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India@75

1973: Chipko movement starts

Print edition : Aug 25, 2022 T+T-

1973: Chipko movement starts

Sunderlal Bahuguna, who had become synonymous with the Chipko movement, with his wife, Vimla.

Sunderlal Bahuguna, who had become synonymous with the Chipko movement, with his wife, Vimla. | Photo Credit: THE HINDU PHOTO ARCHIVES

It was successful primarily because of its simplicity and the involvement of locals.

On April 24, 1973, the Gandhian social worker Chandi Prasad Bhatt rallied the women of Mandal in the Garhwal division of what was still part of Uttar Pradesh to stop Symonds (a company manufacturing sports products) from cutting down trees. The women embraced the trees and prevented them from being cut. The action started what has become famous as the Chipko movement.

The forests of the area, which is now in Uttarakhand, had attracted timber companies in the 1960s and the hill slopes were being decimated by commercial logging. Local people, however, were not allowed to cut trees for fuel or fodder. Then in 1970, the Alakananda flooded its banks and the already bare slopes aggravated the disaster, causing major mudslides and landslides. Yet the logging continued unabated. For the villagers, the last straw was the government’s permission to Symonds. Chandi Prasad Bhatt, well-known in the area for his cooperative organisation Dasholi Gram Swarajya Sangh, mobilised the people. The Symonds permit was cancelled.

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Logging, however, continued. When, in 1974, forests affected by the Alakananda floods were once again earmarked for logging, it enraged the villagers and it was the women who drove out the contractors. The State set up a committee, and the outcome was a 10-year ban on logging, later extended for a further 10 years. The Chipko movement gained momentum. 

Chipko was successful primarily because of the simplicity of method and the involvement of local people, for whom it was about regaining control over natural resources. Their close links with the forest provided the impetus. It was the women, who collected firewood and fodder, who were, therefore, at the forefront. The movement is often called an eco-feminist movement, but the label is an external tag. For the women, it was a matter of survival.

The movement gained power under the eco-activist Sunderlal Bahuguna, whose mission was to save the Himalayan forests. He persuaded Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to impose a 15-year ban on tree cutting in the Garhwal-Kumaon region.

Also read: India at 75: Epochal moments from the 1970s

The spirit of the Chipko movement has since been assimilated into tree-saving protests around the country. One in Karnataka even took on a local name, “appiko”, meaning “embrace” in Kannada. But the first recorded instance of this novel way of saving trees comes from the nature-loving Bishnois in Rajasthan in the 18th century.

A woman called Amrita Devi rallied others to save trees in her village that were being cut by the Jodhpur ruler. Neither the women nor the trees survived, but the king, stunned by their sacrifice, issued a royal decree that trees were never to be cut in Bishnoi villages.