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The coercion and harassment of fodder-carrying women of Helang village in Uttarakhand at the hands of the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) and police personnel on July 15 have led to outrage and protests across the state, leading to an outpouring of anger almost unprecedented in breadth.
The law enforcement officials purportedly took action at the behest of the Tehri Hydro Development Corporation Limited (THDC) and the local administration of the Chamoli district.
Helang is a small village by the National Highway, with Joshimath town about 13 kilometres ahead. In a video that surfaced on July 16 – on the day of the harela festival (a ‘day of green’ meant to celebrate the new harvest and plant trees) – and then was widely shared, CISF who are tasked with guarding THDC hydro project, and police, can be seen closing in on an elderly woman.
They are also seen forcibly untying bundles of grass from her back. The woman in the video, Mandodari Devi, was returning with bundles of grass collected from stretches of land traditionally devoted to pasturing.
In the video, she is seen resisting police and crying herself hoarse while a younger companion is seen wiping away tears.
A slew of paramilitary and police forces along with jeeps belonging to the local administration had been escorting the muck-laden trucks of THDC. These trucks were to be unloaded in Helang’s pasture land. The women’s ‘crime’, it appears, was that they dared to oppose this, even while they had several kilograms of grass on their backs. The pasture, where muck was to be dumped, is the only tract of land left for them to collect grass from, the women complain.
Mandodari Devi and another woman, Leela Devi, along with two adolescent children – a boy and girl – with a toddler, were then driven away to the Joshimath police station, say the women.
The villagers have repeatedly written to local authorities, pleading with them to stop the THDC from treating the land as a dumping ground. They have also physically obstructed the tree felling and muck dumping there in the past.
The trees on this Van Panchayat land have been planted and tended to by villagers over the years. The army has also planted trees in this fragile area to prevent landslides. Uttarakhand villages have nurtured the institution of Van Panchayats for a long time, but it has been systematically weakened and corporate interests are out to grab the community forests and grazing lands.
Helang is close to the barrage site of the THDC’s 444-megawatt Vishnugad Pipalkoti hydropower project.
THDC, functional in the area for about 15 years, has already acquired significant portions of its agricultural and grazing land. Further, above Helang, there is also the power house site of the upstream Tapovan Vishnugad project of National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) and the region has experienced devastation and land acquisition by it as well.
In the Joshimath police station, the two women and three children were detained for more than six hours without any food or water and allowed to leave only after paying a challan. A fine was charged under Section 81 of the Uttarakhand Police Act 2007, which is, in fact, meant for offenders found intoxicated or riotous or committing a nuisance in public.
After they were released, the video shot by the youth of Helang (and shared by Atul Sati on Facebook) gained traction in the next few days, the District Magistrate of Chamoli, Himanshu Khurana, and other local administration representatives through their tweets, began justifying police action by calling the women ‘suicidal’, ‘encroachers’, and bent on preventing ‘development work’ at the site.
ग्राम पंचायत हेलंग की महिला का वीडियो सोशल मीडिया पर गलत ढंग से प्रचारित किया जा रहा है। ये महिला गांव में सरकारी भूमि में बनाए जा रहे खेल मैदान का विरोध कर रही है। बाईटः-ग्राम प्रधान हेलंग आनंद सैलानी।@pushkardhami @DIPR_UK @ANI @PIBDehradun @chamolipolice pic.twitter.com/srgvdYsEfd
— DM Chamoli (@ChamoliDm) July 18, 2022
The women relate that local authorities, the THDC, and the village heads colluded to subdue and silence them.
Villagers also say that this particular ‘pasture land’ is not the THDC’s sanctioned muck dumping site and that the THDC has manoeuvred the Gram Pradhan and the Van Panchayat Sarpanch of Helang into accepting the construction of a playground there. THDC thus came up with the dubious justification that it is dumping the tonnes of debris being generated in the excavation of its 13.4-metre-long tunnel to level the land for this said construction.
However, the site is a steep slope by the Alaknanda riverside and it is quite apparent that any amount of debris can not level it. Instead, the design is to let the muck slide into Alaknanda and save the cost of transporting the muck to the sanctioned site at a distance.
Similar muck dumping malpractices are more of a rule than exception in Uttarakhand, be it the case of the numerous hydropower projects dotting the region, or the Char Dham highway and rail construction.
Experts have established how muck dumped in rivers plays a devastating role, aggravated the floods of 2013 and 2021, and is bound to create new disasters.
A series of protests
Helang may appear a minor incident as it is but one of many instances in Uttarakhand where hydropower companies have been employing all kinds of deceitful tricks and oppressive practices to function and appropriate as much as they can for years now.
In the Joshimath region, THDC, NTPC, Jaypee, and other hydropower companies have been present for about two decades.
Employing the village youth for temporary jobs during initial phases to gain an entry and break villagers’ resistance, and then eventually throwing them out, is but one of the practices of these companies. Illegal tree felling, mining, stone crushing and heavy blasting are others. Liberal distribution of money and gifts to local administration ensures that they are under the companies’ thumb.
These projects have been instrumental in devastating many villages, including Reini, the village of Gaura Devi of the Chipko movement.
At first glance, thus, the extent of indignation and rage following the Helang incident seems unusual when so much exploitation and injustice is but routine. Yet, as the video enabled the incident’s wide witnessing, Helang has evoked protests in myriad ways, including poetry, write-ups, rallies and assemblies all over Uttarakhand. The protests have been snowballing and gaining momentum since the call to this effect was made from the village on July 24.
Students, lawyers, activists, and journalists reached Helang from far corners on July 24 to express their solidarity with the women. An assembly of more than a hundred decided on a few demands to be put before the government. These included action against the CISF and police personnel who acted as “bouncers of THDC” and the District Magistrate of Chamoli for maligning the women. The villagers also decided to demand that the Van Panchayat Sarpanch’s consent to tree felling – given bypassing Van Panchayat rules – be withdrawn.
Other demands put forth include legal action by the government against the THDC for muck dumping in the river, and a mechanism of monitoring by locals of the THDC and other hydropower companies’ work.
The reach of the protests increased manifold in the next week. On August 1, there were state-wide sit-ins, demonstrations, meetings, and handing over of memorandums to the Chief Minister through the local administrative officers raising the said demands, at nearly 40 sites in this small state.
The women activists from different parts of the state reached Helang on August 9, the day the historic Quit India movement started.
Regular meetings and protests continue to take place to amplify these demands further. Notably, all these actions have been taking place at the peak of monsoon, when travelling for mountain dwellers has become a fatal threat due to the abuse the hills have been subjected to.
The next call for action is on September 1 in Nainital, to mark ‘martyrs’ day’ for those killed in the police firing in Khatima and Mussoorie during the statehood movement, and to uphold the demand for rights over natural resources – the very thought that was behind this movement.
Reason of indignation
Such a public and state-supported disrespect of women, as is seen in the video, comes across as even more of a shock in Uttarakhand, where socio-economic structures depend heavily on women and their labour.
Women have been the driving force of its movements, be it Chipko or the statehood movement. The said incident has been interpreted as an attack on the most basic of their rights, and necessities inherent in their relation with the forests. The question raised is: was it for this day that the women struggled for their own state and fought to save their forests?
Many have started to compare the subsequent mobilisations with the initial phase and spirit of the Chipko movement. The way Mandodari Devi has stood against all manner of threats has evoked memories of Gaura Devi. The issues raised by the two have remained similar despite a gap of five decades – the link between survival and rights over forests.
The attack is interpreted as one on Uttarakhand’s matrshakti and dignity, symbolised by the Ghasiyari women – who cut and collect grass to feed their cattle – the foundation of the rural economy. They do this despite the increasing challenges of deforestation, and wild animals’ attacks.
The rearing of cattle is a way of survival for women like Mandodari Devi, a widow with no other source of livelihood.
They are the ones who know the hills and their ecosystems intimately and are invested in preserving them.
In the recent past, there have been attempts to celebrate and bring respect and focus back to their role by the Chetna Andolan. Ostensibly opposed to such a conception, the Bharatiya Janata Party government announced a Ghasiyari Kalyan Yojna last year, intending to introduce the selling of grass bundles to women. This scheme has also stoked fears that rates of grass may eventually be increased for profit – to the detriment of the women who collect it – even as the grasslands and forests will be diverted to private hands, taking away the rights of women and leaving them with no option but to buy the fodder.
The incident at Helang proved a tipping point and has brought together diverse forces struggling to protect rights over the jal, jungle, and jameen.
In April 2022, this region of the Tehri dam also witnessed the submergence of the homes and standing crops of the tribal Lohari village by the Vyasi project on the Yamuna, without any rehabilitation or proper compensation. The villagers had to empty their homes within 48 hours as notices went up, threatening them with submergence.
Along with an opposition of the many under-construction and planned hydropower projects, many related demands and ongoing movements have come under the umbrella of the Helang protests. Two of these major demands are rolling back the amendments introduced by the BJP government in land law in 2018 that removed the land ceiling and in the Tree Protection Act 1976 in July 2022 that allows tree felling on private land.
There is deep resentment in Uttarakhand hills against outsiders and land mafia taking over their prime land. A demand has been raised for strong land legislation on the lines of what Himachal Pradesh has – that imposes restrictions on the purchase of land for non-agricultural purposes and by non-domicile holders. It is feared that the amendment in the Tree Protection Act is meant to further enable the builders and mafia to clear lands.
Various local protests through the years have not affected significant pressure on the government and corporate bodies. For instance, in all the projects built around Joshimath, protests at the village and town levels have been going on for years. The CPI-ML activist Atul Sati, an unfailing presence in most such protests, has also been vocalising the demand for a thorough geological survey of Joshimath town, where most buildings have developed cracks (as also in the villages in the vicinity) after the 2021 flood that became destructive due to the Rishi Ganga and Tapovan Vishnugad hydro projects.
He and villagers from Reini had appealed to the Uttarakhand high court for rehabilitation of the tribal village devastated by this flood. They had pleaded to hold the hydropower companies responsible for the damaging impacts on the people and landscape. The appeal was rejected, and appellants were fined and reprimanded by the court, without providing any rational basis.
The Helang incident has mobilised all such active groups and individuals to combine forces. The result is that a state-wide strong front has emerged that is voicing dissent over the abuse of their rights by exploiting the environment. It is developing a broader basis and raising demands like that of the effective implementation of the Forest Rights Act 2006, crucial for this state that is heavily forested.
In terms of response, the local administration of Chamoli has reached out to the women, and the chief minister has tweeted that there should be a probe into the incident, but not much has moved on the ground in terms of action taken. The State Commission for Women and the Commission for Protection of Child Rights has also directed investigations to be conducted into the matter.
The government seems to be on the defensive given the extent of protests. But it continues to push for more ‘developmental’ projects which are bound to be damaging to Uttarakhand’s locale and people. Even as the Helang-related protests were going on, Cabinet Minister Satpal Maharaj reached out to the external affairs minister S. Jaishankar on July 22 to push for the colossal 5040 MW Pancheshwar dam that locals fear will devastate a major portion of Kumaun Uttarakhand. There was also a go-ahead to construct underground tunnels to be used as parking lots by the cabinet on July 28, with THDC as one of the main companies involved.
It is evident that the protesting alliances formed in Uttarakhand are prepared for a long struggle ahead, and the way they are taking things forward provide ample grounds for hope.
Shruti Jain is a freelance researcher and journalist based in Uttarakhand.