When Gaura Devi and her band of brave warriors stood up to the tree cutters in March 1974, little did they know that they would unleash one of the greatest environmental standoffs the world had seen, inspiring generations of nature lovers to a lifetime affair of environmental consciousness.
The Chipko Andolan spawned a new generation of environmental heroes. Gaura Devi, Sunderlal Bahuguna and Chandi Prakash Bhatt became household names. Again and again, the andolan was evoked by the anti-limestone warriors of the Doon valley, anti-dam activists of Tehri and Narmada, Appiko activists of Uttara Karnataka and by young impressionable Indians who strived to enhance the state of environment. Chipko spawned a thousand non-violent mutinies and Reni village was the birthplace for those who struggled to protect the fragile ecology of one earth.
But the dream lies broken today. Almost a month after the disastrous floods of February 7, 2021, where parts of Reni got washed off and five locals lost their lives, the virtual heart of India’s environmental consciousness lies tattered. In many ways, the unfortunate village exemplifies the fault lines of the fjord between perpetuators of hard development and those who seek to incorporate sustainability as a way of life.
Yashpal Dungriyal from Tapovan, who is related to the pradhan of Reni and until now took pride in the village’s ecological history, says resignedly that all that they want is a government package so that fellow villagers could relocate to a safe location downstream. They are tired of sounding the unrelenting alarm and continue to live in fear while the world progresses materially around them. He added that this was not a one-off disaster and more destruction was anticipated as the entire ground around Reni had turned unstable. Yet, the spirit of Chipko burns bright and he lovingly recalls paying obeisance to Gaura Devi’s statue with the annual planting of trees on the occasion of her birthday.
All was not lost once. Each time ‘pralay’ struck, Reni and the hundreds of villages in the higher reaches of the Alaknanda valley found the fortitude to recover. However, this time around, it feels different. In the words of Renzino Lepcha, an environmentalist with over three decades of experience working in the Trans-Himalayas, “The spine of environmental enlightenment has come apart. With climate change nipping away at the Himalayas, these falling rocks of Reni have calamitously scarred the last remaining notion of a pristine Uttarakhand.”
Rajendra Negi, a journalist, activist, protector of seeds and a historian, has a streak of defiance around him. He mentions that human-induced disasters notwithstanding, the people of Uttarakhand continue to hold the beacon for sustainable development and they must keep the daily struggle on. He adds that villagers have two choices — vacate their village and migrate to Delhi or continue to struggle.
But the problems are much deeper. Everyone is enamoured by the “chaka-chaundh of development, even Uttarakhandis”. Even the simple act of building a house has gained political overtones. The locals know where and how to construct houses attested by the 1,000-year-old buildings in Uttarkashi, but outsiders engaged in building roads or dams bank upon the influence of wealth to construct ostensible houses along riverbanks and unstable slopes. They neglect the ecology and attempt to transform ancient rivers into mere pipelines. As a result, Kedarnath occurs, Reni occurs. These multistoried houses collapse and nature gets a bad name.
The strand of wood, which provides life to insects and shade to birds, does not care for labels of sustainability. For no fault of it, an intensively worked forest continues to provide wood for industry and succor for the living. These overworked forests of the Himalayas offer selfless service in spite of mankind’s apparent death-wish of unhinged destruction.
But for most of us, Reni and Chipko have become empty figureheads. With the term ‘sustainability’ appropriated by all, the abuse of Nature has turned systemic. A recent example was the fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic. When the initial shock of the lockdown wore away and and one could see the Himalayan snow from the plains, a universal narrative led us to believe that we are returning to a more sustainable way of life. But an appropriated concept is ditched at the earliest. Sustainability has been safely kept aside, until the next big disaster.
Yet, Pradeep Mehta who runs the environmental group CHINAR, sounds a positive note. He says though the idea of Reni suffered a knockout blow, the andolan will continue to inspire future generations. For Anil Kumar Joshi, a rural development specialist from Gairsain, Chamoli, the disaster might just be the wake-up call that Uttarakhand needed after the past two decades of breakneck growth. He says the path his mountain state takes will spell the future of environmentalism. “The villager will choose between his own micro interests and that of his motherland in equal measure,” he says. Hope sustains!