Forests once protected by Chipko activists who hugged trees to save them from loggers are now being felled to accommodate pylons that will bring electricity from the massive Tehri hydroelectric project to power-hungry city dwellers in the plains below. When the forest of Advani located in Henvalghati region of Tehri Garhwal district in Uttaranchal faced attacks from the axemen in recent months, activists were reminded, on the eve of World Environment Day, Jun.5, that the last attempt to denude these lush forests happened as far back as 1978 and under very different circumstances.

For one thing, the trees have added girth in the intervening years. For another, the zeal to protect the fragile environment in the Himalayas has greatly diminished. In 1978 when a few trees were auctioned prior to actual felling, activists with the Chipko resistance movement and villagers, particularly women, hugged the trees and created enough commotion to make sure that the woodman's axe had become a rarity in these parts. Now, the towering pylons and high tension wires seem to discourage any idea of resistance -- worn down by decades of struggle to prevent the 2,400-megawatt Tehri dam itself from being built in what is known to be seismically active area.

Picture: The sacred Bhagirathi Ganga river disappears into a tunnel above the Tehri dam. (Pic. credit: Richard Grove).

The $1.7 billion dam project is near completion and the first phase is expected to be commissioned this year. Most of the residents of Tehri town and surrounding villages have already been relocated to a place called New Tehri. Yet, a handful of determined villagers have succeeded in saving a substantial number of trees threatened by overzealous contractors.

As farmer Dayal Bhai Bhandari, a veteran of the Chipko days, explains: "It is apparent that original estimates of trees which were to be felled were very high and unnecessary just to let through the high-tension wires. Now as a result of people's opposition, the estimates of trees to be felled have been scaled down to a large extent." According to an understanding reached between the vigilant villagers and authorities, most of the trees originally marked for chopping may be saved, Bhandari said.

Kunwar Prasun, a Chipko activist who played a key role in saving forests during the late seventies as well as in the recent struggle, explains the difference between the two occasions. "At that time we were confronting relatively smaller commercial interests. They were people who hoped to benefit mainly from the timber they were trying to obtain from the forest." This time, Prasun said, the villagers were up against a massive hydroelectric project, which has already submerged the ancient town of Tehri, and has cost billions of dollars to build. Electricity from it is earmarked to feed a large national grid.

Nothing has been allowed to come in the way of the hydroelectric project - be it high-voltage activism or even the hundreds of deaths and massive destruction that followed a series of devastating earthquakes in Uttaranchal in 1999. "There was no way the authorities were going to stop this after having already created such an expensive and controversial dam project. So given a difficult situation we settled down to trying to save as many trees as we could," Prasun adds.

It is interesting to note here that the felling of these trees was nowhere mentioned in the environmental costs of this Tehri project at the approval stage for the scheme. It was only after the project started moving towards completion that officials appeared suddenly in remote forests and villages to axe trees. When villagers of Henvalghati prevented some officials from cutting trees and petitions were sent by environment activists and organisations to legal courts, some officials, along with a senior representative of the Supreme Court, came to Henvalghati.

The felling of these trees was nowhere mentioned in the environmental costs of this Tehri project at the approval stage for the scheme. It was only after the project started moving towards completion that officials appeared suddenly in remote forests and villages to axe trees.

 •  Whither the Chipko years?
 •  Lessons from Tehri Activists like Kunwar Prasun spent a long time with them in the Advani forest and neighbouring areas to find out what could be salvaged. "It soon become clear that to proceed with this work it was not necessary to remove trees in too wide a belt and this was reduced very substantially from 85 metres to 12 metres," says Prasun. Although exact estimates are not available, he said, rough village level estimates suggest that the number of trees to be felled in and around Advani alone was reduced from around 40,000 to less than 1,000. This is a very substantial reduction and reveals the extent to which damage to tree cover can be reduced when environment activists and villagers are involved in the decision-making process.

The importance of this effort increases due to the fact that these Himalayan forests play an ecologically crucial role in soil and water conservation and protection from landslides and floods. As these power lines have to pass over a wide area, activists hope that similar concerns for minimising damage to trees will be extended to other areas as well. However, as the experience of villages near Advani forest shows, it is only when local villagers are active that indiscriminate destruction to forests can be checked.

The relentless logic of development threatens the delicate environment of the hills in other ways as well, such as increased mining activity in places like Kataldi village. "The use of dynamite for large-scale mining work in Kataldi is bound to prove very destructive for forests, water sources, fields and pastures," says Vijay Jardhari, a well-known activist of the Chipko movement which has also opposed the granting of mining leases. "I've seen the devastation caused by destructive mining in Sisyalukhala. So I fully support the decision to oppose this mining lease," says Sudesha Devi, a simple village woman who has been in the forefront of various efforts to save the forests and environment in this region. However, the contractor proved to be so influential that he managed to implicate leading environment activists in a number of false complaints and allegations, so much so that there was a real threat of some Chipko activists being imprisoned, residents here say. "We went to jail in earlier movements also and we are prepared to do so again. But we'll continue to oppose destruction of the fragile Himalayan ecology," says Kunwar Prasun.

These activists, who live like ordinary villagers, have endured many hardships in their numerous struggles. Says the most respected and oldest of the activists, Dhum Singh Negi, who is called 'guruji' or teacher by colleagues: "No matter what the threats we face today in Kataldi, we are determined to protect the fields and forests of Henvalghati."