Maletha; Battle won but war remains to be fought

Chronicle of an emphatic victory against crushers continued from May 2015 onwards

After hosting two days long workshop on Sustainable Mountain Development (02-03 May 2015) Maletha continued its agitation against stone crushers. The event popularised the villagers’ strength and struggle on wider platform.

On 8th of May 2015, villagers issued warnings of resuming indefinite hunger strike if the govt. failed to take a stand on the issue of stone crushers. A protest march was organized on 15th of May 2015 and two villagers Vimla Devi, head of Mahila Sangrash Samiti and Dev Singh Negi started observing fast on alternate days. Setting 25th May 2015 as deadline for State Govt. to act, villagers again demanded closing down of all illegal stone crushers running in Kirti Nagar block.

Meanwhile referring to High Court Nainital (HCN) April 2015 order, State Govt communicated that firm action will be taken against crusher units violating the stipulated norms. Following that, Commissioner Garhwal (GC) CS Napalchyal visited Maletha. Despite finding one stone crusher belonging to Satyam Shivam Sundaram Company violating environmental norms, he ordered a magisterial probe in the matter. Feeling disappointed by state machinery, Hemanti Negi a village woman sat on indefinite hunger strike on 25th May 2015.

Vijay Jadhari crusader behind 'Beej Bacho Andolan' addressing Maltha villagers on occasion of  Shaila Devi Paryavaran Puruskar
Vijay Jadhari crusader behind ‘Beej Bacho Andolan’ addressing Maltha villagers on occasion of  Shaila Devi Paryavaran Puruskar

On 1st June 2015, in a pleasant development Maletha village was awarded ‘Shaila Devi Paryavarn Puruskar’. It was 155th day of the protest and 8th day of Hemanti Negi’s fast unto death. The prize essentially reenergized exhausted villagers.

Maletha women stopping truck from transporting stones to crusher units
Maletha women stopping truck from transporting stones to crusher units

On 2nd June 2015, villagers found that (GC) inquiry order proved a hoax as crusher units continued operation. Village women reportedly seized few trucks and started sleeping on road to prevent stone compilation by crusher units. In response (GC) visited the place on 3rd June and found crusher belonging to Satyam Shivam Sundram company again violating the norms. The crusher was sealed on the same day. But villagers were unsatisfied with the act and thought it to be diverting their attention from main issue. On 6th June 2015, police team visited the protest venue to hospitalize the Hemanti Negi who was in 13th day of her fast unto death. Villagers objected the move and the team was made to return empty-hand.

Sameer Raturi beaten by police
Sameer Raturi beaten by police
Village women showing cloth torn by police during lathi charge
Village women showing cloth torn by police during lathi charge

The night of 6th June 2015 proved a turning point for Maletha’s movement. Late in evening more policemen stormed the village and tried to take away Hemanti Negi. Villagers again gathered in large numbers and strongly objected police action. Soon police personnel lost the patient and started raining batons over villagers. As a result 10 village women, Sameer Raturi and many other villagers got injured. Hemanti Negi was forcibally taken to Base Hospital Srinagar.

Angry villagers kept National Highway 58 (NH) blocked for 5 hours disrupting the Char Dham Yatra. Next day, villagers protested at Police Station, Kirti Nagar criticising lathi charge. They demanded immediate removal of policemen involved in this repression. The barbaric action was criticised by many social organizations based in variuos parts of Uttarakhand. Renowned environmentalist Dr. Anil P Joshi also held govt. responsible for Maletha’s incident. He warned the State Govt. of blocking N.H. 58 on 21st June if the villagers demand in not met. Protesting against the Police atrocities Sameer Raturi, gave up drinking water until guilty police officers, namely A S Rawat Station House Officer (SHO) and Ram Singh Gusain, Sub-Inspector (SI), both posted at Kirti Nagar, Police Station) are not transferred.

Police Station, Kirti Nagar also registered cases against 200 villagers. Meanwhile villagers continued with the protest. Shoorveer Singh, village headmen of Maletha sat on hunger strike on 7th June 2015. It was 9th if June 2015 (GC) ordered a magisterial inquiry into the lathi charge. The same day, Deepender Singh, Sub-divisional Magistrate (SDM) visited Maletha and assured villagers of strict action against guilty police personnel. He even requested Sameer Raturi to end the fast without even water. Sammer turned down request until transfer of involved police officer is ordered.

On June 11, 2015, the 165th Day of the movement, Dinesh Dhaney, Tourism Minister, Uttarakhand faced the ire of the villagers. He was believed to be involved in unethically putting pressure on govt. employees from Maletha village particularly kin and family members of women agitators to stop women from joining the protest and withdraw the movement.

A large gathering of villagers reportedly brunt minister’s effigy on N.H. 58 & shouted slogans against Uttarakhand Govt.  The N.H. 58 was again blocked for nearly one hour seeing the administration’s inaction in transferring the accused police officers.

Ultimately on 12th June 2015, both accused A.S. Rawat, (SHO), Ram Singh Gusain (SI) were transferred. With this Sameer Raturi also ended his fast-without-water but continued hunger strike along with Shoorveer Singh. Khem Singh Chouhan & Dev Singh Negi also started relay fasting and appealed to all the supporters to begin protest against Uttarakhand Govt. at their places.

In following days, several major events started unfolding simultaneously at fast pace pushing the movement towards its climax a ‘do or die’ situation.

Disappointed by govt. reluctance, Sameer Raturi on 10th day of his fast closed himself inside his home and refused even to come out for routine health checkups. The health of Shoorveer Singh Bisht also started deteriorating on 9th day of his fast. As per women Mahipal Butula, a former member of District Council (Zila Panchayat) approached the protest site late in the evening of 14th June 2015 and threatened the protesters  of dire consequences if the protest was not withdrawn soon. He had to face ire of the people.

By 15th June 2015, Akhil Bhartiya Vidhyarthi Parishad, major political parties including CPI (M) & Beena Choudhary, a member of Prakarti Paryavaran Sansthan, came in support of Maletha Movement.  Meanwhile villagers reiterated their demand of cancellation of all stone crushers licenses and withdrawal of police cases registered against the villagers. Supporters from Delhi also planned to stage a protest march at Jantar Mantar.

On 171st day of movement, Shoorveer Singh Bisht was forcibly admitted in Base Hospital Srinagar. Sameer Raturi stayed locked inside home and appealed to Rahul Gandhi, Congress Vice-President, to visit Maletha. Same day a delegation of about 15 Maletha villagers left for Dehrudun to have meeting with Harish Rawat, Chief Minister of Uttarakhand Government.

Well known social activist Medha Patkar and Ramesh Kumar, National Convenor for Himalayan Institute of Multiple Alternative for Livelihood supported the movement and wrote letters to the Chief Minister, asking him to cancel licenses of crusher plants set up in Maletha against local people’s consents and wishes.

Maletha delegation meeting with CM Harish Rawat
Maletha delegation meeting with CM Harish Rawat

On the other hand, Maletha delegation had meeting with CM Harish Rawat at his Dehradun residence on Friday, 18 June 2015. The CM took the visitors by surprise when he stated that he had already given closure order of the crusher units and wondered how the written order was not delivered to the villagers of Maletha. He talked to Sameer Raturi over phone and asked him to take care of his health and end the protest. He assured the delegation that within three days, written closure order in will be delivered to the villagers.

On hearing this, the delegation started celebrating with tears of joy in their eyes. The news spread like a wild fire. Villagers had won half battle but refused to stop hunger strike until they get Government Order (GO) on cancellation of licences of crusher units, in hand as they were not sure if it will come. Their apprehension proved right, as full week passed against promised three days but villagers got no GO order in writing from district administration.

Sameer Raturi’s fast entered 17th day on 22nd June. Now Govt. started attacking him personally. There were efforts to malign his image. News were planted in local papers of his sound physical health in spite of observing fast for more than half a month. His brother’s hotel Sri Yantra Tapu, Kirti Nagar came under the scrutiny from Pollution Control Board for allegedly polluting River Alaknanda. Few people from nearby villages, unhappy with Maletha movement started a parallel protest demanding closure of his brother’s hotel.

On the same day, in support of Maletha movement, Swami Shivanand of Matri Sadan Haridwar visited Maletha and strengthened the movement. Matri Sadan was fighting for years against illegal sand mining in Ganga and a Young saint Swami Nigmanand was reportedly poisoned to death by sand mafia in June 2011.

By 26th June 2015, villagers grew discontented and their resentment started swelling. 10 days had passed since CM’s assurance to Maletha delegation, but no cancellation GO was delivered to them. Sameer, on 21st day of fast had lost more than 5 KG weight. Suresh Bhai of Nadi Bacho Andolan also reached Maletha to lend his support. Village women organized a protest march in Kirti Nagar Block and accused Mantri Prasad Naithani, Education Minister, Uttarakhand for not supporting the Maletha’s cause openly while pretending to be a sympathiser.

On 28th June 2015, Delhi supporters gathered at Jantar Mantar and demanded immediate issuance of cancellation GO as promised by CM Harish Rawat.

Women were the real strength behind Maletha movement
Women were the real strength behind Maletha movement

All the public outcry and ongoing movement failed to move the State Govt. that indeed appeared serving the interest of mining mafia. Ultimately on 30th June 2015, eight women agitators, including Nanda Negi,  Sushila Bisht, Vimla Negi, Sunita Padiyar, Seeta Devi, Leelavati Bhat, Surji Devi and Seeta Rana  initiated fast unto death. Getting the message on social media supporters in large numbers started reaching Maletha.

On 26th day of his marathon fast, Sameer Raturi declared to quit even water again until the final decision is taken by the govt. The eight fasting women also supporting the decision, pledged to follow the same from 4th of July.

Meanwhile more information surfaced highlighting violation of stipulated rules by crusher units. One crusher unit was set up on agricultural land without any change in land use. Two stone crushers were being run by different owners on leased land.

The State Govt. shamelessly kept hiding behind the HCN order and showed inability to take action against the stone crushers. This argument was also demolished by villagers who argued that the HCN had clearly ordered closure of all crusher units being run in violation of norms. The villagers openly challenged the CM to publicly show if any new order had been passed by the HCN on this issue.

One of the crusher unit in Maletha
One of the crusher unit in Maletha

Fearing betrayal of trust among public, on 2nd July 2015, Rakesh Sharma, Chief Secretary, Uttrakhand Govt., acting upon a report prepared by GC cancelled all the stone crushers running in Chouras-Maletha area.

This was the moment that the movement was eagerly waiting for. They decided to continue the agitation until govt. notify the order. But again new twist emerged in GO language. Villagers alleged that the notification was cleverly drafted and there were loopholes in the language that could provide opportunity to crusher owners to obtain stay from the High Court.

Finding the GO a severe blow on villagers’ expectation and year old non-violent movement, Sameer Raturi decided to continue food and water fast on 4th July 2015. It was 29th day of his fast and he had already lost 11 kg weight. 8 village women on fast also started water fasting.

Maletha village for past 11 months was peacefully exercising its democratic rights promised by Indian Constitution for which 9 people were ready to sacrifice their lives. A State Govt. with corruption laden machinery and minister-mafia nexus had been repeatedly deceiving the very people it is elected by and it is meant to serve.

The night of 4th July 2015 enveloped the sky with thick dark clouds. The future of Maletha Movement was uncertain. But clouds had dispersed by the morning of 5th July 2015. The sun was shining bright in the sky symbolising the victory of truth.

Maletha villagers celebrating their victory
Maletha villagers celebrating their victory

Amended cancellation GO was served to villagers. With this Sameer Raturi on fast for 30 days and 8 village women observing fast for 6 days ended their fast. A wave of joy erupted among villagers. Atmosphere of struggle and sadness vanished in the sea of pleasure and celebration. Young or old, men or women were dancing the way they could.

In conclusion: Maletha had to fight non-violently for 190 odd days to get their justified demands met by a democratically formed govt. It is matter of grave concern as to why the government turned deaf and dumb to our constitutional rights and democratic demands.

Present breed of leaders and politician are non serious about village sovereignty and decentralisation of powers. The 73rd amendment to Indian Constitution that provide powers and rights to village Panchayat have been buried under heap of dirty politics. Time is ripe when villages should learn from Maletha movement and demand time bound implementation of 73rd amendment of Constitution otherwise they will continue to be deprived from their own natural resources behind the pretext of development and made to feel like alien in their own homeland if they show resistance.

Maletha villagers during paddy plantation
Maletha villagers during paddy plantation

Secondly now it is also right time for village & town people to thoroughly debate, discuss and define what after all is ‘Development’? The present concept of development measures increased resource consumption as a basic yardstick of development and subjects eco-system to irreversible losses and damages.

There is an alternative model also, which suggests that local community must be empowered to meet their local and viable needs from locally available resources integrating the indigenous knowledge in a sustainable manner.

Maletha has fought quietly and won the extraordinary battle. The credit goes to unity of villagers, support from well wishers and particularly to village women. Maletha has proved its worth and protected its natural legacy and cultural heritage from short-sighted govt. and undemocratic development model for some time. It is gearing up for even bigger and tougher struggle against proposed Rishikesh – Karanprayag Railway link which will take away big chunk of their productive farmland which is very much part of their cultural heritage.

In future we will see rapid surge in the numbers of Maletha like villages until we define development model and demand implementation of 73rd amendment of Constitution that empower the village panchayat & thus the village community. Time for peace loving mountain community to muster strength for long war to protect their Jal, Jungle and Zameen.

Kindly explore SANDRP blog link https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2015/05/12/maletha-redefining-development-to-protect-cultural-and-natural-heritage/ to read first part of the Maletha’s struggle.

(Pics were arranged from the Himalaya Bachao Andolan and Pandit Vinod Juglaan’s and Vriksh Mitra Dr. Trilok Chand Soni’s Face Book pages )

Bhim (we4earth@gmail.com) SANDRP

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