Linking Environment Protection To People's Livelihood


Bharat Dogra


In recent years funds for various kinds of voluntary development work have increased significantly, but side by side there has been a growing concern about the quality of work which has been achieved by the bulk of these funds. There is increasing concern at the routinisation of development work — a salary becomes available for a particular work which is then done in a routine sort of way. The urge for social change, the yearning for improving society and helping society in innovative ways is lost in this process. The courage to challenge the established order of things to help the poor and the oppressed sections is missing.


It is in this context that there is a growing urge to look at the way unpaid, (or largely unpaid), voluntary work has been contributing to the society. The tradition of unpaid voluntary work, particularly secular unpaid voluntary work which is not attached to the propagation of any religion or sect, has been diminishing and so it is all the more important to try to learn from what remains of it and then try to create the conditions in which unpaid or largely unpaid voluntary work has a greater chance of sustaining itself.


From this perspective it is very interesting to study the work of ‘Beej Bachao Andolan’ (Save the Seeds Movement-SSM) in Henvalghati region (Tehri Garhwal District). More or less the same core group of activists was earlier involved in the Chipko Movement (Hug the Trees Movement), Anti Liquor Movement and the Movement to Stop Destructive Mining Practices. This group provides a very admirable example of largely unpaid voluntary work which has :


1.         Continued largely uninterrupted for almost three



2.         Culminated in several significant movements leading to very positive results (in some cases got appreciation at a national level).


3.         Was able to take up environmental issue that prioritised longer-term considerations, at times ignoring short-term gains.


4.         Was able to secure particularly enthusiastic involvement of village women who had so far seldom stepped outside their routine domestic and farm life.


5.         Was able to consolidate movement victories in small areas into longer-term gains that could spread to a wider area.


6.         Kept alive the Gandhian tradition of peaceful struggles having a strong moral force, providing an inspiring example of implementing Gandhian/Sarvodya ideas at the grassroots.


Let us look at all these four significant aspects in some detail :

1.         In the first phase, in the early seventies, these activists were largely involved in the anti-liquor movement. At first they struggled against the sale of liquor in this region and then they went to some other areas as well. This led to a significant reduction in the availability and sale of liquor in these areas.


The second phase involved the mobilisation of a large number of villager for what is now familiarly known as ‘Chipko’ actions to save trees. Henvalghati is one of the few regions where the word ‘Chipko’ is not just a symbol ; a large number of villagers actually hugged trees when the contractor’s men tried to fell trees. This happened in the forest of Salet and Advani in 1977-78. In Advani even though a large police force was summoned to assist the contractor, still the contractor’s men could not cut trees and villagers, particularly women, simply clasped trees and it was impossible to cut trees without first cutting or perhaps even killing them.


In this phase apart from protecting forests near their villages, activists and villagers also went to forest auction sites to protest against the auctioning of forests. Then several activists also went to villages outside their area to participate in Chipko actions there. The Chipko actions in Henvalghati, as well as in other places where activists from here played an important role, attracted a lot of attention and played an important role in a moratorium on felling of green trees being announced by the Uttar Pradesh government in a large part of ecologically crucial Uttarakhand region (the Himalyan catchment areas of the Ganga-Yamuna river system).


In the third phase the movement resisted the onslaught of mining practices (to get limestone) in ecologically fragile and sensitive zones which would have played havoc with the green fields, water springs and rivulets that are the lifeline of this region. This movement was successful by and large in keeping away the mining contractors, although the lease of one of them has not yet expired and so continues to be a threat. Later these activists from Henvalghati also went to other villages ever more badly threatened by mining work and contributed to saving the environment and ecology of villages like Nahim Kala in Dehradun district.


In the fourth phase (mainly the decade of the nineties and the months after this) the most important activity here was to save traditional seeds and motivate farmers towards organic, non-chemical farming practices. Government and university scientists were propagating among many farmers to take up green revolution seeds and technology in a big way involving the use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Here the potential of environmental destruction is even higher than in plains because of the threat of water springs and other springs getting poisoned by chemicals. In addition generally university scientists were asking farmers to give up time honoured dryland mixed cropping systems (such as barahanaja or twelve grain systems) which played a crucial role in meeting the nutrition needs of people as well as maintaining the fertility of land. The government/university scientists told the people to replace these with cash crop monoculture oriented entirely to the call of the market.


In this situation SSM carried out a sustained campaign to demonstrate the ecological and long-term advantages of traditional cropping system and traditional crop varieties grown with organic, non-chemical, self-reliant technology. Many farmers, particularly women were willing to listen, but couldn't find traditional seeds. So SSM activists travelled to several remote villages, collecting seed of traditional varieties wherever these were still available. For example they have collected over 100 indigenous varieties of rice and documented nearly 280 varieties. These are being sown on the farms of activists and other farmers so that more indigenous seeds become available over the years. The SSM activists took their message to several villages and in particular they found the women very responsive to their message.


These four phases indicate a continuity of largely unpaid voluntary work in some highly relevant areas. But the work of the activists was not just confined to this. In addition they responded from time to time to various current issues—for example at the time of the upsurge of communalism they spoke against communalism and at the time of anti-reservation agitations, they spoke for the dalits. They were not afraid to take unpopular positions if this was a principled decision. Thus at a time when few local persons dared to criticise certain anti-dalit trends within the Uttarakhand Statehood Movement, some activists of SSM did not hesitate to identify these trends. They were quite prepared to face the hostile reactions of some people but did not go back on their principled stand. The principled stand taken by SSM activists on certain important issues, as experienced in some press statements as well as pamphlets, influenced public opinion to a significant extent. Hence the continuity of the work of SSM activists is even bigger than what is indicated by the four phases described above.


2.         The Chipko movement took place in several parts of Uttarakhand but the movement in Henvalghati had a very special role. Before this more emphasis was given to increasing the economic benefits of forests to local people. The ecological issues were not given so much importance as this issue.



However in Henvalghati slogans like :

Kya Hai Jangal Ke Upkaar

Mitti, Pani aur Byaar.

which can be translated as :

Which gifts do forest bear

Soil, water and fresh air.


Thus the ecological issues came to the fore-front. The ecological issues were tied up with the long term protection of rural livelihood. Hence the demand for a ban on felling of trees got importance and was finally accepted by the government. Thus within the Chipko movement, the movement in Henvalghati, particularly the acion to save Advani forest, marks an important watershed in highlighting the ecological aspect and links it locally to livelihood. The fact that ordinary villagers participated so actively  and courageously in the movement confirmed that there were no real contradictions in the protection of environment and the sustained, longer-terms protection of livelihood of villagers.

The efforts to save traditional seeds also proved very successful as a small group of resourceless activists were able to save so many varieties which were in danger of getting lost and at the same time alerted the society to the risk of invaluable heritage being lost. The challenge they threw to the government/corporate sector’s effort to spread consumer oriented monocultures was also very timely and forced several people, including those within the government, to have a second look at the direction in which their policies were moving.


3.         The activists were able to secure the involvement of villagers in movements, which emphasised longer-term, sustainable aspects. People came forward not just for immediate needs but for longer-term sustainable livelihood and environment protection. Environmental protection was effectively linked to sustainable livelihood.


Kunwar Prasun, a leading activist of all phases of this movement says, ‘‘Actually it was not so difficult to involve villagers in movements which emphasise long-term considerations. Our experience is that villagers actually have good understanding of the importance of long-term aspects. After all it is only if the forests and land survive that they and their children have a future. But sometimes contractors, wrong policies, corrupt people all these combine together to create conditions in which destructive practices appear to bring economic gain. In such a situation there is a need to put the real issues before the villagers in a very clear way, to engage in a debate with the other side, to give villagers the courage to stand up and protect their resource base, to create conducive conditions in which these efforts will be successful. This is where the role of activist like us becomes important and this is the role we played so that the long-term interest could be protected.


4.         In these hill villages women have the responsibility of fetching fuel, fodder and water. So the loss of forest means that their drudgery will increase, they’ll have to walk longer distances with heavy loads and they may have to go to more dangerous slopes. So Chipko activists had more enthusiastic support of women in the forests movement.


It is women who suffer the most when liquor consumption increases. They are frequently beaten up and it becomes difficult to meet essential households expenses. So in the anti-liquor movements women were the most enthusiastic    activists.


The ‘Save the Seeds Movement’ got the best response from women farmers. In these hill villages men plough fields but most of other farming work is done by women. Seeds are their concern more than that of men. But men go to the market and the block headquarters where they are told about ‘improved’ seeds and the subsidies accompanying them. So men bring them and ask the women to sow these seeds, and not knowing much about the new seeds the women grow them.


Vijay Jardhari, a senior activist of SSM says, ‘‘After some years women regret this decision but by then it is not easy to get old varieties.’’ Sudesha, an activist from Rampur village say, ‘‘Men bring these new seeds which ruin our agriculture, women have always liked traditional seeds.’’


SSM activists took a large number of meetings with women farmers when they were invited by the Mahila Samakhya Programme for this purpose. In these meetings which continued for two years in Tehri Garwal district. Kunwar Prasun says that everyone amongst the women appreciated the message of traditional indigenous seeds. Not even at one meeting did they say that the green revolution seeds are better. On the other hand the green revolution technology finds relatively more support among men who want to increase cash returns in the short-run.


Thus the experience of this movement has been that there is a strong gender aspect of the quest for sustainable, long-term development based on environmental protection-women are likely to be more enthusiastic supporters of this. Dhum Singh Negi, SSM’s senior-most activist says, ‘‘Women have been the most enthusiastic participants in all movements-whether it is the anti-liquor movement or the forest protection movement.’’


5.         Despite the very low resources with which they worked, these activists have been able frequently to consolidate the gains of their various movements. For example, after the success of the forest-protection movements, some activists from Henvalghati participated in the famous Kashmir-to-Kohima foot march organised by the veteran Gandhian leader Sundar Lal Bahuguna. Then they organised Forest Protection Committees and appointed watchmen (and watchwomen) for the protection of several forests. This led to a remarkable regeneration of forests such as those in Jardhar, Kuri and to some extent Piplet.


In the case of Seed Saving Campaign, they took out a foot march from one corner of Uttarakhand region (Arakot village) to another corner (Askok village). This Arakot-Askok March enabled SSM to take their message to very remote villages all over Uttarakhand.


When they undertake a foot-march generally the foot-marchers of this movement start with empty pockets, signifying that they will be dependent on the villagers to provide them food and shelter. This enables them to undertake long marches in difficult areas at an incredibly low budget (used for printing pamphlets and for the return journey by bus after completing the march).


6.         All the struggles of these movements have been peaceful struggles in which they try to attain a high moral standing which also hopes to have at least some influence on the opponents. Probably this is why this movement has seen comparatively less repression, keeping in view the very powerful forces they have confronted at times.


Most of the leading activists like Dhum Singh Negi, Kunwar Prasun and Vijay Jardhari have been firm believers in Gandhian values. They draw their ideological strength from pre-independence Gandhian movements, the writings of Mahatma Gandhi, Sarvodaya leaders, and post-independence Sarvodya supported movements. Uttarakhand based Gandhian activists like Vimla and Sundar Lal Bahuguna, Sarla Behn and Mira Behn are their most important source of inspiration. Vimla and Sundar Lal Bahuguna have been very close to them. Ghanshyam Sailani, a Gandhian acivist  of Uttarakhand was a highly valued and much loved friend. His fold songs were a big source of strength for all the movements of Henvalghati.


Senior activists survived on the basis of very meagre economic base of their farms or occasional financial help organised by close friends and sympathisers. Some earned a little income from writing and research as well. It was very courageous on their part to work without any regular funding but at times this also caused a great deal of avoidable hardships to them and their families. Also it caused a few slack periods as activists burdened with hardships could not devote more time to the movement.


It is now increasingly felt that such survival is becoming more difficult as the cost of living continues to rise. Many of the younger activists feel the need for some small income. Otherwise they may be persuaded by their families to look for some regular job away from their villages.


So while respecting fully the decision of the activists not to organise a formal NGO with regular funding, friends of SSM can help to create more conducive conditions for the progress of SSM by collecting funds/donations for SSM in an informal way.