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Emerging voices

The Hindu, September 7, 2003

IT is amazing how many voices in India are still to be heard and how some people work quietly to allow these voices to emerge. From Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh come the voices from the mountains gathered by a diligent researcher called Indira Ramesh. These are oral testimonies gathered from the 1990s by several interviewers and coordinated by Indira Ramesh. It is a slim book entitled Voices From the Mountains but it is the kind of book that remains with you long after you have read the last page. Through oral testimonies the book tells the story of lives in the villages of Garhwal and Kinnaur in the western Himalaya. Development has brought many changes in these villages, both physical and mental. And with development has come the powerful tool of education. Not that the villagers disapprove of change but education has also meant young people leaving the villages to go to the cities. Mountain farming is left in the hands of the elderly, less educated or those dedicated to their lands. While people from the plains can come up to enjoy the mountains, the mountain people have to go down to the plains to find work. The narrators in this book voice this in many different ways. It is for us to do some introspection about which way development is going. The women who have spoken are illiterate but their words, even in translation, emerge like fresh sprouts from a rich soil.

Sudesha, who has spoken her mind in this book, lives in the village of Rampur and is a leading environmental activist who spearheaded the Chipko and other protest movements in the area. Apart from working for a future, she would also like the women to think for themselves. She begins her narrative saying, “… We are part of the Chipko movement for saving the forests… [We learnt] about the importance of the forests, how they affect our lives… My whole life has… been spent with the movement… Not just Chipko, but wherever there was a protest movement, for instance against a mining project in our area or [when] they used to kill male buffaloes or [when] people used to exploit young girls for money, or they didn’t want to educate girls. Our Mahila Mangal Dal used to work for these causes… ”

Commenting on Tehri dam, she says the first thing that they believe in is that the Bhagirathi River is theirs and that it should flow freely. When she comments on young people going to the cities one can almost hear her choke over her words. “Our children migrate to the plains to wash dishes for other people… I have been to Delhi. Our boys from Rampur live in houses that look like lavatories… But we poor people are free. We have our own houses in our village and we breathe free air… I wept when I saw their houses… ”

Sudesha also talks about what it is to be a woman. “Ever since I became aware,” she says, “I have begun to believe that the jewellery that is made for us [women] is like the decoration made for cows and buffaloes. In one sense it is meant for the same purpose, to make us bow down. There is pain here and there, and then we are constantly worried that it will get lost. If nothing else it was a kind of bondage.”

It is this clarity of thinking that must have made Sudesha take part in the Chipko movement and other protest movements. Even when her husband and the villagers opposed her she continued to voice her protest. When her husband warned her that she would be imprisoned, Sudesha retorted, “So what? Many important people have gone to jail.”

Many have spoken about deforestation and how forests have been cut down to build roads. But an interesting point mentioned by one of them is about a grain bank that they had in earlier times. The panchs of the village would appoint one man as bhandari (store-keeper) of the village bhandar (store). He was given the keys to the store and much respect. People had to give grain at the store. They gave wheat, barley and mustard at the time of the rabi and at the time of kharif, rice, pulses, beans, salt and chillies were collected. You could then borrow from the grain bank as and when you needed anything and give it back at the time of harvest. One had to return one and a half times what one took. There would be so much grain that people never bought from the market. While all of them appreciate the improvements of the modern age like education, better hygiene and less diseases, the message contained in their collective voices is that some of the advantages of the earlier system have been lost due to wrong planning and utterly inconsiderate methods of execution which do not take into consideration the needs of each area and its people. Twenty-five-year-old Beena captures this situation in a few words by explaining how plans are passed on to them and how they are unable to make any programmes according to requirements. She says there was a flood in her village once and they needed to build roads. But when they approached the concerned officials they were told that money cannot be given for linking roads but money could be given for building schools. This is very much like asking people to eat cake when they complain that they need bread.

This slim book has been brought by the Panos Institute, which is working to stimulate debate on global environment and development issues. Those interested in unedited transcripts and more background information can log on to I think books like this must contain a statutory warning that those affected by short-sightedness, weak stomachs to digest true facts, stubborn gullets which cannot swallow details, which are diseases normally associated with planners and bureaucrats, must read the book only after sufficiently fortifying themselves. [original article]

C.S. Lakshmi is an independent researcher and a writer. She writes in Tamil under the pseudonym Ambai. She is the founder-trustee and director of SPARROW (Sound and Picture Archives for Research on Women).