In the mid-1970s, the Chipko movement had started to spread. State officials were perplexed and believed it would all die down soon – the power of the state includes its capacity for patience; it can simply watch and wait for agitators to feel worn out by endless vigilance, for sooner or later those who agitate have to revert to the daily grind of survival. But we as activists were getting a different kind of feedback from the ground. While the newspapers presented it as a thrilling experience, even people within Sarvodaya who had no first-hand knowledge of what had transpired were exaggerating the news. One report read, “People in Uttarakhand are stuck to trees” when no such thing had happened – as yet. However, we did not try to set the record straight because it could have hindered our ongoing constructive programmes.

One day, Hayat Singh Rawat of Tapovan reported that trees were to be cut in the Joshimath block. This is the watershed region of the Rishiganga, a tributary of the Dhauliganga. This region had witnessed a terrible flood in 1970, and I had travelled from village to village, and to every valley along it. The Alaknanda floods had, as is well recorded, ravaged the environment and the local economy.

Before this, I had witnessed a similar destruction in July 1961 in Dadua village. However, for ten years after that there had been no reports of major landslides, though during the monsoon the whirlpools in the Alaknanda and its tributaries showed dead bodies and tree trunks. One such whirlpool had formed by the bridge near Karnaprayag in the Pindar – dead animals were often caught within its spirals. The Pindar is a sixty-mile-long river which proceeds over rough terrain. News of tragedies along it takes a long to trickle down and very little information comes through about material destruction in its upper reaches. Over the decade which ended in 1970, no major problem had been reported. Then, in 1970, disaster struck, and at this point, I will go back in time to that year because it was then that I first saw how vital it was for hill people to give their lives, if necessary, for the protection of their forests.

The July 20, 1970, Alaknanda floods came as a massive shock. On July 21, I reached Hardwar from Delhi and found people at the railway station commenting on the number of dead fish in the Ganga. I took the bus to Rishikesh and there was indeed the stench of dead fish along the Ganga – and of dead animals that had floated downstream. The Navbharat Times said, “One thousand pilgrims have died in the Alaknanda floods.” The phones were dead and the roads had closed.

Near the Bagla petrol pump I asked a gentleman about the flood situation – he had just then spoken from the telephone exchange to the Chamoli district magistrate. He was the correspondent of the Statesman and was on his way to the flood-affected areas – even Alkapuri in Chamoli was in danger, he said. He was kind enough to accommodate me in his car and we drove towards the region he had been asked to investigate. Apparently, the Ganga waters had entered the antibiotics plant at Virbhadra and sediment had collected all around; hutments along the Ganga had been washed away and the Ganga canal was choked.

On July 22, I had a meeting with colleagues and vigilant citizens. We really did not know the magnitude of the problem but feared the worst. The Chamoli district collector was busy with relief work at Alkapuri, where houses had been washed away. In our meeting, we decided that the next day various groups would visit the flood-affected region and attempt to get news from Ground Zero, whilst also trying to ascertain where and why the flood had originated. Each of us would carry 20 to 25 kilograms of rice for those in need.

One team which left immediately with relief materials went to the Gauna Tal region, another to Garudganga and Helang-Joshimath. Over the next seven days, our teams provided material relief to those who needed it most, while noting the immensity of the losses they had suffered. About 10 km of road on both sides of Belakuchi – a town about 6 km from Pipalkoti – had gone; 25 buses and trucks parked in the town had drowned and 500 acres of cultivated land had been ruined . The government said 26 people had died, 29 were missing, 142 cattle had perished, and about 30 km of road between Joshimath and Malari was invisible – as were five bridges between Dhak and Belakuchi. All this in the course of a single day.

The flood created new active landslide-prone areas. In the 2 km stretch between Marwadi and Vishnuprayag Sangam and the upper reaches of Joshimath, villages started sinking, which affected Joshimath town. Barosi, Helang, and Dungri too started sinking. What really astonished me was the attitude of the finance minister Narayan Dutt Tiwari whom the village Sabhapati (president) Maheshanand Nautiyal and I met in Delhi. Dismissing our concerns, he told us he had made an aerial tour of our area as well as the Pithoragarh region. He reminded us to be grateful for the kindness of the UP chief minister, Pandit Kamlapati Tripathi, for obliging him with a grant of Rs 48,000 to rent the army helicopter for his six-hour aerial survey.

In Joshimath, the sinking of land because of landslides became a regular feature. Narrating their tragedy, the villagers of Gauna told us that between 9 and 10 pm the river had begun surging, their houses had begun shaking, and their cattle bellowing in fear. People had wanted to climb the adjacent hills but it was dark. Downhill of Gauna village, which is spread along the Birahi River, is a junior high school, and five families had houses further downhill. The teachers in the school saw with torches that the river was in spate and rising. Along with their students, they went to the five families and managed to save them in the nick of time; within half an hour the river had inundated all houses and farms. 20 people in Selang and Urgam were swept away by the landslide before they could act.

Kimana village is situated in the hills in front of Belakuchi, at an altitude of about 7000 ft. The landslide ripped through its centre, filling its houses and cattle sheds with debris. One of the villagers, Uma Devi, suffered what many others did: her cows, bullocks, and lactating buffalo were killed; she only managed to save her 16-day-old child. She was living with her infant in the cowshed, where the debris reached up to her knees. She had spread straw over the debris and was awaiting her husband, who had gone a whole month earlier to Joshimath to work as a labourer – he was unaware of what had befallen his village and family.

When our team reached the village it was reeking of dead animals, but extricating these putrefying cadavers was impossible because of the treacherous locations into which they had been flung. On July 25, we stayed in Kimana, where it rained heavily and kept everyone awake. We distributed rice to seven or eight families. When we were leaving, the women, some of whom were widows, blessed us for what we had been able to offer them, little though it was.

The house of Khimanand at Birahi, where I had once been a lodger for six months, had been wiped out. It was in this house, during my stint in the the transport company, that I had rented a couple of rooms, fifty feet above the Birahi River. The house had been built on a ledge, where I would sit for hours mesmerised by the gurgling river below, and into which I dipped myself frequently every summer. Not even in the heavy monsoon of 1956-7 had I seen the river in such a frightening form – it usually rose five or six feet and was noisy but never threatening. For two years I had seen sleepers flow by on it. On July 20, 1970, Khimanand and his daughter had to vacate the house. The Birahi changed its course and instead of flowing under the expensive bridge over it, it now flowed alongside the bridge.

While our society started massive relief activities, we could not but reflect on the rage of Alaknanda and its tributaries. The rage of the Alaknanda cannot be stopped altogether, but it can be reduced: the experience of those days convinced me that the forests in the watershed and drainage valleys of our rivers had to be preserved and that we had to resist the coercive, exploitative state which cared nothing for the lives of poor villagers and their animals. It was in the course of that week-long exposure, three years before Chipko, that the first shoots sprouted in my mind about forest protection as the chief imperative of constructive social activity in our hills.

Newspapers and the state-controlled media reported these floods on the basis of hearsay. Very few journalists actually ventured into the interior. Even five years after these floods, fabricated narratives about the Alaknanda were churned out. A Chipko-related article of the All India Agricultural Research Council’s main scientific publications, Agriculture and Indian Farming (November-December issues) attributed the July 20, 1970 floods to the bursting of the glacier above Gauna Lake on July 21. This was not just ridiculous, it illustrated the kind of ignorance that had begun to pass for information. Where there is not even a trace of a snowline, authors unfamiliar with the terrain imagine glaciers as being. The Gauna Lake was formed in 1893. In colonial times, from August 1894 until it burst, constant surveillance had been maintained to monitor the water level of this lake. Over the July 20, 1970 floods, communications stayed snapped even two days later – in spite of Chamoli being an international border area.

Excerpted with permission from Gentle Resistance: The Autobiography of Chandi Prasad Bhatt, Permanent Black and Ashoka University.