Letters from India No 22

´Letters from India´ is a fortnightly brief written by Finnish exchange activists participating in the Lokayan – Kepa co-operation programme. The ´Letters´ are circulated primarily among the staff of the organisations and members of the groups responsible for the joint activities, i.e. Lokayan´s Global Responsibility Forum – Vasudhaiva Kutumbkam and Kepa´s India Group.
Anastasia Laitila

Letters from India, vol 22
November 20th, 2002
Shivalik, New Delhi

Back in Delhi after an educating journey to Lesser Himalaya and suffering from a vigorous food poisoning. After the mountain breeze (just like at home!) Delhi seems even more polluted than before. We met some great and important men such as C.P. Bhatt and Sundharlal Bhagouna (how do you spell that?) from the Chipko andolan (hug the tree -movement) but I am more and more interested about the women that nobody knows, who carry iron plows on their heads in 2002. Quite a lot of the people we’ve spoken to have stressed the important role of women, especially in the hills.

When I say that integrating these people into the global economy might actually be destructive, liberalists tell me I want to set developing countries back into primitive economy. What can I say, the “primitive” economy still exists in agrarian economies and changing it rapidly will not help the poor. In the hilly areas industrial agriculture is not even possible, manual labor and farm animals are more useful. Still, agriculture is changing, traditional rights to land and resources have been lost and traditional varieties not used as much as before. In small landholdings crops are in two-three terraces and different land races sown. These crops mature at different times, their resistance and tolerance levels are different and thus they will give more food security. Hilly areas have traditionally always done mixed cultivation. Now export-led agriculture is introducing monocultures and races that are not local. Hybrid seeds have luckily not yet reached hill areas, possibly because the cultivated area has not got very much economic value.

I do bear in mind that in modern times societies change very quickly.

Our first stop in the newly created state of Uttarakhand (official name Uttaranchal) was in the town of Nainital, which is situated by a lake. The town was built by the British, said Rajendra Dhasmana, our guide for the week. In Nainital we had a long discussion with professor G.P. Panth from the Institute for Environmental Protection about protected forest areas, biosphere reserves and whether this kind of environmental protection is anti-people and destructive for the communities dependent on forests and forestry. It reminded me of the Natura 2000 discussion in Finland, although this was about the actual survival of tribal people and Natura more about private landowners. Many people in the hilly areas depend on the forest for their daily needs: firewood, food, cattle grazing, leaf litter for agriculture (compost) and so on.

The biosphere reserve consists of the core zone, which is unaccessable; buffer zone where there are villages and certain activities are permitted such as limited cultivation. The government is now proposing to allow other activities in order to give the people some income. In Nepal there has been an interesting experiment in trying to give local people benefit from the biosphere reserve: ecotourism is allowed in the buffers zone as well as economic activities that won’t affect the biosphere.

Commercial forestry was started in UA area in 1890’s by the Britishers, we were told by Mr Ajay S. Rawat. He’s done excellent research on forestry. The British encouraged population and agriculture expansion but restricted access to forest (though, as said, agriculture in hills is forest-based). Movement against this started in 1916 and as a result of Gandhi’s non-cooperation movement many people burned forests in 1920. A s much as 123 000 hectares of forests were burned “to express discomfort”. Now that the British have left India, their own government is taking away their rights and supporting tree smuggling, or surrendering the rights to the World Bank trough “Joint Forest Management” programs.

Professor Panth told us that the largest biosphere reserve in India is in Uttarakhand. Uttarakhand used to be the route to Tibet for traders, which took their material from the area that is now the reserve. Trade with medicinal plants was traditionally done with plants that are now inside the core zone. One solution to this problem is teaching people to grow these plants instead of just harvesting them from the forest. There are also nomadic tribes that change housing according to season; in the summer they go up on high areas with their cattle, winter settlements are lower. Some of the summer settlements are now inside the core zone. The tribes have been provided alternative routes to areas that are not restricted.

Prof. Panth stressed that animals living inside the reserve cannot be touched although they come sometimes out from the reserve and affect people’s livelihoods. I think this is quite normal and there are hardly such big flocks inside the reserve they would permanently destroy everything. This also reminds me of the predator debate in Finland, especially concerning wolfs and bears. They also need to survive, and how can you restrict an animal’s life to a certain area? Don’t the people’s activities affect the animals and the forests just as much? Despite of restrictions, poaching and smuggling of timber is frequent.

Professor Panth noted that people are not very worried about the long-term perspective of their activities. Four out of five big forest fires occur in Uttaranchal due to dry pine needles in the ground but people are not so interested to do anything about it since forest use is restricted anyhow. As a solution to this, Forest Panchayats (village councils) have been formed: the land belongs to the state but the villagers are in control. However it has not helped, and many a times the village forests are in worst shape. The local people are aware of this though and trying to solve it.

Religious values are important in restricting forest areas. People will perform rituals to close the areas and impose their own sanctions. This has worked much better than government sanctions. They will also close one area at a time, use it for some time and move on to another one. This gives the forest time to recover and is more sustainable resource use. Holy trees near temples serve as seed banks for small areas. Sometimes when a child is given a name the priest can also bless a sapling by the same name. The sapling will be planted near the house and taken care of as a part of the family. Saplings can also be planted in memory of the dead.

One thing that forest reserves are causing is that poor people are being displaced and are chained to labor, often forced to move to cities to find work. And that’s another story… However I have a problem that when elaborating these problems nature conservation and people’s livelihoods are often seen as contradictory. It is true that the people should be compensated but why settle for that, why not take an alternate position and see how the people could benefit before they suffer? Mr Panth said that if a lot of consultation takes place, eventually the wisdom will come out of it. The Finnish position seems to be that the more consultation, the more problems, so let’s change the land use law back to what it was.

We also visited Tehri and the dam construction site. The Tehri dam project goes back in to the 1970’s but the actual contraction was started only in 1991 (I think), due to fierce resistance. If it is complited the Tehri dam will be the biggest in Asia. It will form a huge lake and displace 80 000 people. It is also situated in a highly seismic area, where an earthquake of 7,1 Richter has occurred. Landslides are not uncommon, the last one happened in September very near the dam power house. If the dam breaks, results will be devastating, whole towns and villages will drown. But what the government has done in Tehri so far is also quite devastating. Nearly the whole town has been demolished and people being told to leave their homes since the area will soon be under water. The truth is it will take _at least_ another three years before the dam is finished, if even then. But last year there were 12 000 families living in Tehri, now only 300. The government claims that everyone has been compensated and the people should only be rehabilitated in New Tehri (a copy of Tehri!). Many people however have not received anything.

Mr Sundalal Boguna was being interviewed by a Norwegian student about the Chipko andolan when we arrived to meet him in Tehri. He is very keen on trees, and of the opinion that if every family had 2000 trees, poverty would disappear. The trees would provide food, fibre, fuel wood, leaf litter etc. (Where to take the land and how to change the system, he didn’t say)

Sundalal Boguna said that the essence of culture is that life is everywhere and that pollution of our minds and hearts will destroy the world, that the East sees divinity in nature, life that should be respected and worshipped. When people accuse the Western culture, I feel they are pointing their words to me, as if I could represent the West simply because I come from Europe. I still don’t know how to take it. Gifts to the next generation are poverty and pollution. I share his view that the Western culture is materialistic and destructive but I think he was being too black & white.

In Srinagar we had breakfast with associate professor Himanshu Bourai. She has done research on the role of hill women in watershed management. She confirmed my understanding that though women do most of the work and their workload is increasing, their political participation (planning, management, evaluation…) is difficult. Women have little rights to the land they cultivate (women’s share in agricultural labor is about 90 %): around the world, around one per cent of women own land and such resources. Deserted women in villages have no legal rights. Their husbands go away to find work and marry again. In cities women have a double work load of the home and paid work. Alcoholism is becoming common amongst the men, it is the women that fight against it to save their lives and their husbands but the state is not listening.

After this we met with Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’s Cultural Democracy convener, D.R. Purohit who told us quite a lot about the folklore in the hills. Since that would require several pages, I will not go into details now, though it is quite interesting.

There are quite many people in the hills spending their life in defending trees. Sundalal Boguna, C.P. Bhatt, Chanrda Singh Rana who has planted more than 16 500 trees in his life. To my happiness, seed saving seems also to be “popular”. I regret we were not able to meet the Beej Bachao Andolan (seed saving group), but we met some people from an organization called HESCO (Himalayan Environmental Studies & Conservation Organization) that are cooperating with them. They promote organic farming and the farmers voluntarily give, for example, ¼ of their crop for HESCO to save.

HESCO has a number of other interesting projects, such as Women Technology Park which employs 50 women part-time. The center aims “to serve exclusively the mountain women for their various technology needs”. HESCO has also developed a technology to use invasive plants to provide energy for rural areas – such as producing carbon from pine needles.

C.P. Bhatt was also a Chipko leader. Chipko movement took place 30 years back when it was extremely difficult to talk about protecting trees. C.P. Bhatt was educating local people about the relationship of the trees with environment, landslides, erosion and floods. The Himalaya is an important biodiversity area but very fragile. Deforestation has increased floods and landslides. After roads were built in the area, forests were cut up to the extent that there aren’t any trees at all in Joshimath. Soil has become fragile.

The name (“hug the tree”) came out of strategy planning. They were thinking of how to stop the cutting of the trees, and a non-violent possibility was to stand in front of the trees so the contractors would have to cut them in two first. This developed into hugging the trees.

Some say that Chipko was a women’s movement, started by women, but C.P. Bhatt said women were not a part of it in the beginning. When the government held up the protesting men in the city, contractors were coming to cut the trees. When the women learned about this, they rushed to the forest and confronted the contractors for seven hours, blocked the way to the forest and stopped them from cutting the trees. After all, the women will be the first to suffer if the forests are cut, since they are directly dependent on the forest-based agriculture.

Now a lot of reclamation work has been done, landslides are less and the green belt is growing. C.P. Bhatt has been appointed to a government committee to discuss how tree coverage could be raised to the scheduled 33 %.