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Chipko Movement

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Changes in existing policies happen only when a firm action is taken by the people against it. One such people’s movement was the Chipko Movement. Chipko means “to stick” which was done by hugging the trees to stop the authorities from cutting them. This is one of the largest environmental movements held in India and serves as a great example of the power of people.

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The first signs of Chipko Movement can be traced back to the 18th century Rajasthan, by the Bishnoi community. Bishnoi is a faith under Hinduism, which considers nature sacred and forbids any harm to it. Harm to animals and trees is prohibited in this culture. This belief system of the Bishnoi community was challenged by rulers in 1730, who ordered mass felling of Khejri (Scientific name: Prosopis cineraria) trees to burn lime for the construction of a new palace against the orders of the Maharaja (King) of Jodhpur. Amrita Devi along with people from 83 Bishnoi villages hugged the trees. The cutters needed to cut the people before they could reach the trees, which posed a dilemma. Amrita Devi lost her life while battling for the trees and proclaimed – “A chopped head is better than a felled tree”. Along with her more than 363 other Bishnois, died saving the Khejri trees. After this incident, the Maharaja gave a strong official order preventing the cutting of trees in all Bishnoi villages.

This was one of the very first environmental movements’ and garnered a great amount of attention. Marking itself to be one of the most widespread and successful movements. To honour Amrita Devi, Department of Forest of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh initiated the prestigious Amrita Devi Vishnoi Smriti Award for excellent contribution to wildlife protection.

The Chipko Movement was then, relaunched in 1970s by Sunderlal Bahuguna, an eminent environmentalist who was a follower of Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence and Satyagraha. Bahuguna has been engaged in the conservation and preservation of Himalayan forests – first as a member of Chipko movement in 1970s followed by the Anti-Tehri Dam in the 80s up to early 2004. He has been a strong backbone to the Anti-Tehri Dam protest for decades by using Satyagraha methods, like hunger strikes at the banks of river Bhagirathi Chipko movement in 1973 in Uttar Pradesh was an effort to save trees and forests from felling by forest contractors. The movement was re-established as the “contractor system” from the colonial era was still prevalent and dominating. Under this system, an auction for forest was held where big contractors from the plains participated. These contractors brought their own workforce of skilled and semi-skilled workers, leaving scarcely paid job for the locals. Sunderlal Bahuguna travelled village to village spreading awareness and gathering support for the movement. From 1981 to 1983, he marched about 5000km in the Himalayan region, attaining prominence worldwide. He had an appointment with the then Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, and that meeting is credited with resulting in Ms. Gandhi’s subsequent 15-year ban on felling of green trees in 1980. he coined the slogan “Ecology is permanent economy”.

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The Chipko protests in Uttar Pradesh achieved major victory in 1980 with a 15-year ban on green felling in the Himalayan forests of that state by the order of Mrs. Indira Gandhi. Since then, the movement has spread to many states in the country. The Chipko movement became a benchmark for socio-ecological movements. In addition to the 15-year ban in Uttar Pradesh, the movement has stopped tree felling in the Western Ghats (Appiko Movement, Karnataka) and the Vindhyas, and has generated pressure for a natural resource policy that is more sensitive to people’s needs and ecological requirements. In recent years, the movement not only inspired numerous people to work on practical programmes of water management, energy conservation, afforestation, and recycling, but also encouraged scholars to start studying issues of environmental degradation and methods of conservation in the Himalayas and throughout India. In 2017 rapid deforestation over the century-old trees, forming almost a canopy in Jessore Road of the district of North 24 Parganas, West Bengal, has also flicked off a huge movement in the form of the campaign of saving 4000 trees by the local masses, following the legacy of Chipko Movement.

One of Chipko’s striking characteristics was the participation of women in large numbers. Uttarakhand’s environmental degradation affected the agriculture hence affecting women the most. The Chipko Movement displayed how an act of cutting trees for blooming the rich could be an issue of survival for the poor. Nature is the means and ends of livelihood of the poor and they are much more dependent on forests as compared to the richer class. Not only women, male activists also played an important role, namely – Chandi Prasad Bhatt, Sunderlal Bahuguna, Govind Singh Rawat, Dhoom Singh Neji and Shamsher Singh Bisht. Ghanshyam Raturi was the Chipko poet whose songs are still popular in the Himalayan region. As per United Nations Environment Programme report, Chipko activists started “working a socio-economic revolution by winning control of their forest resources from the hands of a distant bureaucracy which is only concerned with the selling of forestland for making urban-oriented products”.

On 26 March 2004, Reni, Laata, and other villages of the Niti Valley celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Chipko movement, where all the surviving original participants united.

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