Forgotten Chipko movement villagers expose cracks in BJP’s “development” narrative

Plight of forgotten victims in Uttarakhand’s flood-ravaged villages highlights the stark contrast between political rhetoric and the ground reality.

Published : Apr 04, 2024 23:03 IST - 12 MINS READ

The women of Raini in traditional attire.

The women of Raini in traditional attire. | Photo Credit: By Special Arrangement

78-year-old Baali Devi sits on the terrace of her old, dilapidated house in remote Raini village, meticulously separating cauliflower leaves from the stems. Like other women from her Bhotiya tribe, she too sports a stone necklace, inexpensive but valuable to her, a symbol of pride.

It takes a 30-minute hike to get to the village, nestled deep in the hills of Uttarakhand. And as soon as you get off the main road, the villages in and around Raini are seen covered in lush greenery. There is no mobile network coverage. Located at an altitude of 3,700 metres above sea level, Raini is situated on the upper slopes of the Rishiganga river.

Raini village stands at a distance of approximately 400 kilometres from New Delhi and about 340 km from Uttarakhand’s capital, Dehradun. Yet, in terms of development, it has been left far behind. Deep in the border districts of Pithoragarh, Chamoli, and Uttarkashi, reside the Bhotiya people, a community of Tibetan origin.

Once the hothouse of the 1973 Chipko movement, Raini bore the brunt of a glacial lake outburst flood in February 2021 that left over 200 dead. More than three years after the disaster, hundreds of people living in and around the region who were directly affected by the disaster are still awaiting rehabilitation measures from the government. A symbol of environmentalism in the Himalaya, Raini was declared “inhabitable” in July 2021, five months after the floods, by a team of geologists in their report to the district magistrate (DM).

Baali Devi.

Baali Devi. | Photo Credit: Ismat Ara

Memories of Chipko

Baali Devi, along with other women from Raini, once symbolised the fight against deforestation and environmental degradation. Now she sits on her terrace, her hands busy with mundane tasks, her mind heavy with memories of a bygone era. She remembers being part of the Chipko movement, which started from this very village and quickly spread to other parts of the country.

She is among the last few women from the movement who are still alive. “Our village was at the forefront of the movement because we have traditionally lived with the forests. We couldn’t see the scale of deforestation in the name of development,” she recalls. She, and other women from her village belonging to the Bhotiya tribe, now curse their fate.

“The village was hit by floods in 2021, but we are still living here,” Baali Devi says fiercely. The 2021 floods devastated Raini, but despite having fought for the environment, the village has received little to no government assistance, according to Baali Devi. Her anger stems from the continued vulnerability of Raini. The nearby Jua Gwad bridge, which was destroyed in the floods, has not yet been rebuilt, forcing villagers to use a precarious trolley to cross the river. She fears that another flood will leave them with nowhere to go.

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“Even in the upper part of Raini Chak, where my house is, we are at risk,” she explains. “During the floods, families from the worst-hit Raini Chak Lata came here for months to sleep and eat. But we are not safe either.”

Her complaint is that no government has ever cared for them. “Women from our community, young and old, fought for the forests, against deforestation. They did it during the Chipko movement, and have been doing it for decades. But no government ever cared for us. I will say this even if I am sent to jail. We are at risk; where is the aid promised after the floods of 2021?”

A figurine in Raini village depicting the Chipko movement.

A figurine in Raini village depicting the Chipko movement. | Photo Credit: Ismat Ara

Her concern extends beyond herself. Baali Devi worries not just for her generation, but for the future. “We worked hard against deforestation, but what about our youth? When the next flood hits, where will they go all of a sudden?”

She also wants a planned rehabilitation effort. “We can’t move suddenly. Give us space. We want to slowly rebuild our lives, with our families, customs, and traditions. We earned a name for saving the environment, but today, what are we left with? Lives that can be washed away any day? We do some farming, some odd jobs. Where will we live? In the name of Gaura Devi [founder of the Chipko movement], the government should give us a place. We want to be rehabilitated.”

Baali Devi’s words encapsulate the frustration and neglect felt by many in Raini—a village deeply rooted in the Chipko movement and the legacy of Gaura Devi. Yet, despite their contributions to environmental conservation, they find themselves abandoned by the government in the face of risk.

Despite the report that was submitted on the account of the flash floods that rocked Raini village on February 7, 2021, during which two under-construction hydel power projects—Rishi Ganga and NTPC’s Tapovan Dam—were damaged, the government has failed to rehabilitate the people of this region.

According to experts and Disaster Management Officers, the lower areas of Raini village that house around 55 families are not fit for human settlement at all. There is also a consensus among meteorologists and geological experts that the Himalayan State is in the firing line of climate change and global warming.

A statue of Gaura Devi, one of the leading figures of the Chipko movement, who hailed from Raini. The statue was moved to a safer place in Joshimath for a short period.

A statue of Gaura Devi, one of the leading figures of the Chipko movement, who hailed from Raini. The statue was moved to a safer place in Joshimath for a short period. | Photo Credit: Ismat Ara

Tourism menace

According to Atul Sati, a local environmental activist, the manifold increase in the influx of tourists over the years—from around six lakh tourists a year to over 15 lakh—has led to an increase in vehicular pollution, river pollution, construction activity, and commercialisation. “The construction of hydropower projects and road widening activities have had a major impact in the region. All these factors have contributed to an increase in temperatures, along with a change in rainfall pattern,” he said.

In his recent address in Rudrapur, Uttarakhand, on April 2, Prime Minister Narendra Modi set off the campaign for the upcoming Lok Sabha election in the State’s five constituencies. The Prime Minister portrayed Uttarakhand as a success story of his government, saying that the State has witnessed unprecedented development over the past decade.

By emphasising the achievements in infrastructure, housing, and sanitation, he aimed to project his administration as one that delivers tangible results. The narrative of “Uttarakhand’s integration into modern connectivity” also serves as a broader metaphor for the BJP’s vision of progress and development across the nation. Modi projected himself as a leader with a vision for the future, promising further advancements beyond what has been achieved so far.

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While Modi’s projects promise strategic benefits and all-weather connectivity, they fail to address the urgent needs of communities like Raini, where rehabilitation and environmental protection should be paramount.

As the Lok Sabha election draws closer, such rhetoric will likely become more pronounced as the political battle for power intensifies. But people in Raini and surrounding areas are not convinced. The promises of development, echoed by the ruling BJP, seem hollow against the backdrop of Raini’s anguish.

A view of Raini village, where the Chipko movement originated.

A view of Raini village, where the Chipko movement originated. | Photo Credit: Ismat Ara

The cost of development

The tragedy of Raini village epitomises the broader narrative of environmental neglect and human suffering in the pursuit of development.

Raghubir Singh Rana, a farmer from of Raini Chak Lata, which was badly affected by the 2021 floods, said: “Modi sarkar mein vikas karya nahin, vinaash karya hua hai” (there has not been any development work under the Modi government, only destruction).

Standing outside his “chaulai” (amaranth) farm, shooing away monkeys and langurs (Old World monkeys), he said: “Our community was mainly engaged in agricultural activities, but the monkeys and langurs have made it difficult lately as they destroy the crops. The entire village is troubled.”

Yet, this is a minor problem for him. The bigger one is the upcoming monsoon when he and other villagers worry the glacier will burst again. “The floods can come anytime during the monsoon,” he said, with a deep sense of disturbance at the increasing pollution and ongoing developmental activities at the cost of the environment.

He recalled: “I clearly remember. It was February 7, 2021, around 10.30 am. Most villagers were outside, at their farm or tending to cattle. When the glacier broke, the water rushed towards the village. There was no time to take our belongings, even cattle. We couldn’t see anything because of the water. We immediately ran up, yet hundreds of people died.”

The huge mass of snow, water, boulders, and silt sped down the Rishiganga river, first damaging the 13 MW private Rishiganga hydel project and then flowing down to the Dhauliganga river to swamp the NTPC-owned 520 MW Tapovan-Vishnugad hydropower project.

Rana laments the destruction of the environment in his area. “We are the Bhotiya people, we have a special connection with the forests. Our people, our women during the Chipko movement, hugged the trees and told the authorities that they will first have to axe them before they can do so to the trees.”

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The villagers fear that their deep-rooted connection with the environment is now completely threatened by developmental activities. Rana said: “All the cars, the new projects, the factories have led to lower snow. Earlier, we would see 5-6 feet of snow, now we long to see even 1 foot.”

He added: “The government assured us that we will be rehabilitated. But there has been no progress on that front. We still live in extreme fear.”

Raghubir Singh Rana, a resident of Raini, recalled the 2021 flood disaster that claimed over 200 lives.

Raghubir Singh Rana, a resident of Raini, recalled the 2021 flood disaster that claimed over 200 lives. | Photo Credit: Ismat Ara

Contemplating a boycott

However, he believes that although the BJP will not care for the Bhotiya tribe’s issues, it will not affect their electoral victory. Several villagers who are in support of boycotting the election are now contemplating if a boycott will have any effect.

The talk of boycotting the election stems from their deep-seated grievances and unaddressed concerns, and highlights the escalating environmental and human-made calamities plaguing the region, including in Joshimath, about 60 km away, also in the Garhwal parliamentary constituency (also known as Pauri Garhwal). In March this year, the residents of Joshimath too had threatened to boycott the Lok Sabha election if the State government continued to ignore their problems arising out of land subsidence (sudden sinking of the earth’s surface owing to natural or man-made causes).

While some families have moved out of Raini to nearby places including Tapovan and Joshimath, a majority of the villagers do not have the means to do so.

Also, not all elders have abandoned hope. Kalawati (72) speaks of her deep-rooted attachment to the region, despite it witnessing little development over the years. “The media visits brought reassurances, but no tangible progress. We were left to fend for ourselves.”

Ajay Rawat, a resident of nearby Lata village, says that the villagers are contemplating a boycott of the upcoming election because the government has not bothered to build roads leading to the village.

Ajay Rawat, a resident of nearby Lata village, says that the villagers are contemplating a boycott of the upcoming election because the government has not bothered to build roads leading to the village. | Photo Credit: Ismat Ara

Anger among residents

Bhavaan Singh, the “pradhan” (village head) of Raini Chak Subhai village, said that during the 2021 floods, the bridge to nearby Jua Gwad village was completely washed away. More than three years later, it has still not been rebuilt. “More than 50 families live in that village. They are risking their lives every day by crossing the river in trolleys. The kids need to go to school and the men need to go to work. It is highly unsafe. In addition, pieces of rocks fall over the village where so many families continue to live,” he said.

In February, he said, the villages were contemplating boycotting the upcoming election. But a consensus could not be built. “Even if one village goes out to vote, the purpose will be defeated. So instead of boycotting, we now want to vote smartly,” he said.

The village head, in multiple letters to the Sub-Divisional Magistrate of Joshimath on behalf of the village council, expressed grave concerns regarding the aftermath of the calamity that had struck their village in 2021. The letters lamented the government’s inaction and highlighted the dire state of rural roads, damaged drinking water infrastructure, and the urgent need for reconstruction of the Jua Gwad Jhula bridge.

In one of the letters, he also said: “Land erosion is going on continuously in the village, but no plan has been made to build a wall to stop the erosion, which is a threat to the entire village.” In another, he warns of the possibility of another flood. “The entire village of Rani Chak Subhai is very sensitive from a geographical and geological point of view. Despite this, the administration is silent. There is the possibility of landslides in the village again in the coming rainy season.”

Young women of Raini like Mahima Rana (18), left, are among the first-time voters from the village.

Young women of Raini like Mahima Rana (18), left, are among the first-time voters from the village. | Photo Credit: Ismat Ara

Tale of neglect

In nearby Lata village, about 3 km from Raini, the residents are angry because the roads have not been constructed. “The road construction has been on hold now, and the villagers are angry. No road, no vote,” said Ajay Rawat, a resident.

While roads are being widened and connectivity expanded in some parts of Uttarakhand, remote villages like Raini and Lata suffer not only from a lack of development but also government neglect.

Mahima Rana (18), a resident of Raini, will be casting her first vote soon. She reflects the aspirations of a generation yearning for change. Yet, the scars of the 2021 disaster loom large in her memory. “During that time, we couldn’t eat, work, or even stay in our homes,” she said. “We sought refuge in the forests, fearing another catastrophe.”

Against this backdrop, Mahavir Singh, a dhaba owner in Sumerpur Ratura, echoes the sentiment of disillusionment. “We receive rations, but employment opportunities remain scarce,” he said.

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Tirath Singh Rawat of the BJP, a former Chief Minister, won the Pauri Garhwal constituency in 2019. This time, the BJP is fielding fielded Anil Baluni, a party spokesperson and Rajya Sabha member from Uttarakhand, from this seat. The State goes to the polls in a single phase on April 19 for all five seats.

Yet, amid discontent, Modi’s popularity remains unwavering, overshadowing local grievances. “Aayega toh Modi hi” (Modi is certain to win), a sentiment echoed by many, reflects a blend of admiration and resignation to the status quo.

However, despite the political fanfare, the looming spectre of climate change is as central issue. Raini’s vulnerability to environmental disasters, exacerbated by unchecked developmental activities, underscores the urgent need for action.

The rapid retreat of glaciers, exacerbated by global warming, poses an imminent threat to communities residing in high-altitude regions. Even as the nation’s attention is captivated by grandiose initiatives promising progress and connectivity, the plight of these forgotten victims sheds light on the stark contrast between political rhetoric and the ground reality.

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