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Rampur village, Henwal valley, Tehri Garhwal


December 1993


This is a fascinating interview, rich in detail and particularly personal. Sudesha is a powerful figure, intelligent, perceptive and brave. She was active in the Chipko movement and the Tehri dam protests, despite strong opposition from her husband, and she went to jail for her Chipko activities. She has also fought for other causes she felt strongly about. Her story contains many insights into the position of women in her society and how a forceful personality can defy conservatism and some of the curbs on women's power to act. She explains: “The older people think that women should only cook. She should only tend the home fires. If she steps out of the house she loses her honour. So in a sense I have shown great disrespect to the people of Rampur. But now they are gradually beginning to admit that I do know something, that I have done something worthy of respect.” She goes on to say: “There are people who say that the country has become free, but the women are not yet free. Unless the girls begin to think of these things themselves, and feel that we are as good (equal) as the boys, there is no one who will give them that freedom. Not even their fathers.”

Her views on education and migration are thoughtful. She has a strong belief in education but doesn’t believe people should abandon their villages. Although doing service in urban areas carries prestige, she observes: “They undergo so much hardship in their work and the landlord says all sorts of things to them. I visited someone's house and I found she was using a government (public) latrine, and her own house was like a hovel. So this is how they live in the towns.”

She talks passionately about what she feels is wrong with the Tehri Dam project: “Since there is water in our river, they are transporting it to Delhi. The people of Delhi are rich, they can do whatever they like. We are poor people... It is not that we are agitating that the dam should not be built at all. But it should be built in such a way that we get water, first of all. What I mean is, the water should reach the people whose land it goes through. It should only be allowed to go further when everybody's stomach is full.”

Sudesha’s concern with the mountains and nature that surrounds her is evident throughout the testimony. She single-handedly motivated village women to develop and protect a tree plantation and she is involved in the Save the Seeds Movement to conserve and encourage the use of indigenous varieties.

detailed breakdown

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Section 1-2  Origin of the villagers – she has heard they originally came from Rajasthan. Family background. Son is handicapped: “...though people taunt him, he never answers back.”
Section 3–5  Her daughter's illness and death. Her involvement in the Chipko movement and other campaigns. She was jailed, bringing shame to her husband and his family who disapproved of her activism. Former reaction against education: “When I could not cut grass as well as my sister-in-law and brother-in-law’s wife, I wondered why I had wasted my time in school when I should have learnt this work instead.” Now wants to learn English so she can communicate with visitors.
Section 6-8  Violence encountered when protesting about the Tehri dam: “…I experienced the blows of the policemen for the first time.” Concern for her own and other women’s “honour”, when jailed, but respect was shown. Points out it was also the first time she had a rest from constant work! Opposition from her husband: “he too is socially conscious but he is a drunkard, and under the influence of liquor he opposes everything I do.” She has “become very hard” to cope with his and others’ disapproval.
Section 9-10  Her opposition to the dam: “First of all, we believe that the [Bhagirathi] river is ours, that it should keep flowing as it has always” and secondly, “Rich people get away with anything, they can get employed on the dam work, they can make the dam theirs, but when the poor die, there will be no place even to float them down the river.” Displacement caused by the dam: “So some employment should be started in the hills instead of a dam, which is uprooting us from our homes.”
Section 10-12  Freedom and safety of the hills under threat as roads open up the area to outsiders. “Now people have become educated, and now want just one thing, that they should not have to climb [hills], and they should not have to carry weights”. She deplores the way people want roads and are giving up walking. In addition to increasing theft, roads have also destroyed fields. Feels that people today “...are not thinking about the future of their children... all they want is money...” She talks about new fertiliser to illustrate that no one is thinking ahead, “Our land was harmed in exactly the same way that a man's body harmed when he drinks liquor. That was the effect the fertiliser had upon my land.”
Section 12-13  Agriculture and crop yields. Most fields are irrigated and, “We always appoint one person to look after irrigation. He provides irrigation water to the whole village.” Other villagers provide him with enough grain through the year “according to the size and productivity of people's fields.” How she does not conform to the accepted image of a woman; yet villagers are starting to respect her.
Section 14-16  Grief over her daughter’s death. Her suspicions that the local doctor was to blame for her daughter’s death. Comparison between "English" (allopathic) and traditional medicine. Treatment of daughters-in-laws: “They used to feed the whole family, and make the daughters-in-law do all the hard work but feed them less.” How she motivated women to plant trees and how she protected them: “Someone said that women cannot do a watchman's work, so I did it!
Section 17-19  Consumption of fuel wood, “I burn just a little at a time... I keep trying to make the other women understand that they must burn fuel wood sensibly.” Questions the status attached to being in army and having money, if a man still lets his wife walk miles for fuel wood. The injustice of Harijans having to carry brides to the husband’s house. Collective activities, eg preparing for a wedding. Women barred from panchayat meetings, “But I have forcibly attended the meetings. There is no one who can throw me out!” Complains that the government’s statement that there should be women and Harijans in the panchayat is just a token gesture. How the panchayat turned against one innocent man.
Section 19  Water problems following the construction of water tanks. The status of Harijans: “We have heard that the Harijans’ status is very bad in the east, but in Garhwal it is not like that. People are not so oppressive.
Section 20-22  Commonly held view that education is no use if you don’t get a job: “They don't have the slightest understanding that an educated person is an educated person even if the person stays at home.” Festivals celebrated in the village Migration; poor conditions in the towns, “But we poor people are free, we have our own houses in our village and breath free air.” She built a concrete house, which she regrets.
Section 22-23  Exploitation of Nepali migrant workers. Involvement in a movement to collect and store traditional seeds. Observations on climate change and beliefs about weather conditions: “…whenever there is rain, it is drawn to the place where there are forests... So the trees must possess some powerful divine nature that they can pull the water towards them.”
Section 23-24  Migration: people’s failure to see local potential (eg processing of local produce) Forest fires Believes educated people should stay: “We have so much work here…I definitely do not want young people to go away.”
Section 24-26  Interesting aside on women's jewellery - she believes it is symbolic of their bondage to men (painfully heavy “to make us bow down”). Contact with people from all over the world through her activism. Describes anti-alcohol campaign: “...we imposed our own penalties (fines) on them... We held meetings, we humiliated them in front of everyone, but we never handed them over to the police even for a day.” Her thoughts about the educated: “…they must consider themselves the same as everyone else. Your appearance does not change when you study, you only acquire wisdom.”
Section 26  Sadness about younger daughter's death. Even-handed treatment of her handicapped son and her daughter.