on commercial logging in the area. 

Chipko’s Influence

The Chipko movement has since expanded. Within a few years it began to spread further to Gandhmardan in Orissa, Bastar in Central India, Nahin-Barkot and Thano in the Himalayan foothills, and all over Karnataka and Kerala. The movement caught the imaginations of groups concerned with the environment in countries such as Switzerland, France, Mexico, Denmark, Australia, Canada and Malaysia. Yet, even now, the women of the region fight against other ecologically unsound projects, such as bauxite mining and the heavy logging of pine trees.

The Chipko movement emerged as a peasant and women’s movement for forest rights. The Garhwali women showed that women’s liberation was not only about liberation from patriarchal oppression, but also capitalist and economic oppression. It became a rallying point for future environmental protests and movements all over the world. It also stirred up the existing Indian civil society, which finally began to address the issues of tribal and marginalised people. As the women of Reni sang in 1974: “The forest is our mother’s home. We will protect it with all our might.” With the forest satyagraha, they did. 

About The Author

Swagata is currently studying law and global politics and is a keen student of history. She has been an active campaigner for awareness about sexual assault keeping institutions accountable.

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Image Source: Wikiamedia via Pursuit (University of Melbourne)

Editor: Dr. Shruti Kapoor