Chamoli disaster revives tales of Gaura Devi and her role in Chipko movement
Raini village's Gaura Devi who played a key role in the Chipko movement in March 1974.
Uttarakhand's Raini village in Chamoli district, where flash flood tragedy struck on Sunday, has played a central role in one of India’s first major environmental movements -the Chipko movement. Legendary Gaura Devi, who paved the way for the movement, hailed from this very village.
The movement in the early 1970s became a rallying point for future non-violent environmental movements in India and even attracted international attention.
Noted historian Ajay Singh Rawat, who has authored many books on Uttarakhand’s ecology and environment, said it was Gaura Devi who played a key role in the Chipko movement in March 1974 when contractors engaged by an Allahabad-based sports goods company came to Raini village to cut Ash trees.
“The male members of the village had gone away. It was Gaura Devi and the women of the nearby villages who hugged the trees and didn’t allow the contractors to cut them. Raini village is divided by Rishiganga. One side is called Pala Raini while the other is known as Wala Raini. Devi was born on the Pala side in 1925 but came to live on the Wala side early in her life,” he said.
Inspired by Gandhian non-violence, the Chipko movement started in 1973 against felling of trees and spread throughout the Himalayas. The word 'Chipko' means 'to hug' and this is how the movement came to be known as the Chipko movement. The movement got attention across the country and the Central government brought Forest Protection Act, a law to regulate forests in a bid to conserve them across India.
“It was because of her bravery and determination that the contractors backed off and the then Uttar Pradesh government set up a committee of experts to investigate the matter. Later, the committee maintained that the Raini forest area was an ecologically sensitive region and no trees should be felled there,” he said.
“The environment movement she started made India realise the importance of forests and sustainable development, especially in the Himalayan region where it was the first such movement. It created awareness on the importance of forests and inspired many policy changes and people to fight for the cause of forests and local ecology."
Rawat said that if Uttarakhand has good forest cover at present, Gaura Devi has a major role in it. “She changed our attitude and outlook towards forests. Her fight to save her forests also showed what villagers can do to save their green wealth from the commercial interests if they are determined to do so,” he said.
Chipko movement leader Sunder Lal Bahuguna said the women from the hills have a special relationship with their local forests.
“They go to forests every day to get grass and fallen branches. They know how to use forests without damaging them. They think of the forests as their mother, a provider. So when contractors came to cut trees, they hugged the trees and offered to be killed rather than allow contractors to fell trees,” he said
“Whenever you play with Nature, cut forests, whenever you overexploit the rivers with too many dams, nature replies with such disasters. This disaster should remind us of the role of people like Gaura Devi and her message. We have to make more efforts to save the forests, ecology and environment of the Himalayas. Playing with nature will keep triggering such tragedies,” he said.