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March 8, 2001
The Rediff Special/ Ramesh Menon
If you told 70-year-old Kinkri Devi today was International Women's Day, it would not make much a difference to her. If you asked her how she earns a living, she would say she works as a part-time sweeper in the Sangrah tehsil of Sirmour district in Himachal Pradesh for Rs 500 a month. She has no other way of keeping the home fires burning.
Like most girls in her village, this Stree Shakti awardee was married at the age of 14 to Shamuram, a bonded labourer. He used to be attached to various landlords; they barely survived on the money he made. One day, when she was just 22, he contracted fever and died. And Kinkri Devi became a sweeper.
As the years passed, she saw, with much trepidation, the world around her change. Trees were being cut. Hills were being subjected to non-stop quarrying. Water resources were being affected. Then, when she was about 55 years old, it started happening in her neighbourhood.
They started mining limestone in the hills surrounding her village. Crevices formed in the hills -- a result of the dynamite used for blasting -- and interfered with the natural flow of water. In many places, gushing streams became weak rivulets. In many others, they just disappeared. The poor could no longer get fuel; that was the least of the side-effects as the forest cover was mercilessly destroyed.
"Uncontrolled mining by a politically well-connected mafia was destroying our water resources," says Kinkri Devi. "The debris from the mines were destroying our once-rich paddy fields."
The people in the hills started an agitation to stop the uncontrolled mining. But the government paid no heed. It was then that Kinkri Devi decided someone had to take on the powerful mining lobby. She was backed by a local voluntary group called People's Action for People in Need. With the help of Chetsingh Chauhan, a small farmer who had around 10 bighas of land, she filed a public interest litigation in the Shimla high court against the mining company, praying the mining be stopped since it was destroying the hills.
The villagers could not believe it!
Ditto for the 48 mine owners of Sangrah!! They were rich. They had political clout. And they had never been taken on like this. They dismissed her campaign, saying she was only trying to blackmail them.
When there was no response to her plea, Kinkri Devi went on a hunger fast in front of the high court till it agreed to take up the issue. As a result, in 1987, the high court ordered a stay on mining and imposed a blanket ban on blasting in the hills.
Faced with the prospect of closure, the powerful mining lobby threatened to kill her. But Kinkri Devi simply continued her fight to stop the mining. "I was not afraid of them," she recalled. The mine owners moved the Supreme Court in their attempt to get the high court order vacated. Unfortunately for them, the Supreme Court upheld the order.
It was a decision that rejuvenated the villagers. They were not cynical anymore. They believed the mine owners would be brought to book soon.
But it was not to be.
For the mine owners flouted the highest court of the land; mining continues in the hills of Himachal. "I tried to do my best," says an angry Kinkri Devi. "Despite the court ruling, quarrying is continuing even in the reserve forests. It is up to the government to see that the orders of the Supreme Court are followed. I cannot physically stop the mining. The mafia is very powerful."
It is not that she is against mining per se; she is only against uncontrolled mining that results in irreparable damage to the environment. After all, if mining is stopped completely, it will affect the economy of the region, which has no other means of income. Working in the mines is the most important means of livelihood for the people of the area.
"The mine owners are trying their best to isolate the people from me," says Kinkri Devi. "But the people in the hills know what is good for them." Chetsingh explained how the owners were now attempting to buy the villagers' loyalty. "Since they are very poor," he says, "the villagers often accept petty sums."
In 1995, a Himachal-based NGO sponsored her trip to the International Women's Conference in Beijing in 1995. And, because of the kind of movement she was leading despite her poverty-struck background, the organisers chose her to inaugurate it. So Kinkri Devi spoke about how the Himalayas were being degraded and how it was up to the ordinary people to save it. It got both her and the issue world attention.
Kinkri Devi cannot read or write; in fact, she learnt to sign her name in Hindi only recently. But she has never let this handicap her battle for justice. Instead, she started a campaign to open a college in the area. Though her village has a school, those who want to study further have to travel 65 kilometres to Nahan, where the nearest college is located. "I have not had the benefit of education," she says. "The area I live in is very backward and a college can make all the difference."
The entire area affected by mining, though, has a literacy rate of around 62 per cent. The educated are worried; they understand the damage caused to the environment. Which makes one wonder: Why are the youth not taking the battle forward?
"You cannot blame the young," says an elderly villager, who has silently stood by Kinkri Devi all these years. "The mine owners are very powerful and dangerous. Everyone values their life."
Sunil Sharma, a biology teacher in Korag village in Sirmour district, voices another worry -- 70-year-old Kinkri Devi is increasingly handicapped by her age. Her health is failing and she unable to go around mobilising the people.
But Kinkri Devi is determined to keep her campaign alive: "I will fight till the mining stops. Our forests and hills cannot be blasted away. If we let it happen, it will ultimately destroy all of us."
Photograph: Ranjan Basu/Saab Press. Design: Dominic Xavier.
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