Homage to Sunderlal Bahuguna: People-Centred Protection of Forests
Protecting sustainable livelihoods and the environment
Sunderlal Bahuguna is no more.
The veteran environmentalist and Chipko movement leader passed away around noon yesterday at a hospital in Rishikesh, where he had been admitted two weeks ago following Covid-type symptoms.
Born in a village along the banks of the Ganges in Tehri Garhwal, as a schoolboy he met Sridev Suman, the famous freedom fighter who later sacrificed his life during a jail sentence, and decided to follow his example of a life deeply committed to society. Bahuguna started secretly sending out news relating to Suman and faced police action. He escaped to Lahore but returned when the freedom movement in the Tehri kingdom was beginning to peak. Prevented at first from entering Tehri, he joined the struggle somehow and contributed much to it.
After independence he devoted himself to various social commitments. With his unquestioned honesty and deep commitments he was then the rising star in the social-political life of Garhwal. A marriage proposal from the father of Vimla emerged, but she had by then become a disciple of the social activist Sarla Behn and was devoted to serving villagers outside the limelight of mainstream politics. She laid down this condition for marriage to Sunderlal: that they would serve people together in a difficult rural region.
Marriage followed and the couple settled down to serve villagers in Silyara, near Ghanshali, close to the Balganga river. Both firmly accepted Mahatma Gandhi as their main teacher and inspiration.
Following the Chinese invasion the leading Gandhian Vinoba Bhave called upon Gandhian social workers in the Himalayan region to play a wider social role, and so now with Vimla’s consent Sunderlal started travelling more widely in many parts of present-day Uttarakhand, particularly in Garhwal. This led to increasing involvement with social and environmental concerns.
Both Sunderlal and Vimla were involved in anti-liquor movements and Dalit assertion movements which challenged various forms of untouchability. They established enduring relationships with several younger activists like those in the Henvalghati region. In the late seventies a series of Chipko movement activities centred in Henvalghati were launched to save forests like those of Advani and Salet, generating a lot of enthusiasm. The action shifted then to even more remote forests like those of Kaangar and Badiyargad, where 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, Indira Gandhi in particular had very high regard for him. 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, through 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 a threat to his life but did not stop and completed the march.
He emphasised protecting sustainable livelihoods along with protecting the environment. He was involved closely in resisting displacement and organising forest workers. He was also involved in several constructive activities relating to the regeneration of degraded forests and promoting organic/ natural/ traditional farming.
Soon he was in the thick of the movement for avoiding the harmful social and environmental aspects of dam projects in the Himalayan region, particularly the gigantic and highly controversial Tehri Dam project which was being promoted despite being extremely hazardous, as confirmed even by high-level official reports. This proved to be a very long and difficult struggle. Sunderlal and Vimla Bahuguna left the ashram and camped along the Ganges for several months.
Although this long struggle did not succeed in stopping the high-risk dam, it certainly spread awareness of these important issues far and wide.
Bahuguna also emerged as an inspiration for forest protection and environmental struggles in many parts of India and abroad. In the Western Ghats region, for instance, he was an important inspiration for the great Appiko movement for saving forests. He was invited to important international conferences and his opinion on environmental issues was widely sought. He was honoured with several prestigious awards, including the Padma Vibhushan.
All his life he worked as a part-time journalist and writer in Hindi and English to earn livelihood support. His articles and reports, not to mention interviews with him, have been published in many leading newspapers and journals. Vimla ji told me that she is very keen that at least two collections of his writings published over the years be brought out.
He contributed to many constructive causes such as the Bhoodan (gift of land) movement and evolving an alternative development strategy for the Himlayan region rooted in a combination of environment protection with sustainable livelihoods.
He spent his last days in Dehradun at his daughter’s home. Last year when I wrote a biography of Sunderlal and Vimla Bahuguna and went to Dehradun with my wife Madhu to present the book to them, he was eager and happy to converse, despite being weak. He was being looked after with great care by Vimla, helped by their daughter Madhuri.
He leaves behind Vimla and three children, Madhuri, Rajiv and Pradeep.
Our best homage to him will be to work for combining environment protection and sustainable livelihoods.
Bharat Dogra was close to Sunderlal Bahuguna for more than four decades. His recent books include Vimla and Sunderlal Bahuguna—Chipko Movement and The Struggle Against the Tehri Dam Project.