Forestation drives in Uttarakhand are sustained by, and thrive on, emotional bonds.
If there is one movement the country must adopt and initiate this rainy season and Shravan, it is Uttarakhand’s Maiti Andolan.
New leaves emerge from the saplings she planted a month ago and they seem like mighty signs of success. For a moment, Neelam Bhandari, a home maker who lives in Bandrani village in Uttarakhand's Uttarkashi district, tries to build a distant image of a flourishing orchard in her mind. Meanwhile, she sees that the plant needs water. There is lot to do for the day.
According to Bhandari, the sun was a bit harsh at times this June and rains still not as full as in recent years, and definitely not as pregnant with warning as they were in 2013. Saplings for trees, trees for jungle, jungle for environment. Her mantra.
Women in Bhandari's group have to ensure that 2000 saplings of fruit-bearing trees they had planted survive and grow well. Something in particular excites Bhandari about this unique reforestation drive. The saplings are of fruit-bearing trees. She says, "Saare ped phaldaar hain yeh, inmein anaar, malta, nimbu aur anya kismein hain (all saplings are of fruit bearing trees, among them are pomegranate, malta, lemon and several others)."
Round the year, Bhandari also contributes work to the Mahila Mangal Dal, women's group born out of villages of Uttarakhand - dedicated to the preservation and protection of forests. She says, "We also spread awareness on forest sustenance and tell villagers about the boundaries we must draw between the jungle and us in order to protect the trees."
The Mahila Mangal Dal groups consisting of women volunteers also take up reforestation drives and do the valuable work towards linking trees and the planting of trees with the region's intangible heritage, festivals, rituals, weddings, and cultural events in the region.
'Smriti' means memory, and 'van', forest. The trees were planted in the memory of and in a tribute to the victims of 2013 Kedarnath floods. For women living in villages of Uttarakhand, looking for sweetness in adversity is a solemn norm. In 2013 when the floods left many homes and families devastated, women were the first to turn back to life courageously.
Bhandari and women of her villager were luckier, but for them, the victims of Kedarnath floods, whether from Uttarakhand or outside, are family. "We can do our bit in solemnity and continue praying for the victims' aatmashaanti even after six years of the aapadaa, but at the end, women like us need to take a stand for Uttarakhand's environmental heritage," she adds.
Bhandari perhaps forgets to doesn't mention that it is the action from women like her that counts the most when it comes to real work mounted for the well being of Uttarakhand forests.
Remuneration is not really their pre-occupation in the new task, but rewards from Nature certainly is one. These women in villages in Uttarkhashi are working to ensure that they pass on forests and forest life to the future generations as heritage. They also want to pass on trees that feed and nourish generations.
Currently, mornings are busier than usual for women in the Dal and for women of Bandrani and surrounding villages. The 2000 saplings of fruit-bearing trees - different from the forest entities that provide dry wood, leaves for cattle, shade and above all, life, the year round, are among the 6000 odd trees planted at the Smriti Van. Their care is divided between groups of women.
According to Bhandari, in June, some of the saplings had taken successfully to the soil, while others were taking time to respond. This task is slightly more difficult than looking after their own children, but equally rewarding, if not more, or less.
These 2000 saplings are rooted in a different emotional purpose. The women are looking at a futuristic harvest. And if all goes well, their children and grandchildren will enjoy the fruit of their labour (literally). "This was for our village, region and environment and future generations. It is priceless."
Women and their lives are the veins to forest protection and reforestation, the preserving of tradition spun around trees, in Uttarakhand, as in many other regions. The Mahila Mangal Dals pitch in work, the digging of pits for plantation, organising of awareness programmes on environment, sustenance on forests, and reforestation.
Smriti Van is a huge intervention towards the ongoing efforts towards preserving Uttarakhand's forests. The region continues to cradle the Maiti Andolan, which revolves around the girl child. A global movement today, Maiti - was born in Gwaldaham village in Uttarakhand's Chamoli district.
Started by Kalyan Singh Rawat, who currently lives in Dehradun, the Maiti movement links the "pranay bandhan" of village daughters with tree plantation. The emotional gesture of making a newly-wed daughter and her husband plant a sapling is the soul of this movement.
The Maiti Andolan is an environment revolution pitched on emotion for the "beti" - her prosperity, her paternal village's well being, and her constant connect with her parental village.
Rawat did something simple to implement it well. He planted an emotion - that of the 'beti' - into reforestation, just to ensure that people turn up to see and nurture the sapling, return to it, regularly, and protect it. He wanted to ensure that family members, especially mothers of women who plant these saplings, make sure that it remains and grows into a tree.
He says, "After Uttarakhand was formed, thousands of trees were planted on the name of environment, but I felt that very few people cared for the planted sapling. Those saplings would usually die." For him, it was important to link women with the sapling, the sapling to the daughter, and the movement with the well being and core of Uttarakhand.
The bride from the village plants a tree in the village of her family and birth - moments after her wedding ceremonies are over. Her husband joins her. The event is an accepted and popular ceremony - and is mentioned on wedding invitation cards. Rawat says, "Maiti Andolan se hum sanskaaron mein ped ko jod rahe hain (we are linking trees with sanskars). We are developing a culture. There is sense of gratitude among the women who plant these trees towards their home, village, and region. We are giving something in return to the dharti."
The mother-daughter bond takes the Maiti Andolan from soul to soil. Rawat explains why and how it worked particularly in Uttarakhand. He says, "The mother - daughter bond is special in every culture, even more, in Uttarakhand, where the two move together, uphill and downhill, in forests, to run the kitchen, home and cattle. When the daughter is leaving home, the mother cries the most. When such a strong bond is celebrated by planting a tree, it is a given that the mother will do everything to nurture it."
According to him, five lakh weddings have been marked by Maiti Andolan so far. He adds, "The success rate of saplings has been hundred per cent."
At the plantation ceremony, two souls meet as they pat the soil around the sapling. Then, the unmarried women, and girls from the village surround the new couple in the related festivities. The groom has to loosen his purse at the end, extending token amount to the village girls. According to Rawat, this money goes for their welfare.
This unique interplay of memories, tradition and an environmental cause spreads across hectares today, in the form of trees flourishing in the region since 1995, when Kalyan Singh Rawat, a lecturer in Gwaldam, started the Maiti Andolan with the wedding and in the honour of Sushila Saha, one of his students.
The Maiti Andolan has helped women reclaim their own environment and forests, along with some reclaiming of their own emotional territory in their own parental homes. The knit connecting gender and environment is extraordinary in Uttarakhand's women-centric social context.
The message going deep into the ground and spreading roots is this: women are emotionally connected to their home; their connection with the environment and trees is natural, instinctive, seeped in the celebration of memory, thriving in rituals, bundled up in daily lives. "They are and remain the undisputed preservers of trees and connected traditional ethos," Rawat adds.
Rawat has extended the meaning in Maiti (relating to a woman's maika or parental home) beyond the wedding festivities. One of the most remarkable moves from Rawat was to use the Maiti Andolan for strengthening the cultural confluence of Kumaon and Garhwal led by women.
The purpose of this much awaited cultural initiative towards reforestration was simple: to make the people of Kumaon and Garhwal stand as one for their state, region and environment.
Who would provide a stronger foundation than women themselves? The occasion Rawat chose to shape the confluence was none other than the uplifting, powerful and impassioned celebration of the Nanda Devi Raj Jat Yatra.
The matri shakti of Pinder valley of Garhwal and Katyur Valley of Kumaon together initiated the new tradition. He adds, "The tree plantation was started at Nauti village, marked the beginning of the Yatra at Nauti. Women from 13 janpads of Kumaon and Garwal came down for tree plantation to mark the first Raj Jat of Uttarakhand state. "
It is the season of sunshine and rain. The time, perhaps, is right and ripe. Shravan maas - the month dedicated to Shiva and Parvati, is just round the corner. Rains and clouds are kissing Uttarakhand mountains, hills and forest life. The celebration of green - in real and spiritual, will thicken, as the village Mahila Managal Dals will now prepare for the melas in the coming days and months.
In 2018, I had brought you a story on how extend their agricultural consciousness associated with the month of Baisakh to the protecting and preserving of environment and ecology. Baisakh also marks the end and beginning of a cycle, a calendar, upheld by Bishnoi sentiment towards ecology. Their seva of trees begins at the temple courtyard.
Women in Bishnoi community uphold the unfaltering ecological movement which was started by Amrita Devi Bishnoi. She laid down her life for protecting Khejri trees in Khejarli village in the region. The Bishnoi resistance in 1730 gave India and the world an environmental movement. Rajasthan meets Uttarakhand in the Chipko Andolan, which is said to be inspired by the Bishnoi resistance to save trees. Women are the core of these two movements.
The change in the wedding ceremonies in Gwaldam made the colour green flow thicker into Uttarakhand. Seeing this, Rawat widened the palette for green. He linked other emotions to trees: dedicated to the devis, the soldiers of Kargil and ancestors of people living in the region.
Among these vans is Gaura Van - consisting of surai and deodar trees. Gaura Devi, one of the women steering the Chipko movement, was named after the devi herself. It is said that during her resistance at the Chipko movement, she and other women protesting the cutting of trees, referred to the forests in the region as their 'maika' (their parental home).
What makes women the nurturers of trees, the preservers and protectors of forests? Rawat gives a short and loaded answer: "The mothering instinct."
The womb and dharti meet and part in the Indic woman's environmental conscience. The story of Saalumarada Thimmakka - popularly known as 'Vrisha Mata' tells us that it is all about the mothering instincts. Instinct so grand - that Thimmakka, who turned to planting Banyan saplings in an expression of motherhood, contributed around 380 (on the stretch between Hulikal and Kudur in Karnataka) of them. She had started planting these saplings with her husband (who was a herder when they got married).
Thimmakka continued to plant the trees even after his death in 1991. It is common knowledge that the couple turned to tree plantation after learning that they could not conceive. In the process they shunned the taunts they would receive. Does Thimakka's love for planting trees not stem from the viewing of dharti as garbh, and beyond?
The Bishnoi women, the women of Uttarakhand and women like Thimmakka are only some of the numerous remarkable representatives of the celebration of nature in Hindu life.
Last month, Thimakka, who was awarded the Padma Shri for her valuable contribution to the environment earlier this year, was in news once again. Reports say that she made an intervention. She met Karnataka chief minister and asked him to call off the Bagepalli-Halaguru road widening project near Bengaluru.
Thimakka has shown that along with sanskar comes a sense of responsibility. Something similar can be felt in the attitude of the Uttarkhand women towards forests.
The 2013 Kedarnath floods and the jungle fires in Uttarakhand evoke a strong sense of fear in Bhandari. Out of the two, according to her, the floods were deadlier and the jungle fires are inevitable but avoidable. She says, "the 2013 Kedarnath floods were partially beyond human control, but what people of Uttarakhand, especially pahadi women like us believe is that we can control both flood and fire. It is in our hands, it is doable."
Like other women of her region, she has the traditional knack of knowing what protects forests. She tells me that saplings of banjh (Quercus leucotrichophora) is popular in the entire region for reforestation. She, as expected, singles out cheerh tree (Pinus roxburghii) as the culprit for jungle fires.
She says, "cheerh bahut jaldi aag pakadta hai, iskei pattiyaan bhi aag ko phailaane ka kaam karti hain. Hamare gaanv ke aas paas to iskee sankhya kam hai, lekin Uttarakhand mein aur jagah is se aag lagne par kaafi nuksaan hota hai (cheerh catches fire easily, thanks to its leaves, and even causes the spread of fire in jungles swiftly; cheerh is present in less numbers in and around our village, but it is known for increasing the threat by fire in jungles in other parts of Uttarakhand)."
Rawat believes that every tree planted in love is the best gift the parents can give. He says, "These trees are for future generations. The child born first needs oxygen for his lungs more than anything else. How many parents have ensured that?"
According to Rawat, the affection for fruit bearing trees is growing among the people of the valleys in Kumaon and Garhwal.
The inspiration to grow them and other trees rains during the Shravan celebrations, especially the Shravani Paryavaran Mela linked to the celebrations, prayers and rituals at the Mahamrityunjaya Temple in the region. From jungles, to temple, to the home courtyard, the women of Uttarakhand are preserving their heritage.
The heritage, after all, is Gaura Devi's and Parvati's. If there is one movement the country must adopt and initiate this rainy season and Shravan, it is Uttarakhand's Maiti Andolan. It would be the best tribute to the unsung Indic woman environmentalist, who lives and nurtures some of the richest confluences of forest wisdom, temple life, dharmic and environmental consciousness.