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A people’s movement for Indian high Himalayan watershed management

By Sheena Chadha
National Coordinator, Eco-Volunteer Program (UNDP/UNV)
Gandhi Peace Foundation, D.D.U. Marg, New Delhi, India

From: Participatory processes for integrated watershed management
PWMTA-FARM Field Document No. 7
Edited by: Prem N. Sharma
June 1997

Perched at a height of 6,000 ft. above mean sea level, the Doodhatoli Mountain has the entire world at its feet. As soon as one entered the Ufrainkhal region in the district of Pauri Garhwal in the high reaches of the Himalayas, in Uttar Pradesh province of India; one was greeted with the cool mountain breezes, the sweet smelling expanses of the Oak, Spruce and Fir forests and the lilting music of the cascading waterfalls and mountain streams.

But by the early 80’s, this picture of perfect paradise was soon becoming a distant memory in the minds of the local people whose forefathers had felt blessed to be a part of such bountiful nature. The intervening decades had seen the entire country in the grip of modern politics of rapid urbanization, industrialization and economic growth. In the government policies where the token of industrial growth was measured in the number statistics of percentage increase and per capita income, the dense green forests had become fodder for paper mills and timber industry. And within a span of four decades (beginning with the early 50’s), the picturesque face of the mountains had changed into stark landscapes with barren hillsides and dust-laden wind storms.

Shri Sachchidanand Bharti’s childhood has been witness to the rampant agonizing destruction of his homeland. But by the early 70’s, a strong grassroot campaign of the hill people to protect their forests had emerged which became famous as the ‘Chipko Andolan’ at the national and international level. At that time, Shri Sachchidanandji was studying in the local college at Gopeswar (the hot bed of the Chipko movement) and came in close contact with the individuals and the organisation spread-heading this people’s movement called Chipko (meaning hug the tree) movement in Garhwal Himalaya region of North India. In early 70’s, villagers realised that increasing local floods were due to widespread commercial clearing of hill side forests. Village women launched a non-voilent peasant movement to preserve access to local forests. In 1982, commercial logging of all live trees was banned for fifteen years in the eight hill districts of Uttar Pradesh in Himalayas.

This struggle of the local people to safeguard their forests and their environment made a lasting impact on the young mind of Sachchidanandji. It wasn’t before long that he became an active member of the campaign. Often travelling long distances in the adjoining districts and far-flung hilly regions along with his young college friends, he was instrumental in forming many ‘Yuva Nirman Samities’ or youth organisations committed to the task of tree planting. This initiated Shri Sachchidanandji into the realm of local interaction, planning and participatory action.

In 1974, he served as a catalyst in building the ‘Uttarakhand Sangharsh Vahini’, a volatile student forum comprising of young college students of the entire Uttarakhand region. This student forum came to be regarded as an apex student body of the entire state, committed towards environmental conservation and networking of local interests. By the mid-70’s, this youth forum had swept a wave of rejuvenation and concerted action in the entire young blood of the hill state.

With this experience of committed action and initiative, Shri Sachchidanandji returned to his home town Ufrainkhal (in the district of Pauri Garhwal) about 25 km from the Doodhatoli mountain. Located at a height of 6,000 ft. above mean sea-level with a 300 sq. km. expanse, the Doodhatoli mountain has been the natural benefactor of about 100,000 people spread around in the various villages and towns. It derives its name from the immense cattle wealth of the local people and the abundance of milk which the entire region was famous for. Hence ‘Doodhatoli’ – the land of milk. The Doodhatoli mountain had been home to the lush dense forests of Oak, Spruce, Fir and many indigenous species of flora. Its undulating meadows and rich pasture lands had served as expansive grazing lands for the large cattle herds. Hence, fulfilling the fuel and fodder needs of the cattle and people alike. Even today, there are about 500 ‘Kharak’ (forest ‘Goshalas’ or ‘Cattle sheds’) where more than 25,000 cows and buffaloes graze. Most of the local mountainous rivers like the Nayar, the Ramganga, find their source within these mountain recesses.

Besides harnessing their natural life support systems, the people of Ufrainkhal have even adopted many non-conventional energy sources. Today there are more than 400 households in various villages of Pauri Garhwal using the smokeless chuhlas (cooking stoves). The hill people have even created their own mini hydel project for electricity generation. The hill societies have been tapping the water energy to run water mills for a long time. But at Bungidhar (Bung) in the local dialect is synonymous with the narrowing of a water channel) near Ufrainkhal, the villagers have installed a turbine which generates 5 KW of electricity and also energizes the native water mill. Today, many solar energy panels also dot the roofs of the village houses. These panels are maintained by the villagers themselves without any outside support or intervention.

Hence, the cornerstone of Shri Sachchidanauldji’s successful efforts has been in reinforcing the versatile self-reliance of local communities by strengthening, not subverting, community traditions and institutions. But, with the advent of the sawing machines and the strong contractor lobbies, much of tree cover was being lost to the paper and timber industry based in the valleys below.

It was in such conflicting environs that Shri Sachchidanandji initiated the move for local dialogue and participatory action to safeguard the interests, the livelihood, the entire life support system of the local people. The beginning was made in the form of a small meeting held inside the forest where local people of all the adjoining villages gathered in an effort to discuss their common problems. This paved the way for growing involvement and participation of the local people and the ground work for further initiative was laid with the first environmental camp held in Ufrainkhal in 1980.

In 1982, Shri Sachchidanandji formed the ‘Doodhatoli Vikas Sansthan’, a small developmental organisation named after the Doodhatoli mountain as a tribute to safeguard and conserve their benefactor. During the meetings and discussion with the village people, a recurring problem came into focus. In the overall picture of rampant tree felling and destruction of the forest cover, the wild animals found within the deep recesses of the forest were displaced. As the forest could no longer meet their food needs, the animals had started to enter the villages and would destroy the farm lands and the grain stocks in the granaries or kill the smaller cattle and carry over goats or sheep. Daera village, in particular, was one such village in the grip of this crisis. Hence, it was collectively decided that to obstruct the entry of the wild animals into the cultivated fields, a stone protection wall be built between the forest line and the village, surrounding the farm lands of the village. In Daera village, a protection wall of 9 km in length with 2 m height and 50 cm width was built beyond the village limits on the strip of uncultivated land between the forest line and the last outpost of the village farm lands. It was further decided that along the wall, trees would be planted to regenerate the lost tree cover. The wall would protect the village lands from the menace of the wild animals while the trees would generate the fuel and fodder requirements of the village.

In this tree planting initiative, the role of the women could not be forgotten. It is common knowledge that the women of the hills play a major role in keeping the family and the hearth together as most of the men are out of the villages working in cities close by or far away in the plains. It is the women who keep the home fires burning. They collect the fuel and fodder for their cooking and cattle. In fact, it is not surprising to find entire villages devoid of any young men. All the agricultural activities tending to the fields; looking after the cattle, the children and the elders are borne by the women. Therefore, in such a life fabric it was the women who rose to the occasion and ‘Mahila Mangal Dals’ or women collectives were formed. The local women have immaculate knowledge of the indigenous species of plants and trees which need to be planted to meet their fuel and fodder needs. In the wake of the mass planting of only those particular tree species which served as the prerequisites of the paper and timber industries, many indigenous plant species had almost vanished from the face of the hillsides. In fact, most of the local forests had been replaced with tall trees of the ‘Chir’ or ‘Pine’ which sustains the paper mills. But with this exercise many indigenous species of tree were identified, selected and planted by the women in their villages. Besides, the fuel and fodder trees, many fruit bearing trees were also planted. The ‘Walnut’, in particular, is a mountain fruit which was planted in large number by the villagers.

The stone protection walls were built in many adjoining villages like Sunder Gaon, Suisal, Jadris, and Tolia. With this, about 75% of the food crops stored in the granaries could be saved. In Daera village alone, 45 households benefitted and 400 hectares of farm land was freed from the menace of the wild animals.

The tree planting activity along the protection walls has led to reforestation on mare than 500 ha of land and protected forests in which more than 200,000 indigenous species of Banj (Oak) and Tilanj have been planted. This has not only established the equilibrium between the demand and supply of the fodder needs but also the surplus fodder generated has led to the increase in the cattle herds. Today, there are 34 cows and buffaloes in each household of the various villages.

The planting of the fruit trees have created fruit orchards in various villages. Today in the Jobata village, there is a walnut orchard with more than 20,000 trees and village Jandra has a 5,000 tree orchard. In Gadhkharak, the walnut orchards are spread over 30 hectares. The villagers have chosen this plant in particular because it can bear fruit for many years and is also easily marketable if needed.

Initially when the tree planting initiatives started in the various villages, the local people faced the critical issue of getting the required saplings of the indigenous species they wanted to plant. In those days, the plants made available by the Forest Department for afforestation would mostly be of species unsuitable to the climatic condition of the high altitudes. The saplings were generally brought from far flung areas hundreds of kilometers away. In this process, many of the tender saplings would not survive till they reached the mountain nurseries. Hence, it was decided that the needs of the villages would be replenished from within the villages itself. The villagers started their own village nurseries. Today, besides the farmers organizations’ nursery, there are more than 14 plant nurseries in adjoining villages. This, not only meets the requirements of the local people but also creates a surplus which is sold to the various miscellaneous state bodies and the forest department. The backbone of all these activities have been the 150 strong Mahila Mangal Dals or the women collectives which are spread out in the various villages in the region and are active in building stone protection walls and protected forest covers in their villages.

The Mahila Mandal Dals have found a helping hand from the school children of the region. Shri Sachchidanandji is a school teacher in a Non-Government Intermediate College at Ufrainkhal. Given his close interaction with children and his earlier experiences in the ‘Chipko Movement’, the potential of these children was not lost on him. He initiated the spirit of love, respect and dedication towards one’s home and the environment in the young minds. From learning at school to sharing at home, those children have proved to be catalysts for change through the word of mouth. The children who come from far and near to study at this institution carry back with them, to their native villages, the values and principles of environmental conservation and protection.

In this process many far off villages have come in contact with the organisation. The organisation conducts 1-5 days environmental camps, about 4 times in a year and children, men and women, young and old come from all around to participate in them. Since 1985, many schools have started to establish plant nurseries. At present, there are almost two dozen school plant nurseries in the region.

In the closely knit pattern of mountain ecosystem, the forests play a crucial role in maintaining the delicate balance between the climate and the overall temperature of the region. They serve as the natural barometers and have been the formidable keepers of temperature variations. But, with the widespread deforestation and rampant loss of tree cover, a subtle imbalance in the climate and in the overall temperature was created. The snow capped mountains and ice covered glaciers which in earlier times remained snow bound started to melt at a greater speed than before. Thus, releasing more than the normal amount of water in the mountain rivers leading to widespread flooding along the river courses and river banks in the entire region. Accompanied with the high density of rainfall in the rainy months, much of the top soil would get washed away due to the absence of any forest cover, thus further affecting the fertility of the soils.

During the intervening periods, the natural reservoirs of water, lakes, springs, talaabs (manmade water tanks) and mountain streams also started to dry up. The hill people who had never been witness to any water shortage were caught in the vicious cycle of pelting rainfall, accompanied by flooding rivers but at the end of the rains faced acute water shortage. In 1992, the local newspapers reported 75 % of the Almora district (an adjoining hill district) to be in the grip of acute water crisis. The forests in the past had served to maintain the precarious environmental balance inherent to the mountain eco-system. The forests besides providing the required resource base of the green cover also acted as natural conservers of the high rainfall in the area, thereby sustaining the precious ground water table of the entire region. But in the changing face of rapid deforestation, the land got dry and barren, the ground water lost its recharging instruments and most of the rainwater got washed away with the flooding of the mountain rivers. The land which used to be scattered with fresh water streams rolling with sweet mountain waters got converted into dry water channels. It was in this background of devastating physical realities that endeavours to conserve the natural watershed resources also got focused. Besides large scale tree planting, the local people also identified certain indigenous species of trees which helped to retain water in the ground thereby recharging the ground water resources. Many such indigenous varieties like the Kadamb, the Peepal, were planted close to water bodies, the lakes, talaabs (water tanks), along the banks of the rivers and streams.

In Gadhkara, a village near Ufrainkhal, there was a tract of 30 hectares of land located along a sharp decline. The villagers planted many indigenous species of trees along the slope which helped in preventing soil erosion providing the top soil with the required tree cover and also helped in conserving rain water thereby recharging the ground water resources of the area.

In the adjoining village of ‘Bharanidhar’, the villagers recovered and renovated their old 5-7 talaabs (manmade water tanks) and an old naula (a traditional water harvesting system, similar to a small water body) in their village. In the village of Gadhkarak again, there was a large lake of water with no taps near the water source. The villagers got together to lay out a pipeline and today there are 27 taps connected to this water source. Hence, with collective efforts and little expenditure, the villagers managed to raise their own support structures.

At present, the entire workforce of the mentioned region, is focused on endeavours for land water and forest conservation, a perfect example of a people’s movement for high Himalayan watershed management.