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How Basanti Devi Saved The Kosi River

By A GANESH NADAR
November 28, 2022 10:26 IST
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'I am happy that Kosi Ma is alive and now she is looking after us.'
'I am proud of what I did.'

Basanti Devi

IMAGE: Environmentalist Basanti Devi receives the Nari Shakti Puraskar in 2016 from then President Pranab Mukherjee.
The award honoured her relentless effort towards saving the river Kosi and the area bordering the river from deforestation.Photograph: Kind courtesy GODL-India/Wikimedia Commons

The river was drying. Dying.

As was the forest.

In the day-to-day struggle for existence, no one noticed. Or cared.

The river in question was the Kosi, which flows through China, Nepal and India.

In Uttarakhand, the Kosi is a lifeline for those living along its banks. The forests it nurtured provided the villagers with, among other things, firewood for cooking. The river also gave them water for cooking and cleaning.

Years of abuse had decimated both the forest and the river. But one woman decided she would not let them die and, in the process, changed both the environment and people's lives forever.

Basanti Devi's inspirational life is a lesson in patience and determination.

She was born in Uttarakhand's Digra village in 1958. After her elder brother got married, the family moved to another village nearby where she studied till Class 5.

She was just 12 years old when her parents decided to get her married as well; her husband was in Class 11 at the time.

That was the end of her education.

Three years later, Basanti Devi's husband succumbed to a fever.

The 15 year old's angry mother-in-law blamed her for her son's death. "She cursed me," recalls Basanti Devi, speaking to Rediff.com's A Ganesh Nadar in a telephone conversation from Pithoragarh in Uttarakhand, where she now lives with her brother.

The widowed teenager had no choice but to return to her mother's home; all she carried back with her were two sets of clothes.

"My parents did not send me for higher studies, but taught me how to do household work," Basanti Devi says.

Three years later, she joined the Lakshmi Ashram in Kasauni, where she learnt stitching for a year. She also began studying again and cleared her Class 12 exams.

When the ashram started a balwadi (nursery school), she joined as a teacher, helping little children take their first steps into the world of education and organising plays for the villagers.

Then she heard about the Kosi and how its water basin was shrinking.

She was given the challenge of protecting the river and decided she would do it one village at time.

She co-opted the women in each village to help and, over a period of 20 years, transformed the landscape of the areas where she has worked.

The effort, she says, succeeded because it was collective; as a result, an important river has been rejuvenated, as have the lives of the villagers who depend on it.

In the process, they have taken on the timber mafia and stopped the felling of trees.

She has also inspired adults who drink and/or smoke to give up these unhealthy habits.

"We told mothers-in-law to treat their daughters-in-law properly,” says Basanti Devi, while discussing the long list of social causes she's passionately been involved with for over 40 years now.

Her efforts have seen her honoured with the Nari Shakti award in 2016 and the Padma Shri this year.

She is also one of the seven women whose lives have been documented by the Government of India in a series on women achievers titled Azadi Ki Amrit Kahaniyan, now airing on Netflix.

"We looked after the river then," says Basanti Devi, "and now the villagers say, 'Kosi Ma (mother) looks after us'."

 

You were very young when you decided to save the Kosi river. What made you feel one person could make a difference?

The decision to save the Kosi river was made by the ashram. They told me to work in the villages along the river.

When I visited these villages, I saw that none of the young women, including the daughters-in-law, were at home during the day.

They had all gone to the jungle to cut trees for firewood. So I went to the forest and told them to gather dry wood (which falls from trees) and not cut living trees.

I stayed in the village and formed a mahila dal (women's association) to implement these changes. Later, we formed mahila dals in many villages to educate people against cutting trees.

We also went on a padayatra along the Kosi river.

We spoke to women in the villages that we crossed and made them take an oath, 'We will not cut trees in the river basin; we will save the Kosi.'

Now the river is full of water, the jungle is green and the people are happy.

How did you find out what you needed to do to save the river and the surrounding land?

My ashram work took me to Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh.

There, I learnt that saving the trees will save the river. Now, brides are coming to these villages happily (laughs).

You needed everyone to cooperate with you -- the villagers, the government, the industries, the hotels, the armed forces, the forest department. How did you convince all of them?

I used to speak to all of them and tell them we are saving the river.

The forest department was not stopping the timber mafia. We said the river belongs to us and the trees belong to us. We stopped the timber mafia directly.

I spoke to government officials as well.

Hotels used to send water tankers to fill water from the river.M We blocked the road and did not allow these lorries to operate.

We fined them Rs 1,000 which was paid to the village. They stopped after that.

The villagers, who are your biggest supporters today, depend on the river and the forest it nurtures. But, to save the river, the villagers had to change their lifestyle and the manner in which they used the forest. How did you convince them?

There was enough dry wood available for the villagers to cook so their lifestyle did not change.

'No cutting trees' was a writ that was followed by everyone.

People were only allowed to cut trees when they wanted to build a home for themselves.

I have spent 22 years trying to save the Kosi.

You approached the women first. Do you find that they understand what you are trying to do better than the men?

The women listened to me as they understood what I was trying to do. After that, I spoke to the men in the village.

You must have got on the wrong side of people like the timber mafia and the sand mafia. You must have been threatened. How did you deal with them?

They used to threaten me and say I was from an ashram and did not have a family there, that I was an outsider. That stopped after I remained there for many years.

In 2015, my mother was not well. So I went back home to look after her.

My brother was working in a bank. I am 64 years old now and stay with them.

We stopped both the timber and sand mafia by blocking their vehicles directly. Women used to stop them.

Even after I left, the mahila dals I helped form look after the Kosi and the trees.

Now, I am going to serve my mother. They will look after the Kosi river.

Where did you find the money to support your cause?

When I worked at the balwadi, I used to get Rs 50 per month as salary.

When I was working to save the Kosi river, people would feed us.

We did not need money to save the river as we mostly walked to wherever we needed to go.

If we had to travel to a distant place, the ashram used to give us the ticket money.

Has receiving the Padma Shri and the Nari Shakti award helped your cause?

I was looking after my mother when I received the Nari Shakti award.

I did not know I had received the award till a lady friend of mine phoned and told me.

I came to know about the Padma Shri when my brother and his wife came and congratulated me. I received wishes from people from all over. They said, 'You have made all of Uttarakhand proud'.

After I received the awards, people pay more attention when I speak to them.

You have dedicated 40 years of your life to social work. What are the changes you have seen over the years in the river and the people who depend on it?

Those days, the river was running dry. Now there is plenty of water which nurtures the land around it.

There is no shortage of drinking water.

The people who depend on the river are very happy.

We looked after the river then and now, the villagers say, Kosi Ma (mother) looks after us.

How has it changed your life?

Since the pandemic, I have stopped traveling. I am diabetic. I live in Pithorgarh with my brother or sister.

In my area, I tell people to stop drinking, smoking and gambling.

I tell them, if they do that, the next generation will be better. I also tell them that we must make Uttarakhand the best state in the country.

You must have faced many challenges to reach this goal. What were the most difficult ones and how did you overcome them?

The most difficult problems were caused by people who did not like my work.

They used to tell people, "She is instigating our women. She is from an ashram with no family here; (she is) an outsider."

I used to ignore their abuse and continue with my work.

When you look at the river and the surrounding land today, what are the achievements you are most proud of?

I am happy when I see the Kosi river full of water. Now people have drinking water.

I am happy that Kosi Ma is alive and now she is looking after us. I am proud of what I did.

Will you continue to concentrate on the river or do you have new goals?

Now, people call me to address meetings. I speak to them about how I saved the Kosi river. I advise them on how to go about doing so.

You recently went on a padayatra. Can you tell us more about it?

We travel in cars from one village to the next. We walk in the villages. The aim to spread the message about saving Jal, Jungle, Zameen (water, forests, land).

The 40-day padayatra took us all over Uttarakhand.

You are an inspiration to many. Who are you inspired by and why?

I was inspired by my seniors in the ashram.

I was inspired by the Chipko Andolan.

I was inspired by women who tied rakhis to trees and clung onto them to stop people from cutting them.

What is your message to the young people of India? What can they learn from your life?

When I go out, the youth take selfies with me.

I tell children that they should do social work and they will get a Padma Shri like me.

I tell boys that they should not get addicted to any social evil like smoking, drinking or gambling.

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A GANESH NADAR / Rediff.com
 
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