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Interview with Bali Devi

Bali Devi Rana, Head of the Mahila Mangal Dal (Women Welfare Group) of village Reni (Chamoli Garhwal, Uttarakhand, India) has recently returned from the Global Women’s Conference on Environment, organized by UNEP at Nairobi (Kenya) on 11-13 October 2004, where she shared the inaugural stage with Nobel peace laureate Prof Wangari Maathai. In the 30-odd years since the Chipko Movement, Bali Devi is the first grassroots woman to have attended and addressed an international gathering abroad. The following are excerpts of interview with Bali Devi by UN consultants Irena Dankelman and Biju Negi at Nairobi.

Irena : Good Morning Bali Devi. It’s wonderful to have you here in Nairobi. You traveled a long-long way to be with us. And we really enjoyed having you here with us, with all the women of the world. You came here. What did you like most in the Global Women’s Assembly on Environment?

Bali : The thing that I most liked in this conference was the fact of women coming together and talking about unity, about culture, about conserving environment, about peace.

Irena : There were so many women, from different countries, and so different from you also. Did you find that the struggles of these women were different from your struggles?

Bali : There were women from different countries, and although, because of the language problem, I could not understand the entire proceedings, this much I understood that my problems and struggles were in some ways the problems and struggles of other women as well. That our problems were not so different from each other. It seemed that in the entire conference only one woman was talking throughout – and that was the “woman” talking.

Biju : You did mention the commonality of problems, the ‘oneness’ of being in your address to the conference.

Bali : Yes. You know I have not been much outside my own region. Even within my country, I have only been once to Delhi and Lucknow. So before coming here, I was wondering that this might be a different world. But here, I see, it is the same sky, the same earth, the same people. In my address too I mentioned that though we have all come here from different lands, the stars that shine over us are the same. And I said that wherever we may be, whenever we are in trouble, let us all look to the stars to feel that we are one and in solidarity.

Biju : You have been the Head of Reni’s Mahila Mangal Dal (Women Welfare Group) for the last 18 years. You were its secretary in 1974 when the women of your village carried out the most daring and dramatic action in the Chipko movement, which gave the Movement a distinct identity and fame. Tell us about that incident.

Bali : Those days the Chipko Movement was going on. Comrade Govind Singh Rawat and Gaura Devi were our leaders. Those days we used to sing this song – “Come sisters, come brothers, we’ll save the forest; Our forests we will protect, we will drive the contractor far away!”

That particular day (26 March 1974), all the men of our village had gone to the district headquarters for collection of seasonal compensation for agricultural land taken over by the army after the Chinese war. They would have returned to the village only the next day. The forest contractor thought this was a good opportunity, and as darkness descended, about 200 of his axemen quietly entered the forest. Two of our women, who had gone down to the river to collect water saw these forest labourers going up and quickly informed and alerted the rest of us. Gaura Devi was our Head at the time, and we all decided that even in the absence of men, we must on our own try to stop these labourers from cutting trees. When the women reached the forest, the labourers were busy cooking (after which they would have done tree felling through the night). The women tried to talk them out of it, and also told them that they would not budge from the trees, come what may. It took several hours and in the face of the women’s determined stance, the labourers had to leave. In fact, the women shepherded them down to the main road below. There we were met by forest officials and personnel and some others, who abused and threatened us with serious consequences. But we were not afraid.

Biju : That was a kind of turning point of the Chipko movement. At least it now became well known, nationally and internationally.

Bali : Yes, Chipko was successful. But it was not the end to our problems because in a few years (1982), our forests were declared the Nanda Devi national park, and some years later (1992) the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve. Under this, the government took complete control of the forests and natural resources in the area, and the forests became out of bound for local people, who were denied their traditional rights. We people, who had played on our lives to protect the forests during Chipko, were, in the eyes of the government, now suddenly considered thieves and smugglers.

Biju : So, your struggle continues?

Bali : Yes, today also we are struggling.

Irena : The struggles are still there, but how has life changed otherwise since you were a young girl in your village?

Bali : A lot has changed. We were rich earlier – materially as well as culturally and socially. There was a lot of togetherness. Today, it is not so. The customs also have changed. Very few people today retain their old cultures and traditions.

Irena : Is it important to save the traditions?

Bali: Absolutely. Today when we think of our old customs and practices, we feel a deep sense of melancholy in our heart at its loss.

Irena : What can we do to regain those old customs? What can the women do keep the customs intact?

Bali : We need to discuss this in the community more seriously. And like for our other community practices, we should have set norms and regulations for preserving our customs as well.

Irena : How can the children, the younger generation be involved in preserving traditions?

Bali : There is too much outside influence through TV and other consumer products coming in from outside. But our children don’t have work or gainful employment in the region. If this can be managed and unnecessary influences controlled, then the younger generation could be interested to retain its culture and customs.

Irena: What is your relationship with the earth?

Bali : What! It is that of mother. When we talk of land, we don’t call it simply land, but call it janmbhumi, the land which has given us birth. So the earth – which includes the Ganga, the sky, the air, the water – is our mother. Because of her, we are.

Irena : In the west too, more and more people are trying to regain that feeling of Mother earth.

Bali : The earth gives us everything. Because of it we have food to eat, water to drink, the air to breathe. It is because of the earth that we survive.

Irena: What is your message to the women of the world?

Bali : My message to the women of the world is – retain your customs and traditions; live in peace and in harmony with one another. One of our legendary philosopher kings Gopichand said, “Bhai, bhatija, kutumb, ghanera; antkaal mein koi nahi mera” (Brother, nephew, clan, the world; none is ours in the end period!). Tomorrow we will die, we all will die, and when we die, we will all go naked. We will not carry anything with us. Whatever we earn, we will leave behind in this world, on this earth. So, let us not be greedy, selfish and possessive, and live for a better world here, in peace, in cordial relationship with one another.