The tragedy of Reni

WHEN GAURA Devi of Reni village died on July 4, 1991, she must have been disillusioned. Two decades earlier, she inspired a group of women to chase away employees of a forest contractor -- and this act of courage and spontaneous defiance was hailed by the media as the start of Chipko. Today, the villagers of Reni are disenchanted as they have no access to the forest they had once saved.

A Reni woman recalled Communist Party of India activist Govind Singh Rawat, who was pramukh (chief) of Joshimath block in which Reni lies, was attempting to organise the villagers against the contractors when Gaura Devi, then a 50-year-old widow, led a group of women and set fire to a hut in which the contractor's labourers were staying and threw stones at them forcing them to flee. The villagers may have been provoked in part by the labourers being outsiders and not Tolcha Bhotias like them. The villagers who had thrived on Indo-Tibetan trade were in dire straits as the border was closed in 1962.

Another elderly Reni woman, who like the others wanted anonymity, explained: "On March 26, our men were at Chamoli collecting compensation for the land we lost in Malari after the (Indo-Tibetan) border was sealed. Rawat had warned us and we took turns keeping a constant watch on the labourers."

There are conflicting reports of what actually happened that day. One woman recalled, "Gaura Devi was with us when we decided to chase the labourers away." And, Gaura Devi's son, Chander Singh, adds, "The labourers were cooking when the women descended on them. Their axes and utensils were snatched and they were chased away with a shower of stones. The women also demolished a stone slab that bridged a small stream." Another woman said they had tied up a forest guard found consorting with the labourers.

The incident triggered a month of rallies and demonstrations. Then, in 1986, Gaura Devi and representatives of 30 village women's groups received the Priyadarshini Vrikshamitra award in the Capital from Rajiv Gandhi, who was prime minister then.

Gaura Devi's fortunes began to decline about then. A rumour spread that she received 12.5 kg of gold but kept it for herself instead of sharing it with others who took part in the March 26 struggle. This led to virtual ostracism of Gaura Devi's family and even she could not get medical treatment in her old age.

Another tragedy is now unfolding in Reni, which still lacks a school, plantation or a development project. The felling of the forest that touched off the environment wave is continuing and this year, Dayal Singh, a Reni resident, was awarded a contract to cut 84 dry and dead trees.

"Our wood continues to go outside and we can do nothing," one of the village women complained. "They say it's dry wood, but we know what's going on. We could have used the dry wood ourselves." Asked why Chipko cannot be revived, she replied, "What did we get out of the first one? Now they have made this area the Nanda Devi biosphere reserve and I can't even pick herbs to treat a stomach-ache."