Can a woman who is unlettered and from a poor family dare take on the dangerous forest mafia in a fiercely male dominated society?
Kalavati Devi Rawat, a resident of Bacher, a remote village in Uttarakhand’s border district of Chamoli dared and succeeded.
Now in her mid-forties, Kalavati Devi was barely 17 when she took on the timber criminals, out to destroy the forests of Bacher. She tamed the out-of-control alcoholics in the mountain village, once a prototype of Uttarakhand’s brutally male-dominated hill society.
The secret behind the success story of this peasant woman, as one soon discovers, is her open-mindedness and inherent keenness to learn. She considers ‘Chipko’ leader Chandi Prasad Bhatt her inspiration.
The Chipko movement, the world’s pioneering green campaign, began in Uttarakhand sometime in 1970. It presented a unique sight with the hill women hugging trees to save forests from the forest mafia’s onslaught. Kalavati Devi’s crusade against timber criminals was inspired by the same campaign. But she discovered only later that a ‘Chipko’-like non-violent struggle could also help humble the forest mafia.
She had the realisation during her informal training as a budding social activist when she went about trying to solve the day-to-day problems of the village.
The first problem she confronted when she arrived in Bacher after getting married was the lack of electricity. Power was yet to reach the remote village and caused discontent among residents.
“We started looking for a solution and, one day, my village sarpanch and I trekked 25km to Gopeshwar where we met Bhattji (Chipko leader) at his residence and discussed our problem with him”, recalls Devi. He took them to the officer concerned and reasoned with him.
In a few days, the entire village was bathed in light; it had been connected to an electrical grid. “I had learnt my lessons: Never give up and keep pursuing things doggedly,” says Kalawati Devi animatedly.
Experiences such as these were, in fact, gradually preparing her for future challenges, she says. One such challenge presented itself soon. The year was 1985. One morning, a group of women from Bacher set out on the five-km trek up to the panchayat forest of Taantri to bring fodder. “As we entered the jungle we were shocked to see a strange sight,” recollects Devi.
“The foresters present there had marked rows and rows of dead trees for felling. They were around 1000 in number”, she adds. “That's the last thing we wanted", recalls Radha Devi Rawat, a village forest panchayat member. “For, in the absence of deadwood, we would be forced to cut green trees for fuel and our forests — the only source of sustenance for us-would be finished,”she adds.
The foresters were, therefore, repeatedly urged to not fell trees, but to no effect.
There was a heated exchange of words between both sides. “The foresters tried all tricks to browbeat us", recalls Kalavati Devi. “They tried to offer us a bribe and even threatened to kill us but we refused to be cowed down.” As the impasse continued, the village women decided to launch an agitation in favour of their demand.
“One morning, we women set out on a 25-km hilly trek to the district headquarters' town (Gopeshwar) chanting slogans ‘Chipko Andolan Jindabad’ (Hail the Chipko Movement), Ped Lagao, Desh Bachao (Plant Trees, Save the Nation)”, recalls Radha Devi.
A 12-hour dharna later, the administration acquiesced. Trees won’t be felled in the Taantari forest, the district magistrate announced. A war had been won.
But a bigger problem persisted: the nexus between the forest mafia and the ‘alcoholics’ of Bacher. It continued to torment
the women. “Kalavati Devi had a novel solution to that problem too”, recalls Chandi Prasad Bhatt. “She knew the only way to break this nexus was by controlling the village forest panchayat,” he adds.
The then sub-divisional magistrate did put up some resistance to Kalavati Devi’s demand that women be allowed to contest the panchayat election. “The official concerned fell in line when I forcefully argued that women had been legally empowered to contest the panchayat elections”, she recalls.
Kalavati Devi was, in fact, referring to the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments enacted in the early nineties. The panchayat polls were soon announced. The long tormented women of Bacher contested and literally swept the village forest panchayat election.
Since then, their hold over the local body has been intact. Now, armed with power, the women act tough with the alcoholics. “Earlier, the women confined themselves to breaking their crude distilleries. After their entry into the panchayats, they became tougher… and started hitting them with stinging nettle grass”, says Kalavati Devi who has been the president of the Mahila Mangal Dal, (an all-women group) of her village for the past three decades.
“Almost all our menfolk have now given up liquor,” she adds with her trademark smile, “There is also no trace of the timber mafia.”