Chipko: 50 years of landmark environmental movement

GS Paper III

News Excerpt:

The Chipko movement was a non-violent agitation in 1973 that was aimed at protection and conservation of trees, but it is best remembered for the collective mobilisation of women for the cause of preserving forests.

More about the Chipko Movement:

  • On April 24, 1973, the Gandhian social worker Chandi Prasad Bhatt rallied the women of Mandal in the Garhwal division of what was still part of Uttar Pradesh (now Uttarakhand) to stop Symonds (a company manufacturing sports products) from cutting down trees. 
    • The women embraced the trees and prevented them from being cut. The action started what has become famous as the Chipko movement.
  • The tree-huggers’ movement was an assertion of local people’s rights over their resources. 
    • It told the world that it is the poor who suffer the most when the environment degrades and, therefore, they have a vested interest in its management on a sustainable basis.
  • Chipko enthused so many people that it inspired a nationwide environmental concern and influenced policy formulation to balance economic development with environment protection.

Background of the movement:

  • The forests of the area, which is now in Uttarakhand, had attracted timber companies in the 1960s and the hill slopes were being decimated by commercial logging. 
  • Local people, however, were not allowed to cut trees for fuel or fodder. Then in 1970, the Alakananda flooded its banks and the already bare slopes aggravated the disaster, causing major mudslides and landslides. Yet the logging continued unabated. 
  • For the villagers, the last straw was the government’s permission to Symonds. 
  • Chandi Prasad Bhatt, well-known in the area for his cooperative organisation Dasholi Gram Swarajya Sangh, mobilised the people. The Symonds permit was cancelled.

Legacy of Chipko movement:

  • Chipko evolved as a response to wanton environmental degradation and soon became the beginning of the modern environmental movement in India.
  • The legacy of the movement was to break the hold of colonial ideas of forest exploitation and suggest that new models of community-based forest management were needed. 
    • “Chipko was all about the imperative of balancing the use and conservation of nature, the complex differentiations between need and greed.

Why the movement was successful:

  • Chipko was successful primarily because of the simplicity of method and the involvement of local people, for whom it was about regaining control over natural resources. 
    • Their close links with the forest provided the impetus to the movement. 
    • It was the women, who collected firewood and fodder, who were, therefore, at the forefront.
    • The movement is often called an eco-feminist movement, but the label is an external tag. For the women, it was a matter of survival.

Sundarlal Bahuguna’s contribution:

  • Later the Chipko Movement gained traction under Sunderlal Bahuguna, an eco activist, who spent his life persuading and educating the villagers to protest against the destruction of the forests and Himalayan mountains. 
  • It was his endeavour that saw then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi banning the cutting of trees. 
  • Bahuguna is best remembered for the slogan “ecology is the permanent economy”.

Other similar movements in the country:

The spirit of the Chipko movement has since been assimilated into tree-saving protests around the country. 

  • One in Karnataka even took on a local name, “Appiko”, meaning “embrace” in Kannada. 
  • But the first recorded instance of this novel way of saving trees comes from the nature-loving Bishnois in Rajasthan in the 18th century.
    • A woman called Amrita Devi rallied others to save trees in her village that were being cut by the Jodhpur ruler. 
    • Neither the women nor the trees survived, but the king, stunned by their sacrifice, issued a royal decree that trees were never to be cut in Bishnoi villages.

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