By Harihar Swarup
In early 1994, the U.P. government announced the auctioning of 2,500 trees overlooking the Alakhnanda river in the upper reaches of what is now Uttarakhand. Lumberjacks arrived in Raini village to cut trees. A local girl saw them and informed the villagers. Women in large group came out and stopped the lumberjacks by hugging the trees. Three local women—Gaura Devi, Sudeshna Devi and Bahni Devi championed the cause. Through the days that followed, the women refused to leave the trees. That marked the beginning of chipko (hug) movement.
The movement was actually the brainchild of a Gandhian, Vimla Bahuguna, wife of Sunderlal Bahuguna, who later led what had become chipko. They married with clear understanding that they would live in the village in an ashram. The couple took the chipko movement to the world and lived in austerity. Sunderlal died recently in Rishikesh with Covid-19. He was 94.
Bahuguna transformed spontaneous chipko movement in a turning point in India’s conservation efforts by taking it to different parts of Uttarakhand, forcing the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to impose a 15-year ban on tree cutting in Uttar Pradesh.
Bahuguna was born in Tehri in 1927; by his teens he was a social activist. Then inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, he became a nationalist and freedom fighter. He was a tireless protector of the hills, walking thousands of kilometres in forests. But it was the chipko movement that brought him to nation’s attention.
Historian and author Ram Chandra Guha writes in “The use and abuse of nature” that Chipko was sparked by the government’s decision to allot a plot of Bornbeam forests in Alakhnanda valley to Symonds, a sports goods company from far away Allahabad. A few months before this the Gandhian organisation in the forefront of the co-operative movement, The Dasauli Gram Swarajya Sangha, had been refused permission by the forest department to fell trees from the same forest. The transparent favouritism provoked the villagers led by DGSS to threaten to hug the trees and prevent them from being felled by Symond’s agents.”
Now that Bahuguna is gone, what would be the best way to acknowledge his massive contribution to India’s environmental movement? His message of forest and river conservation must be respected both by Uttarakhand and the Centre by putting a halt and independent review of destructive projects such as Char Dham road widening and construction of high dams. This would be indeed a gracious tribute to Sunderlal Bahuguna and his vision.
When news of Bahuguna’s death came, many of his supporters, including Anil Joshi, Padma Bhushan-awardee and founder of Himalayan Environmental studies and conservation organization, called. Though Joshi, 65, did not directly work with Bahuguna, they shared a deep relationship, based on their common goals. “I did not work with the Mahatma but I saw Gandhi in Bahuguna. His Gandhian values – in his behaviour, sartorial and eating habits—were intact till last day,” Joshisaid. What is unfortunate, Joshi added, is that Bahuguna who devoted his life to saving environment, was taken away by Covid, which in so many ways, is also a symptom of our disregard for biodiversity. (IPA Service)