Sunderlal Bahuguna: Iconic Hero of Chipko Movement

“We in Himalaya are facing a crisis of survival due to suicidal activities being carried out in the name of development. The monstrous Tehri dam is a symbol of this. There is a need for a new and long-term policy to protect the dying Himalaya. I do not want to see the death of the most sacred river of the world-the Ganga- for short-term economic gains.” – Sunderlal Bahuguna.

“Ecology is Permanent Economy” – Sundarlal Bahuguna.

“It is a manmade disaster. When you try forcefully to change nature and its landscape, it gets back and punishes you”. – Sunderlal Bahuguna

Just look at the slogan, look at the quotations!! One can easily realise that the passion with which Sundarlal Bahuguna used these words in his interviews and slogans, no environmentalist of present time has that strength, serenity and the unconditional love for nature. But unfortunately, we lost him in this covid-19 pandemic. Sunderlal Bahuguna died due to coronavirus few days ago. 

Bahuguna was one of the pioneering and inspiring Gandhian of the environmental movement in India who marked a key milestone in the history of Indian environmentalism. His legendary actions against deforestation i.e. The Chipko Movement and the protests against the building of Tehri Dam was the most remarkable event India had faced post-independence. In the late 1970s and 80s, his efforts added new dimensions to the green movement in India. 

On May 8, Friday Bahuguna died of Covid-19 at the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences, Rishikesh 

 At his death many politicians and environmentalists expressed their grief. Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his demise, posted on twitter “He manifested our centuries old ethos of living in harmony with nature. His simplicity and spirit of compassion will never be forgotten”. He described Bahuguna’s death as a “monumental loss” for the nation.

According to a First post report, noted environmentalist, Magsaysay award winner  Chandi Prasad Bhatt described him as a “brilliant social worker”. “His demise is painful for all of us”, Bhatt said.

Chipko Movement: Sundarlal Bahuguna’s Limelight 

The Chipko movement came to halt during the emergency, but resurfaced in 1977 which led to the emergence of Sundarlal Bahuguna as one of its prominent leaders. The name of the movement comes from the word ‘embrace’, as the villagers hugged the trees, and prevented the contractors’ from felling them.

Sunderlal Bahuguna

The movement received world- wide attention and can indeed be considered as an important success story in the fight to secure women’s rights. The image of poor, rural women in the hills of northern India standing with their arms (hugging position) around trees to prevent them being cut down is a romantic and compelling one.

The movement initially started by the string of peasants whose main focus was to protect their livelihood as they were intimately dependent on forests. Sundarlal Bahuguna deeply understood this and maintained the integrity behind the movement. He carried the discourse of environment, forests and ecology to the rest of the country and placed it on the international stage. 

One of the notable contributions of Bahuguna was his creation of Chipko’s slogan “Ecology is permanent Economy”.  

Sunderlal Bahuguna
Chipko Movement: Getty images

Bahuguna was a strong communicator, the high and mighty listened to him. His 5,000 kms long Himalayan march along with gathering support for the movement resulted in the appointment with the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi which subsequently resulted in the banning of  cutting of green trees for 15 years  in 1980.

Sundarlal Bahuguna’s contribution to Anti-Tehri Dam Protest 

Bahuguna was also a leader in the Anti-Tehri dam protest.His Gandhian style of peaceful protests and defending the India’s river through other non-violent movements was indeed an outstanding performance. He always dug in his heels in protests till the last minute. He lost his own ancestral home due to the construction of the dam but never left the hope. 

The veteran environmentalist also opposed the construction by fasting for 75 days and succeeded in convincing the authorities to reduce the dam height, thereby saving hundreds of trees. He was also active in filing public interest litigations for protecting forests in the Himalayan region at Uttarakhand High Court, Supreme Court and the National Green Tribunal.

Sunderlal Bahuguna undertook several ‘padyatras’ to create awareness among the masses about conserving the Himalayan ecology and environment. He also protested against the erstwhile Tehri royals which landed him in jail. He was a big critic of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.

Bahuguna’s stature in India’s environmental movement will remain as tall as the Himalayan mountains in whose ecology and culture he had deep roots. His dedication, his work left a deep footprint in the history of India.

Sundarlal Bahuguna’s activism Vs Activism of Today 

Activism in the 1960s, some argue, was defined by the peaceful protests. The unit of activism today is probably the tweet.

In the age of high visibility environmental protests, there is a lot to learn from the Bahuguna and his ways. Some sections of the environmental protests in the world may not have that cultural and spiritual spirit that the Bahuguna had.  Bahuguna did a long march from Kashmir to Kohima, the march across the Himalayas in an attempt to make local struggles and discourse successful. But comparing it with today’s activism; they are more likely Social Media ‘Activism’.

Read More: World Environment Day: What We Have Lost So Far (विश्व पर्यावरण दिवस के दिन जानिए तेजी से विलुप्त होती जीव-जंतुओं की प्रजातियों के बारे में)

If we talk about Greta Thunberg, she is all over the internet. She has become quite a popular face on the internet. From her powerful thoughts to the memes around her ‘death stare’ towards the Former US President Donald Trump, the Swedish climate activist has become a social media sensation. She is the evidence of a changing culture of Digital Activism.

 In the age of new media, it is accessible for the activists to explode the social media with hundreds of tweets, memes, hashtags to dig deep in the heels of the government. This is definitely something that makes activists of old time stand apart from the activists of today’s world. Today’s activism has not been able to hold the essence of real activism, indeed subsequently got submerged under the face of ‘Social Media Sensationalism’.

– Radha Agrawal

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