Through over 200 Mangal Dals, Basanti Behan revitalises
forests and river tributaries in Uttarakhand
Deforestation has caused huge damage to the ecosystem of Himalayan states. Not only city-dwellers, but also the villagers are suffering immensely. Obviously, any damage to forests first has adverse impact on the local water resources and livelihood of the villagers. That is why a large number of villages in Uttarakhand are facing acute water shortage, as many river tributaries are drying up. The villages in Kosi, Mansari Nala and Lod Valleys around Almora and Kausani had also faced the similar situation some years back. But a minor initiative of forest preservation by local women changed the picture of this entire region to the extent that not only the forests, but also the Kosi has been revived. The face behind this miracle is Basanti Behan of Lakshmi Ashram Kausani, who created over 200 women groups for this objective.
If you want to virtually see how a minor change in the mindset of people can fetch miraculous results, visit Almora, especially the Kosi, Mansari and Lod Valleys in Uttarakhand. The local women, who once contributed in forest-destruction, are now the proud forest protectors. It not only restored greenery here but also revitalised the Kosi River. The credit for changing this mindset goes to Basanti Behan who dedicated almost three decades of her life to this region.
Basanti Behan successfully mobilised over 2,500 local women by forming about 200 Mangal Dal. Each group has 10 to 15 women who not only refrain from causing any damage to the forest, but also stop others from doing it. The formation of such groups basically began with resolving the drinking water problem in the region in 2003. Basanti Behan points out that there were about 365 water resources in the region, which had started drying up due to unmindful deforestation. Even the water of Kosi had reduced drastically. The deforestation had turned green mountains nude. Gradually, the water crisis deepened so much in the year 2003 that Police had to guard the water resources. As a result the farmers stopped getting water for irrigation.
“The permanent solution to the crisis was large-scale tree plantation. We took the initiative. In the beginning, people were not ready to listen to us. I roamed villages for many weeks, but did not find any woman to speak to, as they all were in the forests. Some village elders then commented that ‘these women will not listen to even the District Magistrate or District Forest Officer if they prevent them from cutting trees.’ But I was undeterred. After many days I found a group of women returning from forests carrying wood on their heads. I spoke to them and persuaded to bring only as much wood as they really need. I also told them if they continue to destroy the trees, the Kosi too will dry and there will be no farming or forest products. Many women then confessed in front of me that they did not know the relation between the forest and the water and since there was a blind race to store more wood they had joined it,” says Basanti Behan while talking to Organiser.
With the limited support of some women, Basanti started forming several Mangal Dal. Each Dal took a pledge taking Kosi water in their hands that they will save the Kosi, green wood will neither be cut from the forest, nor would it be allowed to cut and they will protect the forest from fire. Later, the forest department also recognised their right to dry wood. Gradually, the women of other village also joined it.
The Mangal Dal then took some more initiatives. They started raiding the houses where woods were stored more than the requirements. They also planted thousands of trees. Gradually, the villagers started realising the significance of the movement. Today it has spread in more than 200 adjoining villages. They also formed some self-help groups, which strengthened their financial condition.
When the work basically began in 2003 there was a lot of antagonism towards the forest department. Any attempt at forest preservation was seen as ‘siding with the forest officials’. But Basanti convinced the villagers that the forests belonged to them and not to the Government alone, and that they too had a responsibility to protect them. Gradually, the villagers accepted this viewpoint.
The ecosystem responded magnificently to this initiative. Where there were sparse pine forests, now broad-leaved trees are coming back. The forest floor has saplings of rhododendron (buraansh), oak (banj), and myrica nagi (kaafal). All this is through natural regeneration. Seasonal springs now flow throughout the year. The springs at Rauliyan and at Kaphadi would dry up in the summer. For the last couple of years, they have been perennial.
The personal life of Basanti has been very tragic. Originally, hailing from Charma (Digra) village of Pithoragarh, she became a widow at the age of 14. Living the life of a child widow was a big challenge, but her father fully supported her. He was not ready for her second marriage. He realised that the first marriage was done under the pressure from the society, which proved a punishment to his daughter. Then Basanti came closer to the activities of Lakshmi Ashram, Kausani, and joined the social life. She then restarted her studies at the age of 34 and successfully completed matriculation. She is now a household name in the entire State, as many see her as an inspiration.