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Chipko was never anti-development: Shekhar Pathak

Shekhar Pathak, winner of the 2022 NIF Book Prize, talks about the book on the Chipko movement

A scene from the Chipko Movement, which the book talks about beyond its flashpoints in popular discourse.
A scene from the Chipko Movement, which the book talks about beyond its flashpoints in popular discourse. (Wikimedia Commons)

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On 1 December, the Bengaluru-based New India Foundation (NIF) awarded its annual Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay NIF Book Prize to the English translation of Hari Bhari Ummeed, a 2019 book that tells the story of the Chipko Andolan beyond its flashpoints in popular discourse. Brought into English by writer and editor Manisha Chaudhry as The Chipko Movement: A People’s History, the book was originally written by Shekhar Pathak, the now 71-year-old historian and founder of the People’s Association for Himalaya Area Research (PAHAR).

Over email, the academic-author-traveller talks about what he finds objectionable about the conversation around the Chipko Movement, the popularity of tree plantation drives, and the way forward for the movement’s ideals. Edited excerpts.

You say in the introduction that there’s a “need for a ...thoroughly grounded record of the movement” since there was “a proliferation of erroneous and half-baked conclusions...because of the distance of scholars from the realities of the field”. How did the Chipko movement stay in people’s memory before ‘Hari Bhari Ummeed’ was published?

In many new studies on the Chipko Movement, old misinformations are repeated. However, detailed information on the different creative sprouts of the Chipko, like eco camps of the DGSM (Dasholi Gram Swarajya Mandal set up by Chandi Prasad Bhatt), Beej Bachao Movement, Chetna Andolan, Laxmi Ashram, Nadi Bachao Abhiyan, (eventually) came out. The good thing is that many participants and social workers including Sarla Behn, Mira Behn, Kameshwar Prasad Bahuguna, Chandi Prasad Bhatt, Yogesh Bahuguna, Khadak Singh Khani, Dhan Singh Rana and Shamsher Bisht wrote their experiences and memoirs. Radha Behn’s (Radha Bhatt, disciple of Sarala Behn or Catherine Mary Heilman, an England-born Gandhian who’d settled in India) auto-biography is ready for press. These publications give much intimate information about Chipko and other social movements.

In short but sharp critiques of the likes of Sunderlal Bahuguna and Chandi Prasad Bhatt, you note how some sites and people of the Chipko became iconic, while others were often forgotten...

This happens with social as well as political movements. In the Chipko movement, some names became prominent because they were the major leaders and dedicated social workers. They had already led earlier movements. This was not questioned. But, it is objectionable when researchers (only talk to and about) a select few. It is more objectionable that they do not even mention the galaxy of diverse activists. Branding the (Chipko) movement as economic once and now, suddenly as ecological...was forced by certain writers.

Academic Shekhar Pathak.
Academic Shekhar Pathak.

You mention how the Maiti Andolan applied the wedding ritual of planting paiyan trees to other occasions like Valentine’s Day. Tree plantation drives are increasingly popular, but is there adequate follow through?

Symbolic or ritual plantation is part of Asian and Himalayan tradition. But social fencing was always given importance by communities. A plantation is always welcome but a natural forest is ecologically different from plantation. Only a natural forest creates the ‘climate’ for biodiversity. Van Panchayats are the symbol of community caring and sharing of the forest resources for fodder, fuel, timber, fertiliser, herbs, fruits and roots in Uttarakhand. Some trees like oak, pipal, burch, padma, cheura (butter tree), deodar, kafal, and burans are more loved and worshipped due to their usefulness. Having said that though, not a single species is ‘enemy tree’. Maiti Andolan is more symbolic, as because of modernisation, people have forgotten planting rituals that happen after or during marriage ceremonies. Maiti has yet to develop a forest. But its idea is traditionally great.

You say the movement “is not anti-development in the mountains nor is it synonymous with the environment.” What does this mean going forward?

The Chipko was both an economic and ecological movement. It was never anti-development. It did however challenge big dams, unscientific road construction, monoculture in many aspects, and centralisation. All these are misdeeds in the fragile and seismically sensitive Himalaya. Chipko is essentially meant for saving the soil. If we care for the Himalaya, we care for the entire northern region of Indian subcontinent. Chipko advocates for the smaller cottage industries: toys, wood carvings, sporting goods, and farming of medicinal herbs and aromatic plants, with a little agriculture and animal husbandry. All of this so that instead of commercial felling, we can start selective ecological use of different species. In the crises accelerated by climate change, the only natural carbon-sink are forests.

If the destruction in the Amazon can impact the behaviour of Indian monsoon, and the black dust from north India can reach northern Iceland and melt the ice, we must realise the global importance of Himalayan forests. The Chipko movement’s greatest contribution is to give central place to forests in conversations on economy, ecology, and now even climate change. We ought to celebrate 50 years of the Chipko with its local and global messages...We ought to remember that the songs, dances, yatras, and abodes of folk gods are all associated with, or are in, forests....We all can only protect them by understanding the wisdom evolved by Chipko.

Also Read: What social movements and workplaces can learn from each other

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