Kinkri Devi, an illiterate and impoverished woman who waged a long and at least partly successful fight against illegal mining and quarrying in the mountainous state of Himachal Pradesh, died 30 December in Chandigarh. She was 82.
Devi was born into a poor Dalit, or untouchable, family in the village of Ghaton in 1925. Her father was a subsistence farmer. That she came from a low caste made her struggle against powerful and politically connected mining interests all the more remarkable.
With no hope of an education, she began working as a servant in early childhood and, at 14, married Shamu Ram, a bonded labourer. He died of typhoid when she was just 22, and she was forced to become a sweeper.
Over the years, she watched the world around her change for the worse. Uncontrolled quarrying despoiled the fabled hills in many parts of Himachal Pradesh, harming the water supply and destroying once-rich paddy fields. Seeing the damage in her own district, she vowed to take on the mining interests.
Stood against odds: Kinkri Devi.
Backed by People's Action for People in Need, a local volunteer group, Devi filed a public interest lawsuit in the high court at Shimla, the state capital, against 48 mine owners, accusing them of reckless limestone quarrying.
The quarry owners dismissed her campaign, saying she was only trying to blackmail them.
After a long period with no response to her suit, she headed for Shimla and staged a 19-day hunger strike outside the court until it agreed to take up the issue. The strike won Devi national and international headlines. In 1987, the high court not only ordered a stay on mining but also imposed a blanket ban on blasting in the hills.
Faced with the prospect of closing their operations, her opponents threatened to kill her, but she continued to fight. The mine owners appealed to the Supreme Court, which ruled against them in July 1995, adding to Devi's renown.
The same year, still working as a sweeper, she was invited to attend the International Women's Conference in Beijing because of the keen interest taken in her by Hillary Rodham Clinton, then the first lady.
A private organization sponsored her trip to China, where Clinton asked her to light the lamp at the inaugural function. She spoke to thunderous applause about how the enchanting Himalayas were being degraded by illegal limestone quarrying and how it was up to ordinary people like her to save the environment.
Despite Devi's efforts and the Supreme Court ruling, quarrying continues not only in the hills but also in the forest preserves, though with some improved regulation.
She is survived by a son and 12 grandchildren.
Devi, who could neither read nor write and learned to sign her name just a few years ago, also waged a long campaign for opening a degree-granting college in Sangrah, the village where she spent most of her life.
“It wasn't in my destiny to study,” she said, “but I don't want others to suffer the way I did for want of education.”
©2008/THE NEW YORK TIMES