A Gandhian in Garhwal: Chandi Prasad Bhatt – Summary

A Gandhian in Gharwal: Chandi Prasad Bhatt’ deals with the life of Bhatt, a well-known environmental activist who is often credited with founding of the Chipko movement. The writer of this biography is Ramachandra Guha, a well-known social historian. While normally biographies are much longer in length and cover the entire life of the subject, this biography is a short essay focussing on some important events in the life of the protagonist.


The first thing that one notices is that it is a short biographical sketch. And the objectiveis made very clear in the first paragraph itself. The author obviously reveres Chandi Prasad Bhattand hence he calls his journey a sacred pilgrimage. A pilgrimage is a journey to a sacred placewhich has a religious significance. The author clearly regards Chandi Prasad Bhatt as a living deity, not in a religious sense, but in a very secular way. He is the founder of Chipko movement.It is obvious then that the author regards the Chipko movement as sacred and consequently thebirthplace of the founder Gopeswar, a place of pilgrimage. Thus the first paragraph (a very short one) introduces the reader to:

1. The objective and nature of the journey.
2. The living deity (Chandi Prasad Bhatt).
3. The achievement of the living deity (The Chipko movement).

A good biography must establish the relationship between the achievement of the individual and the life that made it possible.The next three paragraphs provide us with that information. The early life of ChandiPrasad Bhatt is covered quickly without any great details about the circumstances of the family. He was born into a family of priests who tended the shrine of Lord Shiva at Rudranath. However what the author does point is the informal education in ecology that Chandi Prasad Bhatt acquired on his trips to the shrine at Rudranath. He learnt that nature must be respected at all costs and that man must exist in a natural symbiotic relationship with nature. The taboos and prohibitions imposed by the people were meant to protect nature. For instance people were allowed to pluck flowers only after Nandasthmi because the flower would be ripe by then and plucking flowers at that time released the ripened seeds. Further there was a ban on spitting coughing and pissing on anything within a radius of four kilometre stretch above the Amrit Ganga so as not to pollute it.

The fourth paragraph, very quickly, takes us though the early phase of his life. He lost his father early in life and to support his mother he started out by doing odd jobs. He, however, finally joined Garhwal Motor Owners Union (GMOU) as a booking clerk. He was posted at many places along the Alakananda which entailed a lot of interaction with people from various parts of the country. It is here and through this interaction that Chandi Prasad Bhatt got his first experience of the immense diversity of India.

The fifth paragraph introduces us to the circumstances which transformed this ordinary booking clerk at GMOU into an influential social worker. I am sure you are familiar with the saying “The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step”. This small step, which would change the course of Chandi Prasad Bhatt’s life, was attending a public meeting inBadrinath in 1956. The meeting was addressed by Jayaprakash Narayan as well as a local Sarvodaya leader Man Singh Rawat. As you would know the Sarvodaya movement was aGandhian movement started by Sri VinobaBhave. It had JP (Jayaprakash Narayan) as the other prominent leader. This movement aimed at general awakening and all round upliftment of all sections of the people.Chandi Prasad Bhatt was deeply impressed by the two leaders who addressed that meeting and immediately became interested in the Sarvodaya movement. What impressed him even more were the personal sacrifices made by its leaders, especially Man Singh Rawat. ManSingh Rawat who came from a fairly rich family, had given up his inheritance for Sarvodaya.Chandi Prasad Bhatt began spending his leave with Man Singh and his wife Sashi Behn and learning more about Sarvodaya. And in 1960 was inspired enough to donate his life (Jeevan Daan)to the Sarvodaya movement. This was an enormous sacrifice when we consider the fact that he was already married and even had a child by then.

In the seventh paragraph we see the beginnings of a movement and a new direction taken by Chandi Prasad Bhatt. This small step would, eventually, result in the Chipko movement a decade later. Beginning with a labour co-operative, Bhatt established the Dashauli Gram Seva Sangh. The foundation stone for the organisation was laid by SuchetaKripalani, the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh. The land was donated by another woman Shyama Devi. Did you notice how swiftly and skilfully, Ram Chandra Guha, has managed to shift from the private world of Chandi Prasad Bhatt into the public domain where you see Chandi PrasadBhatt. The transition from private to public is not a sudden one. It has been in the making for many years. But by focussing on significant events which mark this shift, Rama Chandra Guha has very skilfully, achieved this objective. He has managed to focus on the man, his achievements and the circumstances that made this possible. The DGSS truly was a Sarvodaya outfit. The focus of the organisation was on livelihood. The DGSS tried to generate employment by promoting activities which were consistent with thelocal environment and ethos. You can see that the activities designed by DGSS already have aslant towards sustainability and conservation.

Paragraphs 9-11 recount the specific circumstances of the birth of Chipko. SinceDGSS was involved in social reconstruction and sustainable development it occasionally came into conflict with the government. However it was commercial forestry (trees cut for commercial purposes) as against social forestry which led to the growth of Chipko. DGSS was refused the use of some trees with which they wanted to make some agricultural equipment. But the same trees were auctioned off to a sports goods company in Allahabad. The local people strongly resented this commercial exploitation of their forest. To protect the trees from being cut downBhatt gave a call to embrace the trees (Angalwaltha in Gharwali). Similar action was followed at many places in the Alakananda Valley. At this point SunderlalBahuguna not only joined the protesters but also wrote about it in Yugvani. He hailed the efforts of Chandi Prasad Bhatt and the other workers and regarded it as the first step in the process of a transformation in the relationship between man and nature. Thus Chipko was born in the Alakananda Valley with the efforts of DGSS under the leadership of Chandi Prasad Bhatt. Subsequently the movement spread to Kumaon, Uttarakhand and the Bhagirathi Valley.

Ramchandra Guha, as you must have noticed, has approached the task at hand in a phased manner. The first four paragraphs which deal with the childhood of Chandi Prasad Bhatt, establish a link between the child and his environment. The child learns about the importance of living in harmony with nature from his surroundings. The next sections (Para 5-8) take us through his early youth and the momentous change that happens in Chandi Prasad Bhatt’s life after he attends a meeting addressed by Sarvodaya leaders, Jayaprakash Narayan and Man Singh Rawat. The next phase in Chandi Prasad Bhatt’s life (the birth of a social worker and the birth of DGSS)is captured in paragraph 9-11.And now in these paragraphs we see a consolidation of the Chipko movement and the success it achieved under the leadership of Chandi Prasad Bhatt. During this period we see Chandi Prasad Bhatt emerging as a great pioneering environmentalist as well as a great thinker. Under the leadership of Chandi Prasad Bhatt DGSS had entered a phase of reconstruction. DGSS not only protected the forests but also started reforestation projects. The DGSS met with remarkable success in their endeavour. While the survival roll of saplings planted by the forest department fluctuated between 20 to 50 per cent, the survival rate of saplings planted by DGSS was in excess of 70 per cent. Chandi Prasad Bhatt was not only a great environmentalist but also a great social reformer.This is testified by many people including Murrari Lal a dalit member of DGSS.

Chandi Prasad Bhatt worked tirelessly towards the upliftment of Dalit women and the removal of social inequalities.Thus the first tree plantation drive was flagged off from Murrari Lal’s village. His ranges of concerns were indeed wide. Apart from ecology and environment DGSS worked in the areas of traditional rights of people, the participation of dalits and women in decision making, safeguarding and using the indigenous knowledge of people and so on. In fact some of the development issues now being adopted by leading NGO’s and governments were in fact worked out by DGSS under Chandi Prasad Bhatt some thirty years ago.Yet, as Rama Chandra Guha has pointed out, Chandi Prasad Bhatt remains much less known than he should be. He was a modest and self-effacing man who shunned publicity and worked quietly. Since Chandi Prasad Bhatt lacked fluency in English, the English language press, Rama Chandra Guha believes, never gave him his due. The Chipko movement demonstrated to the world that the poor and tribal had indeed a greater stake in the responsible management of nature. He was the person who demonstrated to others that it is not enough just to protest against environmental degradation. It is important to begin reconstruction as well. The last two paragraphs not only bring out the simplicity of Chandi Prasad Bhatt through an anecdote, but are also an ironical reflection on the city bred and high flying environmentalists who move around in the smart offices of WWF and other environmental agencies. Unlike these academic environmentalists Chandi Prasad Bhatt demonstrates the values of quiet service and selfless dedication which unfortunately has disappeared from our public domain.

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