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A tribute to the green warrior Sunderlal Bahuguna and his hustle to conserve the Himalayan forests

Well-known environmentalist and Gandhian Sunderlal Bahuguna is no more. Bahuguna, 94, succumbed to COVID-related complications at AIIMS, Rishikesh, on Friday. 

Sunderlal Bahuguna was a vocal critic of the havoc wreaked on the environment by ill practices such as deforestation and road construction in the Himalayas. He was actively engaged with the local villagers to stop the derangement. It was his passion and argument on how the Himalayan ecosystem needs to be served and saved that has been imprinted in the minds of not just the prominent contemporary environmentalist but the villagers as well. It was his ideals that paved the way for many locals fighting to conserve the forests from destructive developments.

Bahuguna lived in his Silyara ashram in Tehri Garhwal for decades. His passion for the environment is an inspiration for many young people and the forthcoming environmentalist. His ashram was open to young people, with whom he communicated with ease.

Bahuguna also led the charge against the construction of big dams in the Himalayas in the 1980s. He was fervently opposed to the construction of the Tehri dam and sat on two long hunger strikes against the dam, which proved to be of no avail.

He often wrote about the problems of deforestation — the lack of tree cover vis-a-vis the drying up of springs in the Himalayas. He also led a movement of women’s groups, or Mahila mandals, to enforce prohibition in Tehri Garhwal, which was then part of Uttar Pradesh.

President Ram Nath Kovind, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Uttarakhand Chief Minister T.S. Rawat was among those who condoled the pioneering environment leader’s death.

Former Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh tweeted, “He had considerable influence on Indira Gandhi & his 4,000 km Kashmir to Kohima padyatra in ‘81-‘82 to heighten public awareness, especially on forest protection, was a landmark. A charismatic man.”

Brief History of Chipko Movement 

“Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed” — Mahatma Gandhi. 

In the 1960s, India was losing around 1.3 million hectares of forest every year. The livelihoods of the locals depended on the forests and that was threatened by the rate at which India was losing forest cover. People living in the Himalayan region of Uttar Pradesh (later Uttarakhand) felt the situation was slipping out of their hands. Women living in the Himalayan region used to visit nearby forests at 4 in the morning to get around 30 kgs of wood every day for their daily needs — the source for which now seemed uncertain. The situation hasn’t changed much today. Women still go to collect wood in the forests to carry out daily activities. 

Sunderlal Bahuguna was one of the founders of the Chipko Movement, or hug the tree movement in 1973 to save Himalayan forests. His appeal resulted in a 15-year ban on chopping green trees in 1980. Reni village in Chamoli district is the birthplace of the Chipko movement but has been ravaged by the glacial burst in February. 

The name of the movement ‘Chipko’ was derived from the word ‘embrace’, as the villagers and the people associated with the movement hugged the trees and encircled them from being hacked. 

The movement is memorialised for the collective mobilisation of women for the cause of preserving forests. It was not only remembered as the biggest environmental revolution in the country but also a movement that brought about a change in attitude regarding the status of women in society. The champions of the movement were the local women like Gaura Devi, Sudesha Devi and Bachni Devi. 

A Gandhian himself, the Bahuguna’s founded Chipko movement has also followed the path of Gandhian philosophy of peaceful resistance. The whole protest against the authorities was fought by hugging the trees. It was an uprising against people destroying the ecological balance. 

“The Chipko movement was a string of peasant movements centred around livelihood, which was intimately dependent on forests. Sunderlalji understood this and maintained that our movements need to be critically aligned with our needs. He was a strong communicator and the high and mighty listened to him. He carried the discourse of environment, forests and ecology to the rest of the country and placed it on an international stage,’’ Dr Ravi Chopra, director, People’s Science Institute, Dehradun, said, according to an Indian Express report. 

However, the original Chipko Andolan dates back to the 18th century which was started by the Bishnoi community of Rajasthan. A group of villagers led by Amrita Devi laid down their lives while protecting the trees from being felled on the order of the then King of Jodhpur.

After this incident, the king, in a royal decree, banned the cutting of trees in all the Bishnoi villages. 

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