By Meenal Tatpati:
The summer of 2010 was an especially exciting time for me when as a part of a course organized by the Centre of Science and Environment, Delhi we were taken to Tehri-Garhwal, Uttarakhand to visit villages which transformed the way the world looks at environmental activism and conservation. Names like Uttarkashi, Birahi, Srinagar, Makku, and Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary keep appearing on the pages of my field diary when I flip through it. It was here that I truly started collecting experience, inspiration and stories related to my educational field.
I feel like I’ve been re-visiting Uttarakhand off and on through Ramachandra Guha’s thesis, “Unquiet Woods”. I had read it earlier this year for my Master’s thesis, and I couldn’t wait to read it again since the Garhwal I experienced last year was exactly like it has been described by him in 1992. Well, figuratively at least, excluding the major dam sites that seem to interrupt the picturesque themes at every corner and the huge stone quarries that raise their ugly heads at every second turn along the highways and also not to metion the general mayhem such projects tend to leave in their wake. But it still has the same sereneness, same people and the same money-order economies.
All the villages I travelled to in Uttarakhand have one particular thing that I noticed right away. There are no men! You see women of all ages, they work at home and on farms, they tend cattle, look after the family. I was so riveted by this that I eventually wrote my entire article on the women there.
Historical records show that women in Garhwal had to assume responsibilities of both the fields and the homes. The men were generally lazy, needing help in fields and considering it only right that the wife does all the chores at home too! They would gather near village squares and gossip or share a smoke. Also, in the past decades, due to increased education as well as migration of men to cities and nearby towns and their traditional role in the Indian army, men in these villages are not really the ones who look after hearth and fields.
The fact that the women here have to take up a lot also speaks volumes of their courage and determination. They particularly know a lot about their forests as well as governance initiatives because they have to deal with almost everything themselves! The older women I came across were deeply attached to the basic natural resources that are available here. Many of them were witnesses to the total destruction of their forests in the past and are protective about their resources.
When we visited Makku village in Rudraprayag district, the head of one of the largest Van Panchayats, Manorama Devi who is about 53 and was witness to the total destruction of her village forest in 1985, spoke to me for a few minutes. She highlighted the fact that there is electricity but no hospital….that the weather is definitely changing and that it has progressively warmed over the years. She didn’t speak a lot, like most younger women there but was disappointed with the fact that the youngsters didn’t want to stay on in the villages and that the city attracted them.
When I asked her why the forest was so important to her, she replied with such simplicity, “Agar Van chaley jayenge toh hum kya karenge?” (What will I do if the forests are not there)?Â Almost as if the forests were her life…
In the same village the younger women didn’t want to collect forest produce all their life. They wanted roads, education for their children, to stay alone with the husband and children.
They may be right in their own way, but if the Unity that was the cornerstone of these villages is gone, will they be able to sustain their forests like they have for so many years? At the same time, as a urban dweller, I realized that I had no right to ask this question to them because I hardly have to face the wrath of nature and work so closely with it as they have been doing, since their birth.
In Sari, I was struggling to climb a pretty steep hill with nothing but my cell phone and a notebook when a tiny lady with the bamboo basket on her back, full of fresh, sweet smelling fodder came bounding down right in front of me.
She smiled very sweetly for a picture. I asked her if I could lift her load and see if I can carry it. She obliged and when I put it on I almost fell over backwards! That thing was heavy! And carrying it either up or down the hill looked like serious work!
Another woman I encountered at Guptakashi was taking the load to her house uphill! When asked where she lived she said I needn’t bother to come because I would not be able to breathe where she stayed! She pointed to her house and it wasn’t even visible because it was covered by fog!
I was amazed at the strength these tiny women had. And the unique sense of humour is probably important to sustain them here.
At Reni, Bali Devi had me mesmerized. This woman was the epitome of a perfect grandma….wrinkled skin, rosy cheeks, naughty sparkling slits for eyes, so deliciously wizened! I was enthralled as I sat by her feet and listened to her Chipko reminiscences.
She told us stories about Chipko and slammed Sunderlal Bahuguna as a Thekedar, probably brought on by the fact that Bahuguna, years after Chipko actually became a strict conservationist! She also told us of the love and respect the women who were a part of Chipko feel towards Chandi Prasad Bhatt and his people centric view of conservation.
She was apparently happy with the eager audience, so she gladly recited many Chipko songs for us…
“Chal didi, chal bhayya
Sab milkey jungle bacholo”
“Char din ki saheli mat bani rehna
Umar bhar ki saheli bano, jungle ki raksha karo”
This Bali Devi is recognized as the Global face of Chipko now, having been to Kenya to meet Mathai and was supposed to be a close associate of Gaura Devi, the famous woman activist from Reni. Later as we walked down towards the bus, we were told that she was an imposter that the real Bali Devi was long dead and the village was totally against her! Yet, the simplicity with which she recited the songs and talked to us about the forests was truly endearing.
The most striking woman I met was in Tolma, a village in the buffer zone of Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve, and ironically I don’t know how she looks because I met her at night and it was pitch dark!
She was the wife of a man whose flex poster, announcing his candidacy for Gram Sabha was plastered all over the village .My friend and I wanted to meet this man who looked like he could tell us something about the village.
So we waited for him near his home one evening. We were told that he had gone down to Joshimath and would return in the evening.
Poonam, his wife, came home with their cattle at about 6 and made us saccharine sweet tea. Barely 30, she had two sons and a husband who was never home. She gets up at four in the morning, goes to her fields and comes back only by 6. She also knits woolen caps and sells them to tourists. This brave soul was almost attacked by a Himalayan bear once and has never gone beyond Joshimath, the village downhill where the entire village of Tolma shifts in winter. Her husband, who is a trekking instructor frequently, travels all across India. The walls of their home are covered with pictures of her husband with celebrities he’s met. This woman is by far the closest I’ve come to the description of the term we city women use: – “working woman”!
The loneliness of her house and existence and the amount of respect she had for her husband as she proudly showed us his trekking gear and the tool-shed he was building touched me a lot.
Simple lives and simple minds, yet incredibly strong and individualistic women. The more I travel to rural India, the more I realize that women are the back —bone of our economy as well as the epitome of ecological warriors.
They have to battle nature’s wrath, which we, as urban dwellers rarely have to face, yet their lives are linked to nature and its many intricacies.
More power to these women.
Meenal Tatpati is aÂ Student and Environ-“mental”
Photos by Serena Thangjam
Guha R; 1991; The Unquiet Woods: Ecological Change and Peasant Resistance in the Himalayas; Oxford University Press; New Delhi.
Mitra A;1993; Chipko: an unfinished mission; Down To Earth, Vol 1 Issue 19930430; New Delhi