Meet the Unsung Environmental Activist Gaura Devi Whose Heroic Act Defined The Chipko Movement
Gaura Devi was a modern-day “Jhansi ki Rani” who became known for her bravery, grit, and sheer love for the forests. Despite being an illiterate woman, she was the face and a strong pillar of the Chipko movement of the Uttarakhand region.
Born in 1925 in a tribal Marchha family of lata village in Neeti valley of Chamoli district, Gaura Devi was only trained in her family’s traditional wool trade. She was married at a young age and became a widow at 22. She raised her two-year-old son, Chandra Singh, alone. Other than the wool trade, Gaura Devi was also actively involved in various village community work. In no time, she became the president of the Mahila Mangal Dal. This made her directly responsible for ensuring cleanliness in the village and the protection of community forests.
For Gaura Devi forests were her gods. She along with the people of Reni village protested when the government authorized the felling of the trees in the belt and gave the job to contractors.
On March 26, 1974, forest officials along with some loggers started moving towards the forests. A young girl saw them coming as she went running to Gaura Devi. That day there were no men in the village. All of them had gone to Chamoli. Twenty-seven women and girls from Reni village led by Gaura Devi saved their community forest from felling, that is, 2,500 trees were saved by these women.
Gaura Devi led the first all-women action to save their community forest and mobilized the women of this region to protect their natural heritage.
What Gaura Devi did on that fateful day was no small feat. She initially tried to reason with the officials, who were reportedly drunk. The officials didn’t pay her attention instead they started hurling abuses on her and other women. They also ordered the loggers to chop the trees while threatening the local women with guns.
Little did they know that these women were resolute in saving the forest. They kept on hugging the trees and refused to let go! The brave 27 women along with Gaura Devi risked their lives as they challenged the officials and loggers to go ahead. This act of bravado shook the men. They decided to lie low while the women burnt the midnight oil to guard the trees.
After a four-day impasse, the officials finally left. Later the State government complied with the villagers’ demands and issued a 10-year ban on all commercial deforestation in the area.
This was the defining incident of the Chipko Movement, however, Gaura Devi’s name soon faded into oblivion. Even though she kept on mobilizing women to organize more protests and rallies, but she never got her due. She was not invited or asked about her views on the preservation of forests by policy-makers because of her illiteracy. Making us wonder, who was illiterate Gaura Devi who staked her life to save the forest or those who ordered loggers to chop the tree off?
Today, we salute this unsung environmental activist, without whose heroic actions, the Chipko movement, wouldn’t have taken the center stage. And the forests of Uttarakhand would have taken a very different course.
Written by Prakriti S