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Hindu: Lessons from the mountains: The Story of Gaura Devi

The Hindu – May 21, 2000

A WISE person once said that forestry is not about trees. It is about people. No one has realised this more than the women of the Uttarakhand region. Everyone by now knows about the Chipko Movement. But not many know about the women of the Uttarakhand region who have made it their lifetime mission to leave undestroyed forests for their children and grandchildren. One has known old women and men who, towards the end of their lives, would plant trees which would bear fruits only many years later. When questioned these old people are known to have replied, “I won’t be here to taste the fruits of this tree. But my grandchildren and their children would taste its fruits.” The women of Uttarakhand would understand this sentiment for this has been their way of looking at the forests and the lives they support.

One woman whom future generations in Uttarakhand are not likely to forget is Gaura Devi who has mobilised the women of this region to protect their natural heritage. Gaura Devi was not educated in the conventional sense of the term. She had not attended any school. Born in 1925 in a tribal Marchha family of Laata village in Neeti valley of Chamoli district, she was only trained in her family’s traditional wool trade. In keeping with the tradition of those days, she was married off at a young age. She went to a family which had some land and was also in the wool trade. Unfortunately at the young age of 22, Gaura Devi became a widow with a two-and-a-half year old child to bring up. She took over the family’s wool trade and brought up her son Chandra Singh alone. In time, she handed over the family responsibility to her son but did not sit back to rest. She was aware of the poverty of the region and how it affected women and how her own experiences of survival had taught her a lot. She was actively involved in the panchayat and other community endeavours. Hence, it was not surprising that the women of Reni approached her in the wake of the Chipko Movement in 1972, to be the president of the Mahila Mangal Dal. It was the first of its kind to be established. Its responsibilities were ensuring cleanliness in the village and the protection of community forests. Gaura Devi was in her late forties and her son was not doing very well. But she had no hesitation in accepting their offer.

The awareness generated by the Chipko Movement had already spread in all the areas of the region. Gaura Devi took up several campaigns to spread awareness in the nearby villages. Not only did the women but everyone in that region realised what the forests meant to them. Gaura Devi always referred to the forests as their gods. So the people of Reni were quick to react when the government authorised the felling of the trees in the belt and gave the job to contractors. They held demonstrations of protest. But little did they know that the date for the felling had already been fixed. It was fixed for March 25, 1974. That day, a group of forest officials along with some labourers started moving towards the forests. A young girl saw them and she went running back to report to Gaura Devi. That day there were no men in the village. All of them had gone to Chamoli. Undaunted, Gaura Devi and 27 women of Reni village began to march towards the forests. Soon they reached the group of men and their labourers who were cooking their food. Initially they tried to reason with them and told the labourers to leave after they ate their food. The officials who were already a bit drunk began to hurl obscenities at Gaura Devi and her group of women and told the labourers to go ahead and cut the trees. They were then told in no uncertain terms that if they attempted any such thing the women would cling to the trees. One of the officials who was drunk brandished a gun. The women stood in a row, each one of them looking as if the mountain goddess Nanda Devi had taken one of her fierce forms. They then chased the labourers for nearly two kilometres and broke the cement bridge leading to the forests. A group of them sat guarding the rest of the men and kept vigil throughout the night.

The men of the village who had gone to Chamoli had heard from some people about the proposed plan to fell trees in their area. They were sure that on their return they would find an entire belt of destroyed forest. But the women of Reni proved them wrong. Reni had not surrendered because its women had not and it was a victory.

The next day, the leader of the Chipko Movement came to Reni. Gaura Devi told them what had happened. She also told them not to report on the officials of the Forest Department and complain about their obnoxious behaviour and about the gun that was brandished at them. She did not want them to lose their jobs.

Not many in Reni would forget that day’s drama and Gaura Devi’s part in that. Gaura Devi led more protests and rallied together more women. Being illiterate, she was not invited and asked about her views on preservation of forests by policy-makers. Nor were the women of Reni helped in ways which would help them to continue their work of creating awareness. The only way they were helped in the name of sustainable development was being given training to prepare soyabean, sweetmeats, potato chips and preservation of fruit, which, of course, the men who are part of the movement did not have to learn. This training took them nowhere for they had no practical knowledge of business or the market. With no help from the block office or from any other agency in the area, all this training did not benefit them in any way. In fact, nobody would have known about Gaura Devi but for a book brought out by the Himalayan Action Research Centre and the Society for Participatory Research in Asia.

In July 1991, at the age of 66, Gaura Devi died quietly in the mountain village of Reni. Her story will be told to many generations of mountain children by the women and men of that village. Maybe then the policy-makers will realise that the women of Reni are meant for better things than making potato chips and preserving fruit.

C. S. Lakshmi is an independent researcher and a writer. She writes in Tamil under the presudonym Ambai. She has two short story collections and a translated one in English called A Purple Sea to her credit. She is the founder – trustee and director of Sound and Picture Archives for Research on Women (SPARROW).