In 1925, Gaura Devi was born in the village of Latha, in the Garwhal region of the Himalayas, in the upper Alakananda Valley. Around that time, the area was covered with pristine forests, dark, deep, thick forests – this was also the source of their traditional agricultural economy. In keeping with tradition, she was married off at the age of 12 to Meherban Singh, in the nearby village of Reni. Singh was a small farmer, with a small piece of land, reared some sheep and traded in wool. They were by no means rich but they certainly had a comfortable life devoid of hardship and penury. The inevitable happened. Meherban Singh died 10 later, and when her son grew up and had children of his own, they all worked together to keep the family going. As tension grew between India and China, their trade suffered, but the forests produce kept her family going. She became a grandmother and step into her role of a matriarch. She then went on to become the head of the Mahila Mandal.
A little down the Alakanda Valley, the Chipko movement started taking roots – Chandi Prasad Bhatt and Govind Singh Rawat started to protest against the felling of the deodar trees in a forest near the village. It was the year 1974, and about 2500 deodars trees were marked for felling. Gaura Devi joined the protest movement and actively campaigned for protection of the trees.
Ten years later in an interview Gaura Devi said “Brothers, these forests are like our maternal home (maika). We get herbs, fuel fruits and vegetables from them. Cutting the forests will result in floods."
And today, in a flood-ravaged Uttarakhand, that has destroyed Kedarnath and other large parts of the state have been washed away and battered , leaving thousands, possibly missing or dead, thousands homeless,thousands of mules and cattle dead , I remember the wise Gaura Devi and her caution.
The disaster that we see today in Uttarakhand cannot be blamed only on the heavy rains - the devastation that we are seeing today is largely due to deforestation, illegal construction, reckless damming of rivers and a complete abuse of our rivers and our natural resources.
Gaura Devi may not have been to school but she had the wisdom of our ancient teachers and rishis . All our Hindu scriptures, from the Mahabharata to the Ramayana, the Vedas, Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, Puranas and Smriti contain the earliest messages for preservation of environment and ecological balance.
Gaura Devi knew this then but sadly, those who have been charged with protecting our people and our forests, still don’t know this. Indeed, they have morphed themselves from being protectors to predators.
Soil ours, water ours, ours are these forests. Our forefathers raised them, it’s we who must protect them.
Old Chipko Song