Maiti Andolan, a green movement, which that has been named after mait—a term married Pahari girls in the region use for their mother’s home—has not just brought about a “massive ecological turnaround” in the central Himalayan region (Uttarakhand). This unique campaign has also ignited green consciousness among the locals besides doing away with some vain traditions prevailing in Uttarakhand’s hill society. Maiti Andolan, an ambitious movement that began in a small Indian town 20 years ago, are doing their every bit to save the environment by restoring the country's green cover and of many other nations too. The women-centric movement, which involves a unique ritual of planting a sapling by a newly-wed couple, was initiated in a small town of Gwaldam in Uttarakhand by environmentalist Kalyan Singh Rawat in 1994. This innovative movement has now spread across 6,000 villages in 18 states including Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir, Rajasthan and Kerala besides foreign countries like the US, UK, Canada, Nepal, Indonesia and Thailand. The Maiti Andolan has generated a lot of public awareness and tree planting is now done not only during weddings but on other occasions as well. The uniqueness of this green movement lies in its being basically a socio-environmental campaign, which has now come to be identified with girls’ wedding ceremony or kanyadan. “Now, no kanyadan in Uttarakhand, especially in its hilly areas, is considered complete until the bride and the bridegroom plant a tree sapling during their marriage ceremony either in the premises of the home (mait) of the bride’s mother or somewhere in her parental village depending on the space available. It is owing to this deep bond that mothers and daughters share in the pahari (hill) society that the maitis (members of the mother’s home) ensure that the tree sapling planted during kanyadan gets proper care after the girl’s marriage, thus making the Maiti Andolan a successful green campaign.
Interestingly, this unique socio-environmental movement that came into existence with the planting of just one tree sapling 20 years ago has now started getting popular in some foreign countries as well, having spread through Uttarakhand’s as many as 6000 villages besides eight other states. These states are namely Gujarat, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, West Bengal and Maharashtra. This widespread popularity of the Maiti Andolan shows that it has touched a responsive chord among the people both within the country and abroad.
“This bond is extraordinarily deeper than that in other places because women being the prime movers of Uttarakhand’s hill economy have to lead a very tough life and their daughters give them full support. Until their marriage, daughters stand literally shoulder to shoulder with their mothers in the latter’s everyday battle to feed their family and meet its requirements. They (daughters) share all kinds of drudgeries their mothers have to undergo while toiling hard in the small, terraced fields to grow millets etc and trekking miles to fetch potable water and head loads of fodder and fuel wood.
So, for hill women the pain of being parted from such truly helpful daughters after the latter’s marriage is unbearably profound and the bond between them keeps becoming stronger and stronger. So, mothers naturally ensure that the saplings planted by their married daughters remain well protected and grow into leafy trees.
No wonder, the massive planting of saplings undertaken in the region during the last 20 years as part of the Maiti Andolan “resulted in a number of barren patches of hills and valleys being covered with lush green forests”. That, according to activists, not only improved the environment in the ecologically fragile central Himalayan region (currently bearing the brunt of both global warming and unbridled urbanisation) but also gave much-needed boost to its forest-dependent pastoral economy. Initially, the tree-planting drive undertaken as part of the green campaign had laid emphasis only on growing non-fruit-bearing trees but soon villagers also started growing fruit-bearing trees and fodder trees in their neighbuorhood so that they and their families could have nutritive diet besides getting ample fodder for the cattle.
A number of forest patches that can be seen dotting the region’s hilly landscape are a mute testimony to the ecological transformation brought about by the Maiti movement. Nanda Maiti Van, a forest patch at Nanda Sain in Chamoli is, for instance, ‘the biggest forest’ developed by the people since the green movement has started. Spread over about a sprawling five-acre area this green patch of forest is on the Nanda Devi Rajjath pilgrimage route. The pilgrimage is organised after a gap of 12 years to give a warm send-off to Goddess Nanda Devi—also known as the presiding deity of Uttarakhand, whom the hill people also treat as their own daughter. Similarly, Shaurya (bravery) Van, a forest at Badhangarhi in Gwaldam is also a gift of the Maiti movement. This forest is dedicated to the memory of the martyrs of the Kargil war, and is spread over about a three-hectare hilly area.
However, the Maiti movement is more than just a green campaign. Besides creating environmental awareness among the people, it has also proved itself to be a reform movement. The green campaign, for instance, has helped modify some of the vain social practices into traditions that have proved to be of practical use for Uttarakhand’s poor and marginalised hill society. One such practice pertains to marriage. As part of this tradition friends of the bride tease the bridegroom by hiding his shoes after he takes them off to participate in rituals relating to the marriage ceremony. After the rituals are completed, the bridegroom requests the bride’s friends to return his shoes to which they initially do not agree. However, shoes are returned after they get a good amount of money from the bridegroom. Girls would invariably waste that money despite the fact that most of them being from poor families. So, a system was put in place whereby girls in each village started creating a separate fund from the money they receive from the bridegrooms in lieu of returning the latter their shoes in marriage functions. Such groups are known as Maiti Sangathan or groups of girls. “There are now 6000 such groups in as many villages and each group is armed with a separate fund. The money thus collected is used either in meeting the educational expenses of the girls from the poor families belonging to those 6000 villages, or in getting them married.
No wonder, the green campaign is now getting popular in some of the foreign countries as well. In Nepal it’s known as Mayati. “Maiti movement is equally popular in Canada and Dr Maya Chaddha, a professor at California University, has been closely associated with it making it popular in the USA where it is being hugely appreciated,” says Rawat. According to him, the concept caught on in Canada post-1998 when he met former finance minister of that country, Flora Donald, at a seminar held on the Maiti movement in Kausani (Uttarakhand). “Donald was so fascinated by the concept of the green movement that after she went back she introduced it in her own country in a big way. The green campaign has since become so popular in Canada that it has also become the researchers’ favourite topic there.