Sunderlal Bahuguna in November 2009 when he had visited New Delhi to speak in an awareness programme to save the Himalayas| Photo by Hridayesh Joshi.

[Obituary] Sunderlal Bahuguna: End of an era for Indian environmentalism

  • Noted Gandhian Sunderlal Bahuguna, known for leading Chipko in the 1970s and the anti-Tehri dam Movement in the 1990s, breathed his last on May 21, 2021.
  • He practised a simple and sustainable lifestyle inspiring many who immensely contributed to the cause.
  • Bahuguna advocated for an integrated and pragmatic approach for the conservation of the entire Himalayan belt and foot-marched almost 5,000 kilometres from Kashmir in northern India to Kohima in eastern India.

Kya hain jangal ke upkaar
Mitti paani aur bayaar
Mitti paani aur bayaar
Zinda Rahne ke Aadhar

(What are the blessings of forests on us. They provide us healthy soil, clean water and air which make life possible for us.)

This legendry slogan coined by journalist and poet Kunwar Prasun has echoed in the Himalayan valleys since the 1970s and galvanised an entire generation of environmentalists in the region. It was popularised by Sunderlal Bahuguna, leader of the famous Chipko forest conservation movement, that had men and women of Uttarakhand villages hug trees to protect them from the axe.

The 94-year-old environmentalist succumbed to Covid-19 on May 21, 2021, at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in Rishikesh, Uttarakhand. With his demise, India has lost one of the finest environmentalists and social workers who had also been part of India’s freedom movement.

Sunderlal Bahuguna was born on January 9, 1927, in Maruda village in the Tehri district, a hilly region of Uttarakhand, while India’s freedom struggle was in full swing. It was a time when people of his region were unhappy with the oppressive rule of the king of Tehri and had rebelled against him. On May 30, 1930, the king ordered the soldiers to open fire on unarmed protestors. Many died and their bodies were thrown in the river.

Bahuguna was then just three-year-old. Ten years later, he commenced his public life at the age of 13 by participating in the rebellion against the same principality of Tehri. He went to Lahore for his B.A. (Bachelors of Arts) and then to Varanasi for his post-graduation degree. He, however, stopped studies to join the freedom struggle during which he was jailed as well. It was the start of his journey of public movements.

Sunderlal Bahuguna’s public life started very early at the age of 13 when he took part in the rebellion against the principality of Tehri. This is a rare photo of his early twenties. Photo provided by Rajiv Nayan Bahuguna.
Sunderlal Bahuguna’s public life started very early at the age of 13 when he took part in the rebellion against the principality of Tehri. This is a rare photo of his early twenties. Photo provided by Rajiv Nayan Bahuguna.

“Most of the people know Bahuguna for Chipko (movement) which came much later in the 1970s. By then Sunderlal ji had at least 25 years of social work and activism under his belt as his struggle commenced at a very young age. Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, he fought against untouchability and to do so in true spirit he lived with Dalits (formerly untouchables) in the same house and ate with them,” journalist and writer Harsh Dobhal, who covered Bahuguna’s and his struggle closely for many years, told Mongabay-India.

Chipko, a forest conservation movement against tree felling started in Chamoli district in the 1970s, where people led by women hugged trees to stop contractors from cutting them.

Dobhal said Bahuguna also worked for women’s education. “This was all in his youth. He was also part of the anti-liquor movement in the 1960s and of course, you can’t forget the sarvodayi movement he actively participated in,” Sarvodayi movement is rooted in Gandhian philosophy of upliftment of all.

Sunderlal Bahuguna vowed to work for the powerless

One of the finest accounts of Bahuguna’s life is written by renowned geologist Kharak Singh Valdiya. Valdiya declares Bahuguna Mahatma Gandhi’s soldier in Himayala and named the biography – Himalaya main Mahatma Gandhi ke Sipahi, Sundelal Bahuguna.

Early in his life, Sunderlal Bahuguna met Gandhian Sridev Suman, who later died while on a long fast of 84 days against the atrocities of Tehri’s king, and that made a deep impression on Bahuguna. It moulded his political and social understanding. He vowed to work for the weak and powerless in a non-violent manner and practised what he preached.

“I do not eat rice as the crop of paddy consumes too much water which is bad for the environment. I do not know how much my abstention will help the cause but I want to live with nature in harmony,” he once said to this reporter during an interview.

“When he built an ashram in our ancestral village Silyara, he employed just one mason for construction. He toiled as labour during the building of the ashram and did all the work like carrying the stone, wood and building material himself,” Rajiv Nayan Bahuguna, son of Sunderlal Bahuguna told Mongabay-India.

The activist was also deeply impressed by another Gandhian Vinoba Bhave, who spearheaded Bhoodan Andolan (land gift movement) in the 1950s. While working with social activist Sarala Bahen, Sunderlal met Vimla Nautiyal, who was a committed social worker. Vimla Nautiyal’s brother Vidya Sagar Nautiyal was a prominent communist leader. Both Vimala and Sunderlal decided to marry.

It was his wife’s inspiration and insistence that Bahuguna quit parliamentary politics – he was district president of congress party – and devoted all his life to social work. The couple founded Parvtiya Navjivan Mandal and worked for the education of dalits and the poor. Throughout his life, he maintained that he couldn’t have done what he did in his life unless his wife had supported him.

Sunderlal Bahuguna not only advocated but also practised a simple and sustainable lifestyle. Photo provided by Rajiv Nayan Bahuguna.
Sunderlal Bahuguna not only advocated but also practised a simple and sustainable lifestyle. Photo provided by Rajiv Nayan Bahuguna.

Chipko and Tehri movement

Chipko movement was a result of many van andolans (protests related to forests and rights of people) going on in the Himalayan region for decades. In the Kumaon region of Uttarakhand, socialists were leading such movements and in Garhwal, it was mainly led by the Communists. Chipko movement threw many stalwarts like Govind Singh Rawat, Chandi Prasad Bhatt, Vipin Tripathi, Vidya Sagar Nautiyal and Govind Singh Negi.

“Even before Chipko, since independence, there was a streak of van andolans going on in the Himalayas. Chipko can be termed as a culmination of them. Sunderlal’s role was pivotal as he organised and popularised the movement giving it a human face. He amplified the stark facts and adopted a pragmatic approach. This strategy forced the government to listen to the people,” writer and activist Charu Tiwari told Mongabay-India.

Bahuguna believed in a cohesive and coordinated conservation policy for the entire Himalayan belt. It was this belief of his that he did 5,000-kilometre-long foot-march between 1981-83 from Srinagar in Jammu and Kashmir in northern India to Kohima in Nagaland in eastern India.

After the success of the Chipko movement of the 1970s. Bahuguna gained national and international prominence. In the early 1990s, he reorganised the ‘Save Himalaya’ movement and launched his agitation against the Tehri dam. The first opposition against Tehri though was led by advocate and geologist Virendra Dutt Saklani, who took the matter to the Supreme Court of India in the 1960s. Later in the mid-1980s when Saklani got old and sick, he himself handed over the responsibility to Bahuguna.

He was firmly against constructing large hydropower projects in the sensitive ecological Himalayas as it caused large-scale destruction and displaced too many people in the hills where land is very limited for housing and habitation. The anti-Tehri dam movement was vehemently supported by N.D. Jayal, a mountaineer and bureaucrat who pushed the cause in New Delhi.

“What I found most powerful trait of Sunderlal ji is that while arguing for environmental conservation he would brilliantly combine hard science and his ground understanding. His voice was soft and gentle but very firm. This made him a great communicator. One more important thing about him was that he not only inspired people but also learned from common masses particularly from the women who have been at the forefront of all public movements in Uttarakhand,” said Ashish Kothari, who is associated with Kalpavriksh and Vikalp Sangam, non-governmental organisations working on environmental issues.

Bahuguna stationed himself at the banks of River Bhagirathi to oppose the Tehri project. The 45-days long fast he undertook in 1995 ended after the intervention of the then prime minister P.V. Narsimha Rao. In 2001, he again sat on a long fast of 74 days at Rajghat, New Delhi. Bahuguna could not stop Tehri dam but the struggle was not completely in vain.

“We have seen how big companies and governments taking away the land of the poor with no or meagre compensation. Though Bahugauna could not stop the Tehri Dam the questions he raised exposed the inhuman face of such so-called development projects. Even people sitting in power recognised this fact and a fair compensation was agreed upon. This was a great achievement,” Indian National Congress leader and activist Kishore Upadhyay told Mongabay-India.

Building new leadership

During his over 50-year-long active public life, Sunderlal Bahuguna inspired and groomed many others who dedicated themselves to the social and environmental cause. Pioneering environment journalist and editor Bittu Sahgal, and singer Rahul Ram have told Mongabay-India about the impact of Sunderlal Bahuguna in their formative years.

Poet Ghanshyam Sailani, journalist Kunwar Prasun, dalit activist Bhawani bhai and Dhoom Singh Negi were deeply inspired by him. Pandurang Hegde started the Appiko movement in the lines of Chipko to save forest in Uttar Kannada district in Western Ghats of Karnataka.

Besides being a social worker Sunderlal Bahuguna was a deeply affectionate family man. Photo provided by Rajiv Nayan Bahuguna.
Besides being a social worker Sunderlal Bahuguna was a deeply affectionate family man. Photo provided by Rajiv Nayan Bahuguna.

In the Himalayas, Vijay Jardhari has led work to conserve hundreds of varieties of seeds like paddy, kidney beans and several native coarse grains. He said his Beej Bacho Andolan (save seed movement), which is an effort to save biodiversity and native species, is an extension of the Chipko movement.

“I must admit that the philosophy behind my work is Chipko which was led by Bahuguna ji. If we had not participated in Chipko with him, the Beej Bacho movement would not have never born. How would we have understood the importance of soil, water and environment? After the (Chipko) movement’s success whenever we went to villages, people would tell us how the variety and species of native crops are diminishing.  We then understood that the use of toxic chemicals and fertilisers is ruining agriculture and biodiversity. Then we started this movement to protect desi (native) seed,” Jardhari told Mongabay-India.

This article is republished from Mongabay.

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