Today is World Environment Day. This day is observed every year on the 5th June to raise global awareness to take positive environmental action to protect nature and the planet Earth. It is run by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). On the World Environment Day, here’s looking back at two of the crucial tree conservation movements in India.
In the 1970s, an organized resistance to the destruction of forests spread throughout India and came to be known as the Chipko movement. The name of the movement comes from the word “embrace”, as the villagers hugged the trees, and prevented the contractors’ from felling them. The word “chipko” refers “to stick” or “to hug”. Chipko movement was a grass-root level movement, which started in response to the needs of the people of Uttarakhand (then Uttar Pradesh).
The first Chipko action took place spontaneously in April 1973 in the village of Mandal in the upper Alakananda valley and over the next five years spread to many districts of the Himalayas in Uttarakhand. It was sparked off by the government’s decision to allot a plot of forest area in the Alaknanda valley to a sports goods company. Most of the leaders of the Chipko Movement were village women and men who strove to save their means of subsistence and their communities. Mr. Sunderlal Bahuguna, a renowned Gandhian, with a group of volunteers and women started the non-violent protest by clinging to the trees to save them from felling. With encouragement from a local NGO (non-governmental organization), DGSS (Dasoli Gram Swarajya Sangh), the women of the area, under the leadership of an activist, Mr. Chandi Prasad Bhatt, went into the forest and formed a circle around the trees preventing the men from cutting them down.
Mr. Sunderlal Bahuguna appealed to Mrs Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister of India, which resulted in the green-felling ban. Mr Bahuguna coined the Chipko slogan: “ecology is permanent economy”.
AMRITA DEVI-LED MOVEMENT
Not many people know that over the last few centuries many communities in India have helped save nature. One such is the Bishnoi community of Rajasthan. The original “Chipko movement” was started in the early part of the 18th century in Rajasthan by this community.
There is a legend about a Bishnoi woman, Amrita Devi, who died trying to protect the trees that surrounded her village. The story recounts a time when the local Maharaja’s tree cutters arrived to cut the villager’s trees for wood for his new fortress. This incident is the first event of Chipko Movement in the recorded history.
It was Tuesday, the 10th day of the bright fortnight of the month Bhaadra (as per Indian lunar calendar) or the month of September, in 1730. Amrita Devi a mother of three daughters — Asu, Ratni and Bhagu was at home with her daughters. Suddenly, she came to know that many people had descended in their otherwise sleepy village of Khejarli.
It was a party of Giridhar Bhandari, a minister with Maharaja Abhay Singh, Ruler of Marwar (Jodhpur) state who wanted to fell the sacred green Khejri (Prosopis cineraria) trees to burn lime for the construction of his new palace. Since there was a lot of greenery in the Bishnoi villages even in the middle of Thar Desert, the king ordered his men to get the woods from Khejri trees. Amrita Devi protested against the tree-felling because such acts were prohibited by the Bishnoi’s faith. Amrita Devi along with other Bishnoi men, women and children jumped in front of the trees and hugged them. The royal party said that they would only cease if she paid them a bribe, which she refused to do because she saw that as ignominious and an insult to her faith. She said:
सर सान्टे रूख रहे तो भी सस्तो जाण
In English, it means: If a tree is saved even at the cost of one’s head, it’s worth it.
Saying these, she offered her head. The axes, which were brought to cut the trees, severed her head from her trunk. The three young girls Asu, Ratni and Bhagu were not daunted, and offered their heads too. The news spread like wildfire.
News of the deaths spread and summons to a meeting were sent to 83 Bishnoi villages. The meeting determined that one Bishnoi volunteer would sacrifice their life for every tree that was cut down. Older people began hugging the trees that were intended to be cut and many were killed. These efforts failed to have the desired impact and Bhandari claimed that the Bishnois were sacrificing ageing people whom they no longer saw as useful to society. In response to this, young men, women and children began to follow the example of the old. The development shocked the tree-felling party. The group left for Jodhpur with their mission unfulfilled. 363 Bishnois died in the incident.
When Maharaja learned about the carnage, he was repentant and forbade any killing of animals and cutting of trees in the Bishnois territories. This legislation still exists today in the region. It’s no wonder that the Bishnois are considered as among the earliest conservationists in the world.
Today there are conservation movements throughout the country that integrate waste management, preservation of wildlife, cleaning of lakes and rivers, and tree planting. On the World Environment Day, I remember a poem written by Mr Ghanasyam Raturi, the Chipko poet, describing the method of embracing the trees to save them from felling:
“Embrace the trees and
Save them from being felled;
The property of our hills,
Save them from being looted.”