Uttarakhandi women 1, Ultra Tech Cement 0

Uttarakhandi women are a force to be reckoned with
Uttarakhandi women are a force to be reckoned with

When Basanti Devi entered the village of Bachwadi in Uttarakhand's Takula block on one of her routine visits, she knew that something was wrong. Instead of the normal hustle, groups of men stood about talking quietly. She asked them what the matter was.

Basanti and the Gram Panchayat
Basanti Devi was on a  secure enough footing with the men of the village to ask them what was troubling them. After all, for the last five years she had been visiting them regularly. Her visits enabled the creation of women's groups, helped them open bank accounts and generally allowed them access to a better, more dignified life. Inspired by her, the women of the five villages in that gram panchayat had pledged to protect their forest and stringently applied measures to minimise lopping. As a result of this, today the once-degraded forest was coming back to life. This  also resurrected the once-diminshed stream that issued from the forest. If this were not enough, Basanti-di's entire life and her long association with the Lakshmi Ashram were proof that she could be relied upon.

The cement plant and what it implied
And so it is that they explained to her what was going on. They had read in the newspapers that a cement plant would be set up in the village. And there was great distrust among the villagers who felt betrayed by their Pradhan and insecure about the loss of forest land and the pollution that this would entail. To compound the confusion, there were rumours that the plant would mean the creation of 12,000 jobs. Basanti-di did not know much about the plant either; she did know that gossip and rumour mongering would only make things worse. And so she pulled out her notebook.

Sitting down with the men, she collated all the reliable information they had about the plant. Most of  this was what had been published in the local newspapers. Then, she asked each man to write down what he felt would be the pros and cons of this plant and sign it. Of this compilation, only two entries listed any pros and they were to do with the rumoured jobs. So far, Basanti-di had not contributed to the conversation but had only served as a moderator. Then she asked one question.

"What do the women think?"

This threw the men into a tizzy because the women had not been consulted even once. They very rarely read the newspapers, and none of the men had taken it upon himself to inform a woman.

The women are informed
"This must be changed", said Basanti-di. And she took it upon herself to take the paper about with her to the women in their homes and the fields. As she had with the men, Basanti-di merely informed. She did not need to supply an opinion, the women had enough of their own. They were outraged.

"We have protected our forest and brought it back with hard work", said one. "Who are these people that they can destroy it now?" Another brought up the topic of the Mansa Nala. The Mansa is a sparkling, singing tributary of the Kosi and a lifeline for the villages of  Aadar Sailkudi, Bachwadi, Azauda and Nakot. With the setting up of the plant, it would be transformed into a polluted, muddy, sluggish stream. This was unacceptable.

"What do you want to do?", asked Basanti-di. It was the women who responded. "We will stop it", they said.

And stop it they did. And how!

The siege
The day a survey team arrived to mark out the land for clearing, they found themselves surrounded by a mob of angry women. The women insisted that they would not let the team move till they issued a written declaration that the plant would not come up in the village. The impasse lasted several hours when both the besieged and the layers of the siege stood in the baking sun. It took many phone calls and much remonstration before the plant owners gave permission for the team to sign the demanded undertaking. It was finally done and for the time being the Mansa would continue to flow undefiled. After, the villagers and the team shared a much needed draught of water.

What does this mean in the larger scheme of things?
The Mansa protest had its limitations. Its influence was confined to the Kosi valley. It did not influence the issue of greater answerability by corporations and did not require companies to ensure that their plants did not pollute the environment. It also did not ask why a public hearing was not held to inform the villagers of the plant. In all likelihood, it relocated the plant and so shifted the problem to another valley.

However, to dismiss the Mansa gherao as an isolated incident is to understimate the matter. It demonstrated to womens' groups and Van Panchayats in the state that they are within their rights to veto a change in the land use of their Panchayat and forest lands. It caused the district and state governments to take notice of the peoples' needs and to take the issue of public hearings seriously. At a Janata Darbar (a public meeting) after the Mansa protest, the women met the District Commissioner and put forward their story. He assured them that the consent of  the villages would be obtained.

However, our current government apparently does not empathise with these sentiments. On July 30, 214, the Ministry of Environment and Forests issued a Memorandum (No. J-IIOI5/30/2004-IA.I1 (M)) stating that a public hearing is no longer required for the expansion of coal mining upto 5 Mega Tons per annum. This could well be an ominous sign of a state where the concerns of big industry override the concerns of the rural people of India.

Are the Mansa's days numbered?

Post By: chicu