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head of Mahila Mangal Dal
Sabli village, Henval valley, Tehri Garhwal
This is a good interview with an interesting narrator. Illiterate herself, Savitri’s sons and daughters have all been educated. She believes that female education is essential: “Like the slaves of an earlier era illiterate girls are slaves of their in-laws… If a girl is unfortunate enough to be married to a drunkard, gambler or some one with bad habits, then an educated girl can at least eat by doing a job. An illiterate girl would only cry over her fate.” This is why she thinks women should not marry until they are at least 18 and have time to complete their education. She feels girls themselves have a role to play in changing attitudes towards women and education.
Savitri has been working with her local Mahila Mangal Dal (rural women’s council) for the past 10-12 years and was also head of it for some time. The Mahila Mangal Dal was active in the Chipko movement to protect their forests and also in anti-liquor campaigns. They also worked with another organisation that helped them to develop a crèche, construct toilets, and introduce angora rabbits as a potential source of income.
She describes how her Mahila Mangal Dal and other local woman took action to stop people taking goats through their forest and letting them graze. She doesn’t blame the people with the goats but their own people for allowing others to settle so close to the forest. She promotes the development of mixed forests, claiming that where pine trees “exist in large numbers… They are useful only to themselves. There is much more dryness in a pine forest. And other trees and plants don’t grow there. But where you find oak and rhododendron, you will find dampness, moisture.”
She prefers their traditional farming methods and cites the example of newly introduced soya bean. At first they “thought that it is simple - cutting, threshing and then selling it… but now we are realising our mistake. Everybody told us to grow soya bean as many things can be made out of it… But later we realised that from the koda and jhangora that we used to grow, we got food for both ourselves and animals. We can neither take milk nor do we know how to make snacks and other things from soya bean. So what do we do with it?”
Savitri’s views are balanced and well judged. At the end she comments on changes in women’s position. Rules have relaxed; the power of mothers-in-law has waned and although there is less “discipline”, ultimately she approves: “The daughter-in-law is not a servant… Change must come. This is progress.”
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||Introduction by interviewer
Family history and records: “We have a list of at least 50 generations of our people in our house.”
Importance of female education. Since her youth things have changed and now most are going to school or college.
Doesn’t agree with dowry but rather thinks girls should be given a share of property as sons are. Critical of those “boys” who ask for dowry: “leave alone the dowry, even the girl should not be given to him.” She continues “In my opinion, if the girls can stand on their own feet after getting an education, then definitely it is possibly that people’s attitudes towards their daughters would change.”
||Work in the village: “The main occupation is ‘Asi mali pet pali’ (a proverb in the hills) meaning he who works, eats. Those who get educated get jobs. Nobody pays attention to farming now. Everyone wants to avoid hard work. They want comfort, conveniences.” She strongly feels that even if people just do a little bit of farming they will benefit.
Nowadays they only grow enough grain for 3-4 months in the past, “Every field produced enough grain.” She blames the current situation on the lack of rain in recent years.
They now grow soya bean in addition to other more traditional crops, which in the beginning they thought was straightforward. “But later we realised that from the koda and jhangora that we used to grow, we got food for both ourselves and animals. We can neither take milk nor do we know how to make snacks and other things from soya bean. So what do we do with it?”
Prefer their old methods, which are more profitable.
Fetch fodder from the forests.
||State of the forests: “Earlier, there used to be very thick forests but now there is nothing left. We used to get all the wood we needed for our own use from them. You see these days those who are sitting at the top are sanctioning plans but the people in the middle are grabbing everything. They have cleared our forests completely… The contractors have cut down all the forests quietly after bribing the middlemen.”
Sow traditional varieties of seed that they can mix with cow dung rather than insecticides. They use each other’s seeds.
||How all the women got together to protest at passing shepherds who were cutting down large branches in the forest to feed their goats. “We told them that they could take the goats through, but should not let them loose in the forests. Otherwise we would fine them Rs.25 per goat. That is how we tried to save our forests. After that those goat people never came back again.”
This problem came about because some villagers gave their fields to the Gurkhas (Nepalis) who cut down trees to plant tomatoes.
Connection between forests and presence of water. Different types of trees found in the forest.
||Disadvantages of chir pine: “where they exist in large numbers there is a lot of resin. They are useful only to themselves. There is much more dryness in a pine forest. And other trees and plants don’t grow there. But where you find oak and rhododendron, you will find dampness, moisture.”
Reasoning behind the forest department’s conversion of oak forests into pine: quicker to seed (grow?) and useful to them. She believes the solution is to uproot the young pine plants and propagate the useful plants.
Previously she was the head of the Mahila Mangal Dal: “We sat with the women talked and made them understand a little. We told them about the uses of forests etc. The uneducated women have to be made to understand a little. One has to sit with them. But ultimately the illiterates understand better when compared to the educated ones.”
She was head for a while but then thought it good to give others a chance.
||The Mahila Mangal Dal has helped get toilets built and repair damaged roads. Also active in anti-liquor movement which was successful; some “started vegetable shops in place of liquor.”
Their participation in Chipko movement. She “would like to see that the educated daughters-in-law who come here in the future should do this work… They should save their forests.”
Believes migration stems from the need to earn a living and the preference of the educated not to do farming work.
Received help from Bahuguna for some projects, including the rearing of angora rabbits for income generation.
Sceptical of tree plantation schemes.
||Gobar gas: “good for the village, but only for those who rear buffaloes etc. One does save fuel through this, though. Its manure is also good. There is no smoke.”
Although pressure cookers are faster, traditional vessels make tastier food.
Benefits of water catchment scheme that the Hill People’s Development Committee is working on.
||Feelings towards the road: “Earlier, we lived in peace, there was no fear of any kind. Womenfolk used to walk without fear, there were no bad characters. These seem to have come in because of the road.”
Thoughts on large-scale development projects, especially Tehri Dam, which has progressed too far for people to demonstrate successfully against it.
Religious beliefs and village gods. Change in worship: “Earlier we used to offer sacrifices but now we only offer fruits, flowers, roti etc.”
Explains how women no longer always have to cover their heads and can wear slippers etc: “Nowadays everyone is doing everything. They even talk freely to the elders… The in-laws house should be exactly like one’s own house. Changes must come. This is progress.”