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Mainstream, VOL LX No 22, New Delhi, May 21, 2022

Sunderlal Bahuguna will always be an inspiration for efforts to protect forests | Bharat Dogra

Saturday 21 May 2022, by Bharat Dogra

Sunderlal Bahuguna, the person most closely associated with the movements and campaigns to protect Himalayan forests, died one year back in Rishikesh at the age of 94.

His first death anniversary is being observed on May 21, Saturday.

The veteran environmentalist and Chipko (hug the trees) was also a freedom fighter and regarded Mahatma Gandhi as his most prominent teacher and mentor. He devoted his life to applying principles of non-violent struggles in the context of increasingly important tasks of protecting forests and rivers.

Along with his wife Vimla ( who was more formally trained in Gandhian principles and methods by Sarla Behn, the famous European disciple of Gandhi) , several deeply committed Gandhian activists and villagers of Garhwal region of Western Himalayas he was involved in many struggles to protect trees marked for felling and to prevent the construction of gigantic dams widely exposed for their serious risks and hazards by senior scientists and experts.

Born in a village along the bank of the Ganges river in Tehri Garhwal , as a schoolboy he met Sridev Suman , a famous freedom fighter who later sacrificed his life during a jail sentence, and decided to follow his example of a deeply committed social life.
After independence Sunderlal and Vimla settled in the remote village of Silyara to serve the villagers of surrounding areas, leading an austere life.

Following the Chinese invasion leading Gandhian Vinoba Bhave called upon Gandhian social workers in the Himalayan region to play a wider social role and so now Sunderlal started travelling more widely in many parts of Uttarakhand, particularly the Garhwal part. This led to increasing involvement with social and environmental concerns.

Both Sunderlal and Vimla were involved in anti-liquor movements and rights assertion movements of weakest sections which challenged various forms of discriminatory practices. Enduring relationships were established with several younger activists like those in Henvalghati region.

Around the late seventies a series of Chipko movement activities centered in Henvalghati region were launched for saving forests like those of Advani and Salet which generated a lot of enthusiasm. The action shifted then to even more remote forests like those of Badiyargad, where Sunderlal Bahuguna went on a long fast in a dense forest area in very difficult conditions.

Side by side he maintained a dialogue with senior persons in the government. The prime minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi in particular had very high respect for him. Very big success was achieved as the government agreed to stop the green felling of trees in a vast Himalayan area.

Following this success Sunderlal went on a very long and difficult march from Kashmir to Kohima, including Bhutan and Nepal, covering a vast part of the Himalayan region to spread the message of saving forests and environment with the involvement of people. During this march, taken up in several stages, several times he faced threat to life but did not stop and completed the march. This march helped him greatly to known the conditions of people and environment in the Himalayan region to a much wider extent.

He emphasized protection of sustainable livelihoods along with protection of environment. He was involved closely in resisting displacement and organizing forest workers. He was also involved in several constructive activities relating to regeneration of degraded forests.

Soon he was in the thick of the movement for opposing the harmful social and environmental aspects of dam projects in Himalayan region particularly the gigantic and highly controversial Tehri dam project, which was described as a project of unacceptably high hazards even by officially constituted committees. This proved to be a very long and difficult struggle. Sunderlal Bahuguna left his ashram in Silyara and camped on the bank of the Ganges river for several months, accompanied by Vimla, to remain with continuity in the center of the struggle for several years.

Although this long struggle did not succeed in stopping the high-risk dam, it certainly helped to spread awareness of these important issues far and wide.

Sunderlal Bahuguna became an inspiration source for forest protection and environmental struggles in many parts of India and even abroad. In the Western Ghats region, for instance, he was an important inspiration source for the great Appiko movement for saving forests. He visited the region and this proved to be an important turning point in the mobilization for the movement.

He was honored with several prestigious awards, including the Padma Vibhushan.
He contributed to many constructive causes such as the Bhoodan (gift of land) movement for making available some farmland to landless rural livelihoods.

He played a very important role in evolving an alternative development strategy for the Himalayan region rooted in a combination of combining environment protection with sustainable livelihoods.

He spent his last days in Dehradun at his daughter Madhuri’s home, with both Msdhuri and Vimla providing very affectionate care over a long period of deteriorating health.
Our best homage to him will be to work for combining environment protection and sustainable livelihoods. Vimla Bahuguna says in a message for this article, “Water conservation and forest protection should be two biggest priorities of coming years. Only talking is not adequate. People must make real changes in their life in keeping with the objective of protecting environment.”

In addition, she adds, it is very important to reduce inequalities and to give much more attention to providing relief to weaker sections, particularly the poorest.

However many more trees and forests are being cut indiscriminately in the Himalayan region and elsewhere. At the time of writing, thousands of deodar trees in the highly ecologically sensitive Uttarkashi-Gangotri stretch, close to the origin of Ganga river, are threatened. Many more hazardous and ecologically destructive projects are being planned on rivers. The urgent need for more extensive and continuing efforts to check forest fires are being neglected even as rapid increase of alcohol consumption is being encouraged.

Clearly the message of Sunderlal Bahuguna needs to be recalled and remembered much more today.

(The writer had been close to Sunderlal Bahuguna. His recent books include Vimla and Sunderlal Bahuguna—Chipko Movement and the Struggle Against Tehri Dam Project, Man over Machine-A Path to Peace and A Day in 2071)

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