The forest trump

Environmentalist Jai Prakash Dabral began studying law at 55 to fight Garhwal's timber mafia in court. With the forest cover in Uttarakhand depleting fast, his activism assumes a key role in conserving what remains.

india Updated: Apr 16, 2012 20:38 IST
Chetan Chauhan
Chetan Chauhan
Hindustan Times
Chetan Chauhan,Tehri,Uttarakhand

Persistence does pay but it comes with pain. No one knows it better than 58-year-old corporate executive-turned-activist Jai Prakash Dabral, whose decade-long crusade has saved thousands of trees in Uttarakhand.

But it has also scarred his life. He had to flee home when no action was taken on complaints that his life was being threatened by the timber mafia.

At present, he lives in a small two-bedroom house in east Delhi.

His "emotional connect" to his cause, however, continues. He is currently pursuing more than 11 cases in the Supreme Court against the mafia, which, ironically enough, compelled him to complete a degree in law at the age of 55.

"My family financially supports my activism as I don't seek outside funding," Dabral said, adding that he intends to hire lawyers to help him fight the cases now that he has expanded his work to the north-eastern states.

It all started in 2001. He got a call from Gaza, a village in Tehri, Uttarakhand, informing him that trees were being indiscriminately felled to install lines to transmit electricity, generated at the Tehri dam, to the northern grid in Muzzafarnagar, Uttar Pradesh. It had triggered protests by women, who feared a loss of livelihood.

The state government refused to relent. Its forest department had the Union environment ministry's permission to cut at least 90,000 trees - 30,000 in Tehri and 60,000 in Rajaji National Park.

Dabral reached Gaza and realised the timber mafia was behind the logging operation. He mobilised the locals and held a meeting in Advani, a village that had been the launching ground for Sunderlal Bahuguna's Chipko movement in 1972.

"I got support from old Chipko hands such as Prasun Kunwar, Pratap Shikar and Dhoom Singh Negi and in one night, hundreds of people forced the timber mafia to back off," he recalled.

It was a pyrrhic victory. The administration later convinced the locals that the installation of transmission lines would generate business. Dabral tried hard to paint the actual picture but the people were drawn to the prospect of quick prosperity.

Despite little public support, Dabral filed a PIL in the Supreme Court and argued that cutting trees in a 90-metre-wide swathe along a 100-km-long stretch in Tehri-Muzzafarnagar, would be environmentally disastrous.

The court's Central Empowered Committee, which was asked to investigate, found that many more trees were being cut than needed.

Its report, accepted by the court, recommended that instead of 90 meters, the width of forest to be cleared should not be more than seven meters - the place where the towers would be built - and they could clear four meters elsewhere.

That is now a national rule for building transmission lines through forests.

"In a single stroke, over 80% of the trees were saved," asserted Dabral.

An inspiring life
At 33 - an age when most educated professionals are busy securing their careers - Dabral quit as regional manager, ITC Hotels.

As a boy, who had come to his village on a holiday from Syria where his father was posted, he had been hurt by his grandmother's plaint that no well-to-do Garhwali ever returns to his village.

It is this that prompted the graduate from Delhi University's elite Faculty of Management Studies to go against the grain and leave behind his sheltered upbringing and the promise of a good life.

While discovering the Himalayas on his motorbike for two years, he began to engage with the locals and started various health and education programmes for them.

He joined the Jan Jagriti Sansthan, a local NGO, quitting it when he discovered the money being paid by the forest department to the NGO was a bribe to stop it from taking up forest conservation issues.

He then launched the Himalayan Chipko Foundation, funded through individual contributions. In subsequent campaigns, he again exposed the timber mafia-forest department nexus in the area.

He was once again forced to move the apex court. The court's notice to his petition helped save 700 deodar trees in Tarakeshwar, Pauri, a unique micro-ecosystem. By this time, the timber mafia was baying for his blood.

"Some of my volunteers were attacked," he said, citing it as the reason to leave the Garhwal hills for Delhi.

Through his persistent two-decade-long crusade, he also lost many old friends.

"The people had to face adverse implications of court orders. We have seen it in the case of the Tehri Dam. He (Dabral) should take people into confidence before moving the court," said Pratap Shikar, his old associate.

Sanjay Rawat, a local, said: "He was impatient and thought everyone else was a thief."

From Dabral's point of view, he felt he did not get "sustained support as the locals have been terrorised by the timber mafia."

He made difficult choices and lived up to them. What has perhaps kept him going is the satisfaction of not having been one of those Garhwalis who so disappointed his grandmother.

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First Published: Mar 28, 2012 23:46 IST