Chipko Movement Protects India’s Forests Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Under the leadership of Chandi Prasad Bhatt, villagers from Gopeshwar, a small village in northern India, initiated Chipko, a nonviolent movement against logging and deforestation.

Summary of Event

In early 1973, the Simon Company of Allahabad, India, a manufacturer of sporting goods, was granted permission by India’s forestry department to fell ash trees in the Mandal Forest, located about eight miles from the small sub-Himalayan village of Gopeshwar in Uttarakhand, a region in northern Uttar Pradesh. The light but sturdy ashwood is highly prized, and the Simon Company intended to use it for making tennis and badminton rackets. The local farmers and craftspeople also wanted to use the wood for implements and tools, but they had been prohibited from harvesting ash and had not been allowed to serve as suppliers to manufacturers. The state had long favored large outside corporations over local interests; however, this time the village’s cooperative society, the Dashauli Gram Swarajya Sangh, decided to fight the government decision. Chipko movement Environmental organizations Timber industry [kw]Chipko Movement Protects India’s Forests (Mar. 27, 1973) [kw]India’s Forests, Chipko Movement Protects (Mar. 27, 1973) [kw]Forests, Chipko Movement Protects India’s (Mar. 27, 1973) Chipko movement Environmental organizations Timber industry [g]South Asia;Mar. 27, 1973: Chipko Movement Protects India’s Forests[01120] [g]India;Mar. 27, 1973: Chipko Movement Protects India’s Forests[01120] [c]Organizations and institutions;Mar. 27, 1973: Chipko Movement Protects India’s Forests[01120] [c]Environmental issues;Mar. 27, 1973: Chipko Movement Protects India’s Forests[01120] Bhatt, Chandi Prasad Bahuguna, Sunderlal Devi, Gaura

The situation in Uttarakhand, the picturesque northern crest of the most populous state in India, Uttar Pradesh, can be traced back to the Chinese invasion of India’s Himalayan frontiers in 1960, after which the state and central governments decided to make the region’s technological development a priority. While the plan for improving the economic condition of the region’s poor hill people may have had merit, implementation of the plan was problematic. Construction projects were planned for the area, but most of the boom brought the local people only low-paying manual jobs. To protect the laborers from unfair exploitation and in an attempt to direct some of the labor contracts to local residents, Chandi Prasad Bhatt, once a clerk in a bus transport company, and like-minded associates organized a cooperative labor committee to intercede with the state’s public works department. Their first effort resulted in doubled wages for the local laborers. The organizers realized, however, that the villagers had to learn skills to obtain good labor contracts, and in 1964, they founded a village cooperative, the Dashauli Gram Swarajya Sangh, Dashauli Gram Swarajya Sangh for the purpose of training workers to make wooden and iron tools.

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The powerful construction contractors tried to counteract the cooperative’s efforts and managed to cripple the organization by inducing the officials of the Department of Public Works to impose stiff and costly regulations on its activities. The group thereupon abandoned the construction project and turned to the forests as a resource for making tools; by 1968, the Sangh had succeeded in acquiring four contracts worth between 25,000 and 30,000 rupees. The outside contractors responded with a policy of deliberately low bids for contracts, making up their losses through illegal tree felling. At this point, the Sangh initiated another way for the local people to make a living—by harvesting medicinal herbs from the forest and taking them to markets in the big cities of Delhi, Chandigarh, and even far-away Bombay (now Mumbai). Between 1969 and 1972, commerce in herbs yielded at least 100,000 rupees in wages and provided a thousand temporary jobs.

The organization’s modest success prompted Chandi Prasad Bhatt to cast about for sustainable, long-term commercial enterprises that would allow the hill people to develop their own local economy. To this end, the Sangh started a small rural factory for making resin and turpentine from pine sap, locally known as lisa, and several other small resin factories sprang up in the neighboring villages. The state government, however, showed a stepmotherly attitude toward the rural entrepreneurs, granting lisa to only five of the eight small industries. To make matters worse, the small industries were charged a higher price for the lisa and given smaller supplies than their large, government-subsidized competitor, the Indian Resin and Turpentine Factory in Bareilly. Despite these odds, the Sangh produced more than one million rupees worth of resin and turpentine and distributed 13,000 rupees as wages to its workers during 1971-1972.

A short time earlier, in July, 1970, during the monsoon season, a catastrophic flood had inundated the entire sub-Himalayan region. The swollen Alaknanda River and its tributaries had swept away six motor bridges, fifteen pedestrian bridges, and thirty buses, and at least fifty-five people and 162 cattle died. Damage to crops and flooded areas was estimated to be in excess of 6 million rupees (which did not include the 10 million-rupee cost of clearing the choked upper Ganges canal). In the course of the Sangh relief operation, it became clear to Chandi Prasad Bhatt and his associates that the excessive flooding was a direct consequence of rapid deforestation in the catchment of the upper Himalayan rivers, which had weakened the soil’s capacity to retain water. Heavy rains consequently caused massive landslides that carried debris into the rivers and raised the water to flood levels. The Sangh activists had learned a crucial ecological lesson: The survival of the forests was a prerequisite for economic development.

By the fall of 1971, the hill people had become thoroughly disillusioned with government policies in their region. On October 22, a group representing several villages held a demonstration at Gopeshwar, the seat of the Chamoli district administration, to demand an end to the contractor system; restoration of their rights to use the forests for fuel, fodder, houses, and agricultural implements; and a fair price for and allotment of lisa for the small regional factories. In the wake of the demonstration, Chandi Prasad Bhatt lobbied the administrations in Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, and New Delhi, resulting in extensive press coverage.

In early 1973, the first agents arrived from the Simon Company, preparing to brand the ash trees in the Mandal Forest and instruct their laborers. They were at first hospitably received at the Sangh guest house, but in the days that followed, Chandi Prasad Bhatt, as representative of the Sangh, submitted memoranda protesting the state’s unjust decision to the state’s chief conservator of forests, the Uttar Pradesh Small and Cottage Industries Board, and even the chief minister of the state. On April 1, 1973, a public meeting of villagers, Sangh members, and Simon Company agents took place. There, Chandi Prasad Bhatt exhorted the villagers to stand firm against the company and to embrace the trees to defend them from the loggers. The word Chandi Prasad Bhatt used, angwaltha, which is a term of endearment meaning “embrace,” became a rallying cry at the meeting. Eventually, it was the more common synonym chipko, literally meaning “sticking to something like glue,” that came to symbolize the conservation movement that coalesced from that meeting.

Government officials, in an attempt to appease the villagers and the Sangh, organized “hill-development seminars” for the purpose of negotiating with the protesters. The seminars included a presentation by Chandi Prasad Bhatt, but by the time they ended on April 22, 1973, the Simon agents had already branded thirty-two trees, ten of them ash trees, for felling in Mandal Forest. Two days later, more than one hundred people gathered in the village of Mandal and by their very numbers prevented the loggers from felling the trees. The Chipko movement had won the first round.

Significance

After the showdown at Mandal, the government suggested granting the Sangh the right to fell up to ten ash trees in return for the Simon Company’s being allowed its quota. By that time, however, the goals of Chipko had broadened to include the rights of all forest dwellers to benefit from the forest’s wealth, and the Sangh rejected the proposal as too limited and short-sighted. The movement’s objectives had been extended still further by the contributions of a member of the Gandhian social movement Sarvodaya, Sundarlal Bahuguna, who defined chipko as an extension of the concept of love and nonviolence and who reminded the villagers that forests needed protection not only from unscrupulous contractors but also from the villagers themselves. It was Sunderlal Bahuguna and his fellow Sarvodaya workers who focused the movement’s conservation goals and raised the consciousness of the region’s inhabitants by popularizing the theme of forest conservation, beginning with a padayatra, or peaceful march, to Oonkhimath on May 3, 1973.

In June, 1973, the state forest department announced that it had canceled the Simon Company’s permit for ash trees from Mandal Forest but would replace it with one for trees from Phata Forest. Chandi Prasad Bhatt and his colleagues promptly called a meeting in Phata, eighty kilometers from Gopeshwar, to alert the villagers there and to explain the Chipko strategy of protest. They reassured Phata that Chipko was not the narrow, parochial movement described by government propaganda but was instead attempting to assist national development through judicious sharing of resources at the local level. For six months, the controversy raged. The forest department advised the Simon Company to stall as long as possible, hoping to break the villagers’ united front, but the company’s decision to fell five ash trees secretly on December 22 galvanized the protest. On December 28, four hundred people from the Rampur-Phata area demonstrated, among them five housewives from Gopeshwar named Shyama, Indira, Jethuli, Jayanti, and Parvati, who also organized a demonstration of women in Rampur. Three days later, on December 31, 1973, the government allowed the Simon Company’s permit to expire. The Sangh achieved a victory on another front when the forest department ended the discrimination in lisa prices.

Chipko was an enormously influential and successful grassroots movement because villagers, farmers, artisans, and others understood the urgency of the situation and the need to protect local natural resources. Moreover, the group’s success in standing firm against unwise government and corporate practices gave hope to conservation and antipollution activists everywhere. In 1974, Chipko won what was perhaps its greatest victory in a small village called Reni, which adjoined a forest of the same name in the catchment of the Alaknanda River. The Sangh activists had become concerned when the Reni Forest was auctioned off to influential contractors for unlimited tree felling, the ecological impact of which would have been devastating, especially given the recent floods in the area. Once again, the Sangh encountered official tactics such as stalling, defamation, and threats, and once again a group of women brought the situation to a successful conclusion. On March 27, 1974, Gaura Devi, the head of the local women’s circle, was alerted that laborers from the felling party had gone into the forest with axes and saws. Led by Gaura Devi, a group of twenty-one village housewives followed; their polite reasoning with the loggers only led to jeers, but their threat that the men would have to shoot them to get to the trees was effective. By April, the government had decided that the Reni Forest too would not be allowed to fall to contractors’ axes.

After that victory, the Sangh assisted in constructing small factories and workshops for the villagers, and in a huge plantation drive inspired by Sunderlal Bahuguna, thousands of saplings were planted on the slopes at Joshimath, Tehri, Almora, and other places vulnerable to landslides. Chipko celebrated its final victory in July, 1977, when the Uttar Pradesh government banned tree felling in the entire vast catchment area of the Alaknanda and its tributaries. Chipko movement Environmental organizations Timber industry

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Guha, Ramachandra. “Chipko: Social History of an ’Environmental’ Movement.” In Social Movements and the State, edited by Ghanshyam Shah. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 2003. Guha is a leading Indian social and environmental historian. His essay concludes this volume on India’s social movements and the state’s response.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Unquiet Woods: Ecological Change and Peasant Resistance in the Himalaya. Rev. ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. Classic study of India’s peasant resistance to commercial forestry. Includes new appendix, which charts India’s environmental history. Updated bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ives, J., and D. C. Pitt, eds. Deforestation: Social Dynamics in Watersheds and Mountain Ecosystems. New York: Routledge, Chapman, and Hall, 1988. An excellent collection of articles on deforestation in the Himalayas and other mountain ecosystems. Notes, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mishra, Anupam, and Satyendra Tripathi. Chipko Movement: Uttarakhand Women’s Bid to Save Forest Wealth. New Delhi: Gandhi Book House, 1978. An account of the origin and development of the Chipko movement.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Repetto, Robert. The Forest for the Trees? Government Policies and the Misuse of Forest Resources. Washington, D.C.: World Resources Institute, 1988. A survey of world forests and the role of governments in aggravating deforestation. Extensive bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Richards, John, and Richard P. Tucker, eds. Global Deforestation and the Nineteenth-Century World Economy. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1983. An interesting collection of papers discussing the historical implications of deforestation. Notes, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. World Deforestation in the Twentieth Century. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1988. A collection of essays discussing deforestation history, forest management, and the global timber trade. Covers deforestation in both developed nations and the Third World.

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