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Liquid Assets on Steep Slopes

 Anupam Mishra

Renowned Gandhian Anupam Mishra on how one man inspired a small Himalayan village to confront and convince government officials of the folly of pursuing their plans to cut down forests. Today, 136 villages in Uttarakhand have followed ecological warrior Sachidanand Bharati's lead to conserve and regenerate their forests, their traditional water bodies and rivers, their pastures and sources of fuelwood but above all it has won them back their dignity. 

“The water in springs of my hills is cool. Do not migrate from this land, o my beloved.”

This village is quite small – not even large enough to make a mark on any map of the Himalaya. Located 6,000 feet above sea level, it is removed from the rest of the country. Even the stream flowing deep in the valley seems a little less than a thin line that gets obscured by sheets of rain and blankets of fog. In the central square of a village called Daund, deep in the heart of the Indian Himalayas, a group of 15 young girls danced to this lyric. The villagers sat watching, undeterred by the heavy June showers of the monsoon that had just arrived. Among those who had gathered, were many young and old women, their fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons having spent several springs in pardes , which literally means “foreign” but in this case means “the plains of northern India”. There were also old men, retired to the hills after spending years of working in the plains. On drenched woven cotton rugs sat young children – those most likely to migrate out of the hills. Did the lyrics of the dancers' songs have the pull to stop mass migration from this Himalayan village to cities like Delhi?

If your curiosity compels you to seek out this village, you first need to journey to that part of the western Himalaya that was carved out of the country's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, and made into the new province of Uttarakhand. When you reach Jim Corbett National Park, along the Ramganga River, travel upstream and you will hit the Doodhatoli Range, rising up to 11,000 feet.

Doodhatoli means ‘land of milk’, a name that characterizes the ecology here in these pastures above the tree line. Nestled in this range is Daund village. Here the clouds recede, but the water does not. The upper reaches send it down with velocity. Every drop erodes a little bit of the soil and carries it into the stream that joins the Ramganga and makes the soil into the silt of Corbett National Park.

The dance troupe performing in Daund packs up its instruments and prepares for the next stop on its road show. Today it is Daund, tomorrow the village of Dulmot, then Janadriya or Ufrainkhal. This is no vaudeville troupe. It does feature a few dancers, singers, musicians, and country-made musical instruments. What the show does not feature is hundreds of implements like spades and picks that labour harder than the troupe to slow down the water gushing downhill, to hold together the soil – all this to revive the forest and farming that has suffered years of neglect. The instruments – and the implements – are attempting to bring back the melody and the rhythm of ecology to the cacophony of mindless development that has overwhelmed the Himalaya.

This alignment of culture and ecology started in the village of Ufrainkhal, in the Pauri Garhwal district of the province of Uttarakhand. That was 25 years ago. Today, it spans 136 villages. Its aim: creating an atmosphere of conserving ecology, to get people to rediscover that their lives cannot advance without such an improvement. That includes getting them to tend to their forests, their water sources, their pastures, their fuel sources, and their dignity.

Sachidanand Bharati is the leader of this troupe. He teaches at the local college. His own education, however, was in the neighbouring district, best known for its Chipko (Hug the Trees) movement.

In the early 1970s, some of the neighbouring villagers had confronted contractors with permits to log their surrounding forests. The villagers knew well that hill slopes do not obey government land records. If the forest department’s land was deforested, they would face landslides, flash floods, and, eventually water scarcity. To save their homes, villagers protested against the logging by wrapping their arms around surrounding trees, literally hugging them. The contractors lost their nerve in the face of the entire villages showing the kind of non-violent commitment that Mohandas Gandhi’s troops showed during the struggle for independence from British rule. Soon after, the Chipko movement became a symbol of popular environmental conservation in the face of the state’s ecological short-sightedness.

During his college years, Bharati got a crash course in environmental management as an associate of Chipko leader Chandi Prasad Bhatt.

 

He experienced firsthand how a popular non-violent movement could both stop deforestation – the government was impelled to scrap the logging leases and declare a decade-long moratorium on logging – and inspire people to plant more trees, to regenerate their forest. His efforts resulted in a student group, whose name, translated into English, means ‘Friends of the Trees’.

Bharati graduated from college in 1979 with a realization that protest and constructive efforts go hand in hand. He returned home to find that the state’s forest department had declared a logging moratorium in the village as a result of the Chipko movement, but had granted fresh logging leases in the forests around the neighbouring village. The contractors were eyeing fir trees (Abies concolor, a slow growing species that supports a diversity of life in its undergrowth).

Bharati’s training, tact and temperament were suited to this challenge. He got together some friends and went from village to village, talking to people in a calm voice that persuaded but did not agitate. Villagers could see the sense in the simple message the local boy delivered, which was essential for those living in the Himalayan ecosystem. Although the forest might stand on government land, its felling would bring destruction to their doorstep. His message continued: if we stand together, the forest will remain standing. His tone and delivery – as well as the truth of his words – resonated with the villagers.

However, dealing with the government officials – known for their arrogance and corruption  required tact. Bharati’s calm approach, backed by the strength of the support he had mobilized, persuaded a senior official to send up a team to see if the terrain was suitable for logging. The government faced what the villagers had encountered shortly before: a man armed with truth. The inquiry team agreed with Bharati’s claim. The logging leases were scrapped.

The villagers learned two lessons from Bharati even before he took up a teacher’s job: One, a united village could resist bureaucratic power and reverse unfavourable government decisions. Two, if the villagers could prevent ecological destruction, they could also join forces to regenerate their forests. Bharati decided to hold a two-day environment camp, inviting neighbouring villagers.

There was no road going to the village then (there is an unpaved one now). No means of communication, no funds to gather the people, spread far and wide across difficult terrain. Additionally, those who came would have to be fed and lodged. Bharati wrote a letter to New Delhi’s Gandhi Peace Foundation, which had been the first to report on and support the Chipko movement. The response was quick: a money order for Rs 1,000 (at that time about $70).

July 1980 saw the first environment camp in Doodhatoli mountains. Villagers reported on the state of the surrounding forests, exchanging notes on legal and illegal logging that had carried on silently. The state of Doodhatoli’s forests was no longer secret. The camp ended with the planting of seedlings and saplings. The camp had also planted an idea, although the hands planting the saplings did know that one day the idea would grow into a large tree under which many other constructive ideas would germinate.

Doodhatoli Lok Vikas Sangathan was formed in March 1982, a small organization with no budget. Bharati’s approach was written into the group’s charter. It would not ask for government or foreign funds but would rely on the resources of the people whose survival depended on the hill ecology. It would take the organization another 13 years to take up water conservation on a larger scale. In the beginning, it was primarily about forests, the forest department nurseries offered saplings of commercially viable trees like pine, which are of no use to the hill ecology or to the village economy, which required people to collect seeds. Children and women were recruited for the job – for no payment and no benefits. Volunteers knew the dividend would accrue sometime in the future. Nurseries require water, which was becoming scarce, especially in the summer months, when seeds germinate.

Summer in these hills is the season of forest fires, primarily because of the pine trees the forest department had planted for its sap, which it harvested for turpentine. Pine needles stack up on the floor and ignite with the slightest spark, which sets hill after hill ablaze. The fires here also consume the natural forests, which nurture more diversity than pine plantations and hold healthy levels of water in the soil. The villagers reeled under a vicious cycle: lack of soil moisture made the forest vulnerable to fires, and fires smoked out the trees that could hold moisture in the soil. Breaking this cycle required an engineering intervention.

The local boy decided to look in the nearby area. He had read about age-old water conservation systems in the Himalaya, which varied according to the slopes. Cultured over the centuries, these were the work of people who had observed the interplay of water, soil, vegetation, and gravity. The answer lay closer than they had imagined, in the village’s name: Ufrainkhal. While ‘Ufrain’ is the name of a goddess, the suffix ‘khal’ refers to a type of pool characteristic of this region. It is smaller than a taal (lake) but bigger than a chaal (a series of very small pools along a slope). Several villages and towns in this region carry such suffixes, showing that habitation was built around water conservation – a village in the neigbouring Tehri Garhwal district is called Sahastratal, which means ‘1,000 lakes’.

The villagers, though, had forgotten the relevance of this nomenclature, the relevance of pools in the names of their habitat, and the pools’ relevance to their survival. For this, they paid a heavy price by way of land and forest degradation. Floods and drought had become a part of the annual cycle; and soil erosion an everyday affair. When villagers had even forgotten the meaning of their village name, there was no hope of finding the method of making these bodies of water. With no examples to follow, Bharati decided to experiment. The people who had devised the form of these pools were his own ancestors.

Bharati began with the smallest form: the chaal. It was suitable for the steep slopes of Ufrainkhal, as its small size allowed water to be retained in small quantities, without succumbing to gravity’s demands. The Doodhatoli group experimented with varying shapes and sizes in the early 1990s. People accustomed to soil and water management in their fields did not take long to settle on a calibrated proportion for the chains of pools they had in mind. From 1993 to 1998, the pools they had envisioned became a reality on the slopes.

The first dramatic impact was on a small river that had once flowed down to the valley. Several years ago – nobody can remember when – the name of this river was changed to Sukharaula, meaning ‘dry channel’. In 1994, water once again appeared in the riverbed and ran for a few months after the rainy season. Each subsequent year saw greater and longer water retention in the river. By 2001, it had acquired the shape of a full-fledged seasonal river. They called it Gadganga, combining the name of the village on its back, Gadkharak, with that of the holy Ganga. This rivulet is a tributary of the river Pasol. Its newfound robustness added to the Pasol’s flow.

While the villagers invested efforts in creating the pools that retained large quantities of water, nature responded with its invisible efforts. The vegetation began changing around the villages where chaals were dug – in the forests and in the fields. The vegetation multiplied the water retaining effect of chaals.

In 2000-01, the newly created state of Uttarakhand faced severe drought, which exacerbated the annual phenomenon of forest fires. Up to 80,000 hectares of forests burned in the state that year. However, the villages in and around Ufrainkhal did not burn due to their new water-pooling practices. Fortified with the additional moisture in the soil, the healthy vegetation offered stiff resistance to fire; so did the villagers. Yet three women who worked with the Doodhatoli Lok Vikas Sangathan died fighting fires in government forests. They had taken water from their chaals to put out the fires because they feared the inferno would soon reach their lands and forests. The hundreds of villagers who fought the fires here – like the three women who paid the ultimate price – did not have the benefit of a privileged education, but they had learned an ecological lesson that consistently eludes highly educated people in the parts of world considered far more developed (think of the forest fires in California, Greece and Australia).

The villagers’ efforts benefited a government scheme, too. The state government had installed pipes to supply drinking water to villages from hilltop springs. Although some water sources dried up, the installations around Ufrainkhal consistently found water to pipe.

A few years earlier the government had built an office building to start a watershed development plan above Ufrainkhal. Bharati wrote a letter to the authorities, saying that the village did not need the government’s largesse as it was able to satisfy its own needs. A government team visited the village and affirmed this claim, and the watershed plan was withdrawn. The building, instead, was used to provide a shed for cattle and goats. The forest in the meantime had begun to do better.

Bharati’s troops have built 12,000 chaals in 136 villages to date. Within these areas there are several patches of thick forests, varying in size from 30 hectares to 300 hectares. In several parts of these forests, the areas, which the villagers have regenerated, are even healthier than the government’s special preserved forests – those of the villagers have a greater diversity of vegetation in them, with several broadleaved trees like oak, alder, rhododendron and fir. The canopy is usually 100 feet high. The ground covering is several inches thick, with a springy texture that makes walking difficult. It is safer to walk the trodden path in these forests for another reason: wild animals thrive in forests regenerated by this rural waterworks compared with the protected forests of the government.

The cadre that has brought about this transformation is well worth an introduction, because Doodhatoli Lok Vikas Sangathan does not have a regular budget, does not have any funding from any government or non-governmental entity, and is not supported by any non-profit organization. Some well-wishers send in a cheque once in a while. The annual expenditure seldom exceeds Rs. 25,000.

The organization does not have any full-time staff, though it works full time; three associates of Bharati’s form the core. There is Devi Dayal, a postman who has to walk through the villages to deliver mail, for there are no automobiles or passable roads here. Along his route, he observes the forests, gathers information, and delivers ecological messages (without charging postage!). There is Dinesh, a medical practitioner trained in the Ayurvedic system of traditional medicine. Like Devi Dayal, his line of work involves meeting many people and talking to them. He wraps medical remedies in messages aimed at healing social and ecological relationships. The quartet is completed by Vikram Singh, who runs a small grocery store in the neighbouring village. His merchandise comes packaged with social provisions, and his shop is a hub of conversation and social exchange in a region where large community halls are impossible to build.

This quartet maintains regular communication with about two dozen volunteers in each village. Invariably, they are women, for the men migrate to the plains for employment. In the work of Doodhatoli Lok Vikas Sangathan, they see hope of a prosperity that would allow their husbands, sons and brothers to stay in the village, much as the chaals retain the water. The thousands of chaals built here and the hundreds of hectares of regenerated forests are their only hope. They guard these waterworks and the forests like mothers guard their broods. They number in the hundreds, though their names are not on any roster.

They have a simple way of handing over forest protection duties to the next shift – typical of how the women here combine music and rhythm in daily chores. The woman in charge of forest protection for the day carries a baton with a string of mini bells tied on top. The sound of the bells works like Morse code across the hill forests. When a woman is done with her shift, she returns to the village and leaves the baton at the doorstep of a neighbour. Whoever sees the baton lying in front of her house takes up the guard duties the following day, no questions asked.

This is the routine. It is broken by the periodic environmental camps, for which all the women turn up. There is song and dance, the same song and dance made stronger by the ecological notes:

“The water in springs of my hills is cool. Do not migrate from this land, o my beloved”.

Born in 1947, Anupam Mishra spent his childhood in Gandhian communities across central India. He moved to Delhi with his family after All India Radio employed his father, a renowned poet, and in 1969 obtained a Master’s Degree in Sanskrit from Delhi University. A Gandhian and environmental activist, Mishra has spent decades in the field of environmental protection and water conservation and is among the most knowledgeable people on traditional water harvesting systems in India.

Mishra has been associated with Gandhi Peace Foundation since its inception and is the winner of the Indira Gandhi National Environment Award (1996). He has written two books on traditional water management and water harvesting systems in India, Aaj Bhi Khare Hain Talaab (Ponds are Still Relevant) and Rajasthan ki Rajat Boonde (The Radiant Raindrops of Rajasthan). Mishra lives in Delhi with his wife and son and edits the periodical Gandhi Marg for Gandhi Peace Foundation.

 

 

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