Gangotri women build their own road

UTTARAKASHI: The women here are convinced political parties don’t spare a moment for their problems. No candidate talks about issues troubling them. And yes, nobody took their views into account on the Bhagirathi eco-sensitive zone (ESZ).

Yet, when the 2012 ESZ that aims to protect the 100 km Gaumukh Uttarkhashi stretch was notified, it was mandated that women be consulted on implementation. The ESZ restricts construction of large hydropower projects, roads and commercial riverbed mining. The state government claims that five public hearings were held and opposition to the notification was unanimous. But women activists in the villages call the exercise a sham.

TheĀ UttarakhandĀ Mahila Manch, which has representation from all districts, demands that women be given “farmer status” and “farmland rights”. They want curbs on construction of large dams, 50% quotas in van panchayats and prohibition.

“Not just the ESZ policy , had women been consulted before large dams such as the Loharinag Pala on the Bhagirathi were built, we could’ve stopped this destruction. Not a single woman along the 100-km stretch was heard on the ESZ,” complains Pushpa Chauhan, gram Pradhan, Ganeshpur village and manch member. “The key issues for women here are water and forests. Because cattle, farming, fodder, firewood depend on these two. Wild animals destroy crops and attack us every day,” she says.

She points to several permanent landslide zones and dry streams that add to women’s difficulties. The women at Daang village have found a way to arm twist political parties into delivering. Elderly and young women are building their own road cutting a hill with their hands. This is because another route the government proposed would be longer and involve chopping hundreds of trees they planted. These women won’t vote unless one of the parties helps them build their road.

Women such as Dilma Devi (83), Bachue Devi (80) don’t know much about the ESZ. But they participated in the Chipko agitation of the 1970s with veteran ecowarrior Sunderlal Bahuguna. “We’ll fight to save our forests and the Ganga. Our lives depend on these,” one of them says. At the Gangori village, Jamuna Devi (60) can barely talk or join any festival. She and her friend Sureshi Devi (65) were mauled by bears in separate incidents. Jamuna’s one eye was plucked out. “Can someone do something about wild animals attacking us and our crops,” she asks.

Wild boar and monkey raids have farmers on edge. Vijandyei Rana, who has 1,800 women working with her at a self-help group, echoes Pushpa on the ESZ. “Why didn’t they consult us? Women here do 90% of the farming, are responsible for water and forest produce too,” Rana says. She cites the example of a canal closed after the 2013 flash floods leaving 10 to 12 villages without irrigation support, consequently burdening women farmers.

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