In 2004 the eco-restoration of the Gagas River Basin in Uttarakhand was birthed under the wings of the Pan Himalayan Grassroots Development Foundation. In its fourth year, the project touched the Dusad gadhera that I happened to visit last month.
Looping in women of the hill community, the project initiated the planting of over 2,00,000 saplings, creating check dams and furthering education in sustainable farming and water irrigation systems. The next 2 years traced the restoration of ecological life and development of socio-economic lifestyle.
Through incentive and awareness, the organisation channelised local communities of the basin towards forming an interdependent relationship with their surroundings.
Darmar is one such village in Uttarakhand that was touched by the holistic approach of grassroots and the caring hands of its women. One by one, the land was covered in seeds of hope and trust. Parts of the soil began growing livelihood opportunities in the form of gehu and gahat and parts of it were tended to in hopes of restoring a balance of “give and take” with nature.
I learned that the use of natural resources around here had been usually limited to household sustenance only. Wood, water, freshly grown crops were all used to feed daily survival despite lack of employment to improve the quality of life. Against this backdrop, the development of local gadheras instigated far more than just the environmental interface.
Through self-help groups and skill sharing, the women of areas like Dusad began building sustainable livelihoods, social accountability and self-sufficiency along with a deeply entrenched affinity towards the Earth that fed them.
Over 12 years, the women of Darmar had tended to its forest cover, maintaining irrigation; taming wild grass; practising sustainable farming. But in the year of the rain-less pandemic, the lands were left barren while hearts were drenched in dismay.
As Pushpa didi reported their survival, I couldn’t help but notice complacency. A basic subsidy of 5 kgs of grain under Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana was enough to keep the people’s spirits going. What came in was accepted with open hands to fuel the drive to keep taking care of the land that reaped well on its best days.
At the time of the latest infernal tragedy, this consistency became the only reason why calamitous fires were contained well in time to save the roots of the gadheras. The grass was cut earlier this month, leaving minimal fodder to burn up to heights.
The land of Uttarakhand was faced with the worst episodes of forest fires in two decades in April 2021. While climate change and natural cycles are factors of concern in this scenario, human-made causes and efforts are just as essential in understanding the gravity of the situation.
As wanton burning runs wild in front of our eyes and government response remains meek at best, areas like Dusad survive purely on intrinsic community discipline instilled with the help of non-governmental forces.
As much as the honest efforts of the community checked disaster, it meant that the villagers were left extinguishing flames with their bare hands. Health hazards mounted as supa after supa of dry soil was thrown in with no sizeable extinguishers in sight.
The loss of fodder, land fertility and workforce went uncompensated at the later stage as social media covered helicopters making noticeable efforts to control conspicuous incidents of fire.
I feel awed, sympathetic and driven — all at the same time. The land of Kumaon reeks of determination and its people sing of sufficiency. When Geeta didi, Gram Pradhan, Darmar, heard my question about why she thought no one came to their aid, she just laughed. She laughed and exclaimed, “Hum hi mahila toh karti hain. Aur kaun!”
While not-for-profit action is helping these local communities stand up on their feet, consistent development in parallel verticals is becoming more and more integral by the moment. Aid in food, education, healthcare, employment and disaster management needs to be provided in accordance with the needs of the people of the land. For this, more forces need to join hands and actively participate in experiencing and understanding the on-ground realities of mountain living.
This is a documentation of experiences as encountered under the guided supervision of Mahila Umang Producers Company Ltd. Umang is a collective of self-help groups and producer members providing sustainable livelihood opportunities to thousands of women in the Himalayas. Their work has touched lives not only at the economic level but also in the depths of women’s spirits.