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- Something that the UPA government got exactly right

Last week, the great pioneering environmentalist, Chandi Prasad Bhatt, was given the Gandhi peace prize, awarded annually by the government of India. I should perhaps have said technically awarded annually; since in the 10 years the United Progressive Alliance has been in power, the government has chosen just two Gandhi peace prize winners. In 2005, the committee’s choice fell on the South African theologian and activist, Desmond Tutu; now, shortly before a general election the UPA will surely and deservedly lose, they have chosen Chandi Prasad Bhatt.

The idea of a Gandhi peace prize was first mooted in 1994, the year of the Mahatma’s 125th birth anniversary. P.V. Narasimha Rao was then prime minister. Rao was a very learned man; and one with a decidedly ambiguous relationship to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. He had, through the 1980s, been extremely deferential to Indira and Rajiv Gandhi, but after unexpectedly becoming prime minister in 1991, he chose to mark out a distinct legacy of his own. Hence the push to liberalize the economy, and hence also the institution of the Gandhi peace prize.

That Narasimha Rao sincerely admired Mahatma Gandhi is not in question. Yet, in setting up an award in his name, he may also have been dealing a subtle snub to the memory of Indira Gandhi. For one of Rajiv Gandhi’s first acts as prime minister was to set up an award named after his mother, which his government claimed would become as prestigious as the Nobel Peace Prize. The Indira Gandhi prize for peace, disarmament and development was first awarded in 1986 to the New York-based Parliamentarians for Global Action. Later awardees included the Russian politician, Mikhail Gorbachev, the Norwegian stateswoman, Gro Harlem Brundtland, and the Namibian freedom-fighter, Sam Nujoma.

In 1991, Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by Tamil terrorists from Sri Lanka. Later in the year he was posthumously awarded the Indira Gandhi prize. This, on Narasimha Rao’s part, was an acknowledgment of the brutal nature of Rajiv’s death, and of his own past obligations to the First Family. Three years later, by the time of the Mahatma’s 125th birth anniversary, Rao had made himself quite independent of his former patrons in thought and in action. One manifestation of this growing independence was the institution of the Mahatma Gandhi peace prize. This carried a cash award of Rs 1 crore, whereas the Indira Gandhi prize was worth a mere 25 lakh. The discrepancy was surely not accidental; someone (most probably Narasimha Rao himself) was saying to someone else (most probably Sonia Gandhi) that the Mahatma was a much greater Indian than Indira Gandhi.

The first recipient of the Gandhi peace prize was the veteran anti-colonial leader, Julius Nyerere. Later awardees have included the Sri Lankan social worker, A.T. Ariyaratne, Nelson Mandela, Coretta Scott King (widow of Martin Luther King), the Irish peace-maker, John Hume, and the Grameen Bank of Bangladesh.

The aims of the Indira Gandhi and the Mahatma Gandhi prizes are similar but not identical. In either case, both individuals and institutions are eligible. While both recognize contributions to peace, the Indira Gandhi award also specifies ‘development’, whereas the award named for the Mahatma stresses the use of non-violent methods for bringing about social and political change.

It is instructive to compare the list of awardees for these two prizes. The Indira Gandhi prize seems slightly more political. Thus, while its jury has made some excellent choices over the years — such as the anti-apartheid campaigner, Trevor Huddleston, and the Kenyan environmentalist, Wangari Mathai — surely neither Hamid Karzai nor Sheikh Hasina Wajed would have been chosen had India not wished to build closer ties with the governments they headed. Karzai and Wajed are among as many as 12 former or serving heads of state chosen for the award. On the other hand, the Gandhi prize is more solidly oriented towards social service and civic action.

Only one name figures on both lists — that of the Czech playwright-activist, Vaclav Havel, awarded the Indira Gandhi prize in 1993 and the Gandhi prize 10 years later. Two names are conspicuous by their absence on either list. These are the Dalai Lama and Aung San Suu Kyi, who richly deserve either award (or both) but who may not have (yet) been chosen because of the excessively cautious attitude in these matters of the ministry of external affairs.

I shall make one last comparison, which is very telling. As I noted at the outset, in the 10 years that the UPA has been in power, it has chosen just two Gandhi peace prize winners. On the other hand, the UPA has awarded the Indira Gandhi prize every single year since 2004. The government of Manmohan Singh is clearly far more devoted to the dynasty than the government of P.V. Narasimha Rao was. The memory of Indira Gandhi must be honoured each year; whereas once in five years is quite enough for the Mahatma.

That said, the choice of Chandi Prasad Bhatt is very welcome. Born in a peasant home in Garhwal in 1934, he has spent a lifetime in focused and extremely effective service of society. Chandi Prasad was working as a bus conductor on the Rishikesh-Badrinath sector when he heard Jayaprakash Narayan speak at a public meeting, whereupon he abandoned paid employment for social work.

In 1964, Chandi Prasad set up the Dashauli Gram Swarajya Sangh, an organization dedicated to generating local employment through cottage industries. It ran co-operatives that promoted bee-keeping and the making of agricultural implements. In the course of its work the DGSS came into conflict with the forest department, which denied village artisans raw material while selling timber to paper and plywood factories in the plains. In 1970, there was a devastating flood in the Alakananda, caused in part by soil erosion from denuded hillsides. It now became clear to Chandi Prasad that commercial forestry in the hills was not just socially unjust, but environmentally disastrous as well.

In April 1973, Chandi Prasad led a group of villagers in stopping tree felling in the village of Mandal. Thus was born the ‘Chipko Andolan’, a peasant movement that defended local rights while demanding an end to the auction of timber to factories in the plains. Chipko is rightly seen as the founding event of modern Indian environmentalism. Notably, after successfully stopping tree felling in several places, the DGSS turned its attention to ecological restoration. Under Chandi Prasad’s leadership, it began regular tree-planting camps, where villagers were motivated to revegetate barren hillsides with indigenous species.

For the past 40 years — and more — Chandi Prasad Bhatt has worked quietly, away from the public gaze, with and for the people of Uttarakhand. The range of issues he has tackled include employment generation, the empowerment of women, the emancipation of Dalits, and, not least, environmental sustainability. Through his work, he has inspired several generations of activists and writers who have themselves contributed greatly to Uttarakhand and to India. The ecologist, Madhav Gadgil, the journalists, Anil Agarwal and Sunita Narain, the scholar-activists, Anupam Mishra and Shekhar Pathak, the social worker, Sachidanand Bharati, were all shaped in small and large ways by their encounters with Chandi Prasad Bhatt.

I myself first met Chandi Prasad Bhatt in his home town of Gopeshwar in 1981. I have many memories of Bhattji over the years — of him recalling the early history of Chipko at the DGSM office, of him launching the inaugural issue of the now very influential journal PAHAR in Pithoragarh, of him addressing the IAS probationers in Mussoorie, of him playing with his grandchild in Delhi. Always, I have been impressed by his dignity, his intelligence, his commitment, his deep yet unselfconscious patriotism.

When I read in the papers that Chandi Prasad Bhatt had been awarded the Gandhi peace prize, I tried several times to call him, but his phone was out of range. I thought he must be on a journey into the hills. I was not far wrong — when I finally got through, he told me that he had just reached Dakpathar, a town almost at the other end of Garhwal from Gopeshwar. Till about 10 years ago Bhattji would have done the journey by bus — now, pushing 80, he had sensibly agreed to take a car. Even so, it must have been an arduous journey — six hours downhill to Rishikesh, then four hours westwards to the banks of the Jamuna, on roads that, even by north Indian standards, are absolutely horrible.

Bhattji had come to Dakpathar at the invitation of the students of a local college. The news of the Gandhi peace prize thus reached him on a day when he was doing what he has always done: that is to say, teaching, serving, sharing. It was impossible not to be moved — and also grateful. The UPA government has done some stupid and many venal things in its two terms in office. But this time they have got it exactly right.