Gurinder Kaur

Prominent environmentalist Sunderlal Bahuguna was born on 9 January 1927 in a small village named Maroda of Tehri district in Uttarakhand and he died on 21 May 2021. Sunderlal Bahuguna started his social service work in 1949, when he was 22 years old, under the influence of Thakkar Bapa and Mira Behn.

His first few stints involved building a hostel for Dalit students ,starting a movement to allow visit of Dalits in  temples, setting up an ashram in Silyara village to educate youth about environmental conservation to name a few. After the Sino-Indian War in 1962, the Indian government started building roads in the Himalayan region to strengthen security.

While constructing roads, indiscriminate deforestation started without considering the geological structure of the mountains. Sunderlal Bahuguna, along with his associates, started the famous Chipko Movement in the 1970s to prevent indiscriminate deforestation, which made him renowned all over the world.

The slogan of the Chipko Movement is ‘Ecology is a permanent economy’. According to Sunderlal Bahuguna, soil, water and forests are the basis of life for all kinds of living beings. If forests are not sustained, then eventually water sources, springs and rivers will also dry up. Without water there will be no food, without trees the soil will erode and henceforth every field will become desolate.

The Chipko Movement spread beyond the Himalayas to the rest of India, and in 1980 the Friends of Nature of the United States, influenced by the movement, honored Sunderlal Bahuguna.

With this movement started by Sunderlal Bahuguna, people of the Himalayan region became so aware that they vehemently opposed deforestation in the Himalayan region in the 1980s. As a result of their protest in 1981 the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi banned deforestation in environmentally sensitive areas  for 15 years.

Between 1981-83, Sunderlal Bahuguna trekked 5,000 kms from Kashmir to Kohima in the Himalayan region to raise awareness about the environment. During the visit, he collected data on indiscriminate deforestation under the guise of development plans and sent a report to the United Nations in the hope that it would do everything possible to protect the Himalayan environment and its resources. 

Sunderlal Bahuguna also opposed the construction of roads, big dams, the proliferation of the tourism industry and the growing number of hotels in Uttarakhand. He also opposed the construction of Tehri Dam in Uttarakhand. He advocated that the project would endanger the ecosystem of Uttarakhand as it falls in an earthquake sensitive area and millions of people in the surrounding villages would be displaced.

He even fasted for a long time to show his disapproval for the project and an aim to stop it. The Union Government, in view of his grievances, constituted a committee to review the project, but failed to implement the recommendations of the committee.

Bahuguna went on another hunger strike, but construction of the dam continued. Due to the construction of this dam, Sunderlal Bahuguna was deeply saddened by the devastation of the people and the environment. The dam had also hit his ancestral home and he had to leave the village.

Following Gandhi’s footsteps, Sunderlal Bahuguna mobilized the people of Uttarakhand as well as the Himalayan region from village to village to save the environment. He started this initiative in the 1970s and the Chipko Movement gained momentum in 1974.

This was the time when the developed countries of the world just started talking about environmental issues at an international level. The first international conference on environmental issues was held in 1972 in Stockholm, Sweden.

Earlier, Sunderlal Bahuguna, in collaboration with his colleagues, had launched a massive awareness campaign in the Himalayan region. Women in the region have also been instrumental in the Chipko Movement to  environmental conservation.

Sunderlal Bahuguna was a mobile organization. His campaign to save the trees was known as the `Appiko Movement` in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. Sunderlal Bahuguna was such a great personality that he refused to accept the

Padma Shri award in 1981 because of the indiscriminate deforestation in the name of development in the Himalayan region. He even went to jail several times for agitating on environmental issues, but he never gave up. “My fight is to save the Himalayas and it will continue,” he said.

The Uttarakhand tragedy of 2013 came 40 years after he started the Chipko Movement in which millions of locals were made homeless and dozens of villages were displaced due to sliding  of mountains from their actual places.

The people of Uttarakhand paid heavy environmental costs as the result of initiation of economic development projects by the government. Sunderlal Bahuguna had opposed the construction of dams and deforestation as well as the massive expansion of roads. Since the formation of the new state of Uttarakhand in 2000, a network of roads has been laid in the state  to promote it as a tourist place.

The length of roads, which was only 2,000 km in 2000, increased to a staggeringly high number of 24,000 km in 2013. The government neither consulted the  geologists nor complied with environmental regulations to build roads, also ignoring views of the local people and environmentalists, while local people and environmentalists briefed the government in detail about the sensitivity of the environment before any development work began.

If  the government had obeyed environmental activist  Sunderlal Bahuguna, the 2013 tragedy in Uttarakhand would not have happened. In February 2021, a landslide in Chamoli killed about 100 people.

The Chamoli tragedy happened on the same hydroelectric project site from where the Chipko Movement was started. The state of Uttarakhand is prone to frequent natural calamities. Earthquakes, cloudbursts, landslides, and forest fires are all natural disasters, but the increase in their number and damage is due to human activities.

In April 2021, two months after the Chamoli tragedy, a forest fire broke out in Uttarakhand, which again caused severe damage to the environment and the people. Since the formation of the state of Uttarakhand in 2000, about 48,000 hectare of forest area has been affected by fire by 2021.

The people of Uttarakhand were aware of the environmental sensitivities here and had been involved in environmental issues since the time of British rule before the country’s independence.

After the deforestation, when the British government started planting pine trees in the area, there was a lot of opposition from the local people as from their earlier experience they know that pine trees increase chances of wildfires in the areas they are planted.

Sunderlal Bahuguna was a man of farsightedness. In an interview to the Times of India in 2018, Sunderlal Bahuguna had said that the new Char Dham Road and Pancheshwar Dam would further destroy the state of Uttarakhand as millions of trees and miles of mountains would be cut down to make way for the construction.

The center  and state governments should be aware by now that such environmental abuse will expose the already vulnerable mountainous region to more natural disasters. Sadly, the Central and the state Governments have not implemented any actions based on the experience of an environmentally aware person like Sunderlal Bahuguna.

However, the Government of India did honour Sunderlal Bahuguna with various awards over the years. He was awarded the Padma Vibhushan by the  Government of India in 2009, but the real award for him was to save the environment of Uttarakhand and its people.

If the central and state governments want to pay true homage to a great environmentalist Sunderlal Bahuguna, then they should  follow his footsteps and start efforts to save not only the environment of Uttarakhand or the Himalayas, but of the entire country which would be helpful in reducing the number, frequency and intensity of  natural disasters.

About the author:

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Gurinder Kaur is a Professor, Department of Geography, Punjabi University, Patiala. She is also a visiting Speaker with IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute, New Delhi.