Back in the 1980s, an unlettered woman from a poor family dared to take on the dangerous timber mafia in Chamoli. a border district of Uttarakhand. Nobody in her village, a fiercely male dominated society, expected her to succeed but not only did the she succeed, she also won the respect of the men. No matter the adversary, whether it was corrupt government officials or out of control alcoholics, the determined lady took them on to make life better for her fellow villagers.
This is the amazing story of Kalawati Devi Rawat, a woman who put her village on the path of progress and inspired her fellow village women to dream big.
Kalawati’s story of activism began in the early 1980s, shortly after she married and moved to Bacher, a remote village in Chamoli. Power was yet to reach the remote village, a fact that made life very difficult for the villagers once it got dark in the hills. Discontent with the absence of electricity, 17-year-old Kalawati soon discovered that the lack of electricity had more to do with the lackadaisical attitude of the government officials’ than the distant location of the village.
Determined to do remedy the situation, Kalawati led a a group of village women to meet government officials at the district headquarters. The group explained the difficulties they faced due to the lack of electricity and demanded that their village be electrified. However, the authorities were unmoved and soon the disappointed women began their long 25 km back to their village.
On the way back, Kalawati came across a pile of electricity poles and wire lines that had been kept at the foot of the hill. Apparently, it was meant to be used to electric connection for an official programme. Seeing an opportunity to light up her village, Kalawati persuaded her band of women to painstakingly haul the heavy electricity poles and wires to their village.
When the officials learned what has happened, they were furious and threatened to lodge a criminal case against Kalawati. As word spread, though, more and more women came forward, asking the police to send them to jail. Taken aback by this response, the officials acceded to Kalawati’s demand and connected the village to the power grid. In a few days, thanks to Kalawati’s efforts, the entire village had access to electricity.
“I had learnt my lessons – Never give up and keep pursuing things doggedly.”
Kalawati was an ardent follower of the Chipko movement, a unique Uttarakhand movement (it began in the 1970s), in which villagers hugged trees to save them from the forest mafia’s onslaught. She was deeply inspired by Chandi Prasad Bhatt who had led this pioneering movement against deforestation. This movement was also the inspiration behind Kalawati’s next campaign.
The year was 1985. One morning, Kalawati and other village women set out to fetch fodder from the panchayat forest of Taantri – the only source of sustenance for the hill villages. When they entered the forest, they were shocked to see a strange sight. Almost a thousand trees had been chalk-marked for felling. Knowing that such a large scale of defforestation threatened the very existence of the forest, Kalawati knew that she had to do something.
Drawing inspiration from the Chipko movement, Kalawati mobilised the women of her village. When their repeated requests to stop the cutting of trees fell on deaf ears, she asked them to hug trees to prevent them from being cut.
The furious timber mafia tried everything to browbeat the village women -from offering a bribe to threatening to kill them – but Kalawati and her band of women stood their ground. Soon, the ladies had formed small groups, called the Mahila Mangal Dal (Women Welfare Group), who took turns to patrol the woods on foot to check the movement of the timber mafia.
After a 25-km hilly trek to the district headquarter, Gopeshwar, Kalawati and other village women organised a 12-hour dharna protesting the cutting. Faced by the dogged determination of the ladies, the district administration acquiesced and announced that no trees would be felled in Taantri forest.
Though an important battle had been won, the war was far from over. Realising that men under the influence of alcohol were easy targets for the forest mafia, Kalawati decided to target the menace of alcoholism affecting her village. Led by Kalawati, groups of village women demolished local illicit breweries.
Next, to ensure the continued preservation of the forest, the women of the village decided to contest elections to the local panchayat. In the male-dominated patriarchal village, this was not an easy thing to do. Kalawati had to face stiff resistance from the society as well as the administration who though that the the panchayat was no place for women.
Even her husband opposed her initiative, but she stood her ground, firm in her belief that she was doing this for the benefit of her village and the environment. However, all her efforts to convince her husband failed and the couple decided to part ways.
Continuing her campaign that women be allowed to contest in the panchayat elections, Kalawati continued to engage with the district government to make them accept her demand. She argued that women had been legally empowered to contest the panchayat elections through the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments. Finally, the officials acceded to her demand, the women of Bacher contested in the panchayat polls and won a sizeable representation in the panchayat. The hard-won victory mattered a lot for Kalawati, who knew that armed with legal power, the women would now be able to take tougher steps against the alcoholics-timber mafia nexus.
Not the one to rest on her laurels, Kalawati has continued to work for the development and empowerment of her fellow villagers. Ever since their first win in the panchayats, the village women have always had a strong representation in the local governing body. The results are for all to see – almost all the menfolk in the village have given up alcohol, the women are included in all village decisions, there is no trace of timber mafia, and the villagers have access to plenty of minor forest produce like fruits and spices.
For herculean efforts to empower the women of her village, Kalawati Rawat was awarded the Indira Priyadarshini Award in 1986. Over the years, she has won several other awards but the one that matters the most to her is the respect and recognition she gets from her fellow villagers. Her determination to fight for her rights have also made her a role model for many women in her village.
She may have no formal education but Kalawati Rawat is no less than a one-woman army. Its time the country gives this gritty and tenacious woman the respect and recognition she deserves.
For more information on this inspiring woman, please contact Dasholi Gram Swaraj Mandal (DGSM). This grassroots organzation works with Mahila Mangal Dals for the socio-economic, cultural, and environmental development of the region.
Dasholi Gram Swaraj Mandal
Mandir Marg, Gopeshwar
District Chamoli, Uttarakhand – 246 401