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.
In an interview to the Hindustan Times, Kalawati Rawat said,
“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.
Mandir Marg, Gopeshwar
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