SAPA UPDATE VOL 5 ISSUE 1-2 APRIL 2011 Page 32
THE BRAVE WOMEN OF KHIRAKOTE
This story is based on my personal experience of working among women in Uttarakhand, India for many years.
The Kosi River flows through the valley just below the Lakshmi Ashram, in Kausani (about 50 kms from Almora). Since its inception in 1946, we in the Lakshmi Ashram have always been closely associated with the villages in the area. The women here have always had a deep insight into problems of the environment since this is so closely related to their lives. They are brave and courageous and prepared to do or die to protect the environment. But there has never been any occasion to start a movement on this issue.
In 1977-78, however, a situation arose, which caused the village women to rally around a cause. The village forest (Gram Van)of Khirakot village in this area was almost in danger of being wiped out. A contractor had landed a contract for thinning the forest. Some trees were marked out for the purpose. But the wily contractor somehow managed, through corrupt means, to cut not only these trees, but cut others as well. As a result the villagers were deprived of their firewood, which they normally obtained from the fallen branches or twigs of the big trees. So now, the villagers began to cut the small trees here, and in some cases even dug up their roots as well, and soon, even these disappeared from the forest!
But the women needed wood for fuel, and the dry leaves of the trees for the cowshed. They were now compelled to walk long distances to obtain these things. "Once they were so easily available but not so now," they all cried. "Often the whole day goes off for this, and we have to leave our children alone at home for long hours." As they walked, the women discussed their problems, and they decided to once again create a Gram Van (Village Forest), and frame some laws to keep it secure. No one would be allowed to cut the trees, and villagers themselves started protecting the trees. Gradually the forest cover improved. Slowly the vegetation began to regenerate, so that grazing could be possible also.
But as soon as the situation began to improve a little, another contractor was given a contract to dig a khaira (soapstone) mine in this very village forest and soon, without any warning, his men just came and started digging at those places where soapstone could be found. The women were naturally upset, as they had worked hard to regenerate the land and the forest. Imagine their shock and dismay when they found their beloved forest dug up at several places and the trees so heartlessly uprooted, one by one!
As always, they were the ones who would have to bear the brunt of any damage to the environment as it would affect their daily lives. The men did not agree as they felt it would help them to get jobs locally and they would not have to move out of their village in search of employment. They tried to explain this to the women and asked them not to do anything drastic. The women, who had been through all this before, did not agree with them, but were temporarily silenced by their argument.
However, their patience was severely tested when they had to go to fetch their water or bring the fodder on their heads, or simply go to their farm lands but found their way blocked by 150 or 160 mules hired by the contractor to transport the soapstone. They were indignant that their pathway was being used by the contractors to further their own business interests. "Why should their mules obstruct our paths as well," they cried in unison? "Why can't they build their own pathway? This is highly unjust!"
The women poured out their woes to the young people of the area. Now, two walls are usually constructed on either side of the path to prevent animals from straying on to the fields and destroying the crops. What the young people now did was to construct a second line of a low wall at several places, to make the path narrower. This made it difficult for the mules to pass when they were laden with soapstone! The contractors were livid and told the youth, "you are obstructing government work." The boys replied, "this is our road and we can use it any way we like." The contractor slyly tried to win over the youth by offering them positions of power. The women were furious.They said, "If neither the men nor the youth will support us, we will fight our own battle."
One night there was heavy rain, and all the open debris from the mines were washed into the fields. This hardened and formed a cement- like substance which buried all their crops. This was the proverbial last straw! The women lost their patience and came to the village and threw their farming implements before the men. "We had told you that the mines would ruin us, but you did not pay heed to what we said. Now if you do not protect our lands, nor raise your voice against this, we refuse to work on your farms."
The men had no option but to take note and start a protest movement against the mining. However it should be pointed out that the leadership came from the women! One woman leader, Malti Devi , requires special mention. She was not highly educated, but had received some education; but more than that, had the capacity to gather women for a cause, and organize rallies and meetings, and also to think patiently and calmly and strategize. She invited Lakshmi Ashram women to join them. I rushed to Khirakot, the village which was at the centre of all activity. I saw the extent of the damage and told the women, "You have every right to protect your land and forest and ask for stoppage of work on the mine." The women immediately started raising public awareness on the issue by holding meetings, distributing leaflets and so on. But this takes a long time. Something more drastic and immediate needed to be done. They decided to rush to the mine, and snatched the digging implements like pickaxes, shovels etc from the laborers, and said, "we will not let you continue with this work if you will not listen to us."
The contractor was a worried man and believed that the women should either be bought over by tempting offers, or suppressed. He decided to embark on both options. One day, the contractor himself came to Lakshmi Ashram followed by an old man, carrying a brief case. "I want to provide a generous donation for your ashram activities," he told me. "But you must withdraw your support to the Khirakot agitation." My clear "NO" must have disappointed him, but did not stop him from spreading a rumor that Radha has withdrawn from the agitation! Malti Devi was naturally alarmed. She immediately called a meeting at Chanouda Bazar, to which I was summoned , so that I could personally tell the truth and stop the rumors . This was another display of Malti Devi's skill in dealing with difficult situations, backed by the power of the state.
Then the contractor began his other option of threatening the women. Disguised as police officers, some of the contractors' men went to the villagers in Chanounda Bazar, and said, "We have received information that the women of Khirakote are obstructing official work. Now we are here and we shall arrest all the women." The young boys, one of whom was Malti Devi's nephew, came rushing and reported the matter to her. "The police will come to arrest you, Chachi", (aunt) he told her. Malti Devi remained calm. "How do you know they are policemen," she asked? The reply came, "They are dressed like the police and they are carrying huge sticks." She asked the boy to come along with two or three of his friends, and together they went and sat down on a hillside, from where they could get a clear view of the path below leading up to their village. The contractors men could not see them, but they could see them coming up! As soon as the so-called lathi (stick)-wielding police, in their khaki uniforms approached the village, Malti Devi asked these boys to collect little pebbles, and start showering them on the approaching men, but to be careful that no one was hurt. The pebbles should fall on either side of these men, but not on them. As soon as the first pebbles fell, the startled men began to run away, back in the direction from which they had come. Promptly, Malti Devi concluded, these are not policemen. The police would never run away from the field with this small provocation. They would want to stay on, and probe into the incident. These must be the contractors men, come here to frighten us into submission. But we shall not yield.
Malti Devi did not disclose this to anyone. Many months later I asked her why she had not told even me about this, because she usually took me into confidence. "Had I done so," she said, "word might have spread that we were resorting to violence, and the government would have lost no time in discrediting us, and thus break our movement." I was amazed at this woman's far sightedness and wisdom.
When this movement was at its height, the District Magistrate of the area sent the patwari and spread the word that the men should come for a meeting at Chanod Bazar. But the women were not told about this meeting. Visibly annoyed, Malti Devi said, "this is our movement, we are leading this, and we shall also go there. Why did they not call us? The men would be taken in by their words and may agree to halt the agitation. That would not be right." Along with 15 women, Malti Devi set off for the meeting. The DM arrived and began his speech, directed only at the men. It was as though the women were non-existent as far as he was concerned. The DM, as expected, spoke on the benefits that were to accrue from the mines. Just think of the amount of employment opportunities that will be generated? Why are you agitating? This is for your development. Why are you bent on obstructing development work? As always, the men nodded their heads in assent.
Malti Devi could no longer restrain herself. Greatly agitated, she marched up to the DM, pulled at his shirt, and directly facing him, asked, "what development are you talking about? What need have I for this kind of development? What employment are you talking about? My employment is in agriculture, in growing crops, in dairy farming. The crops help to feed my family. Milk and dahi (curd) are also for them. It keeps my family happy. Your employment, ie. digging mines, ruins my livelihood, which is agriculture. I have no need for this kind of employment." The DM was astounded. He had no answer to Malti Devi's outburst.
Malti Devi was a simple village woman, who was speaking out of her own life experience. It was no academic theorizing. Without using big words, she was talking about sustainable development and sustainable life style. What the men could not say, this simple woman had articulated beautifully, with self belief and confidence. The other women took the cue from her."Your development ruins our forests where our animals graze. It ruins our agriculture, our fields, our soil, on which generations have been raised. You have no right to destroy this in the name of development. You cannot destroy the basic resources of our life," they said.
Again the DM was silenced. He went back and after a month, the official orders to close down the mines were passed. The women said, "all these mines have to be closed, and we have to plant trees where these mines existed." A camp was held for this purpose. Men and women came together and closed the open mines with earth, rubble, stones, etc. A successful nonviolent action thus came to a close.
In my view, only overt physical violence is not violence. Anything that harms and destroys the harmonious lifestyle and environment is violence. It is anti-peace. It disturbs the balance of nature, and between man and nature. This is also violence and it is our duty to prevent this through nonviolence, through collective action, together, as a society, as happened in this instance. Maybe, there was no talk of laying down lives for the cause, but certainly there was talk of going to jail. These women showed the courage, readiness and willingness to face the consequences of their action, essential to any nonviolent movement. They continued their protest for two and a half years with the firm belief that truth was on their side, and they were working for the benefit of the people, which was a greater cause!
**Radha Bhatt (SAPA Core Group member and Chairperson, Gandhi Peace Foundation and Sarva Seva
Post Script: The legacy of strong women working and fighting to save the environment continues. Currently the women of Uttarakhand have undertaken Save the Rivers Campaign to protect and save the rivers in the state from growing threats posed by the dams being built across the glacier-fed rivers, villages sinking as a result of these dams and their tunnels, the water, the lifeline of the people being diverted.