The woman who electrified a village and took on a mafia

Kalawati Devi Rawat

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Kalawati Devi Rawat has waged a long battle against the timber mafia in the hills of Uttarakhand

Kalawati Devi Rawat is known as the woman who brought electricity to her remote village in the hills of the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand, writes BBC Hindi’s Salman Ravi.

It was the early 1980s and she had just been married and moved to Bacher village to live with her husband.

The village had no electricity and she found life tough once it got dark in the hills.

One day, she led a group of village women to meet government officials at the district headquarters in Gopeshwar to demand that their village be electrified. But the authorities were unmoved.

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While trekking back to the village, the women came across some electricity poles by the foothills, apparently to be used to provide light for an official programme.

Mrs Rawat persuaded the women to carry the electricity poles and wires to their village, situated at a height of some 500 metres, on their shoulders.

The officials were furious and threatened to lodge a criminal case against the women.

But more and more women came forward, asking the police to send them to jail.

Taken aback, the officials decided to connect the village to the power grid.

That was Mrs Rawat’s first victory.

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Mrs Rawat’s efforts led to her village being connected to the power grid

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Mrs Rawat has had no formal education

But she did not rest on her laurels and over the past three decades, has taken on the timber mafia in the nearby forests and also campaigned against alcoholism among the men in her village.

“Many men in and around my husband’s village were alcoholics and they were being exploited by the timber mafia gangs that operated in the area. One morning, I went into the forest along with the other women to fetch cattle fodder when I saw that all the trees were marked with a chalk to be felled later.

“We felt that something needed to be done to save the trees and the Taantri forest – the only source of sustenance for the hill villages,” Mrs Rawat told the BBC.

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Groups of village women routinely patrol the woods on foot to check the movement of the timber mafia

She mobilised the women and drawing inspiration from the “chipko movement” of the 1970s – the green movement where protesters hugged trees in the hills of Uttarakhand to stop them from being cut – they clung to the trees to prevent them from being felled.

“They first tried to bribe us and when that failed, they threatened us. We also protested before the district authorities, held sit-in demonstrations and finally the officials passed an order not to fell the trees,” she says.

Soon, Mrs Rawat formed small groups of village women – known as the Mahila Mangal Dal (Women Welfare Group) – that patrolled the woods on foot to check the movement of the timber mafia. The groups also demolished local illicit breweries.

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For her efforts, Mrs Rawat has won a number of awards over the years

For preserving the trees and the forest, the women decided to contest elections to the male-dominated local panchayat (the village council).

“But this was not an easy task,” says Mrs Rawat.

“We faced stiff resistance from the society as well as the administration. They wanted women to stay indoors and look after household chores. Even my husband opposed me. He asked me one day as to why I was doing all this. I tried to convince him that whatever we were doing was for the benefit of our own people.

“But he was not convinced. We had reached a point when we decided to even part ways,” she says.

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Vinod Kaparwan appreciates the work done by Mrs Rawat

It was not long before women had a sizeable representation in panchayats and Mrs Rawat’s struggle to empower rural women won her the Indian government’s Indira Priyadarshini Award in 1986. Over the years, she’s won other awards too.

But for her, the biggest reward is the recognition she gets from her fellow villagers.

“Now we take decisions that are accepted by everyone,” says Radha Devi, a member of the village council.

“We’ve managed to get rid of alcoholism and many families have been saved. No one fells the trees now and people living in the forest have access to plenty of produce from the woods like spices and fruits.”

For a woman who’s had no formal education, Mrs Rawat has become a role model for many women in her village and over the years, she has also won respect from men.

“Today we are benefiting from the forest produce. It has also become a major source of income for many living on the hills,” says Gautam Panwar.

“Had it not been for her efforts, the society here would have disintegrated with forests depleted and men falling prey to alcohol,” says Vinod Kaparwan.

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