“We need a new Chipko movement to ensure clean air and pure water, which is only possible if we have abundant green cover. This mindless cutting of trees and increasing pollution is a serious issue. It’s a human rights issue, it’s really about survival of human beings now,” Sunderlal Bahuguna told me when I met him last in 2015 in Dehradun, a few days after his 88th birthday.
I was petulant enough to point out that there were no men in the mountains anymore as they had migrated to towns and the women were doing double-duty, managing their home as well as their farms, and who then would lead the new Chipko movement? I thought I had him there, but he was quick to retort, “Why don’t you start, by planting a few trees and talking to your friends in the city? Here take this sapling, plant it and take care of it; that is how you will start the new Chipko movement.”
Vimla-ji, his wife, smiled warmly and added, “Climate change, pollution, inequality, he has a simple solution to it all, plant trees, protect trees.”
On May 21, at the age of 94, Sunderlal Bahuguna passed away at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Rishikesh, where he was undergoing treatment for COVID-19.
Bahuguna, a life-long environmentalist, was the tallest leader of environmental movements in India. Together with Chandi Prasad Bhatt and Gaura Devi, he began the Chipko Andolan—a grassroots movement that swept through the Garhwal region in the 1970s, with villagers hugging trees to stop them from being axed. Although their actions were aimed at protection and conservation of trees, the movement is best remembered for the collective mobilisation of women for the cause of preserving forests. Later, in the 1990s, he spearheaded the Anti-Tehri Dam movement and even went to jail for it in 1995.
Born on January 9, 1927, in Maroda village near Tehri in the Himalayas, Bahuguna joined the freedom struggle at the age of 13 inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s call to action. In 1949, under the guidance of Mira Behn and Thakkar Bapa, he began a campaign against untouchability that was rampant in these parts of Uttar Pradesh, now Uttarakhand.
In 1960, responding to Vinoba Bhave’s call, Bahuguna joined padayatras across the hills - that gave him first-hand exposure to the grave reality of ecological degradation in the upper catchments of Himalayan rivers, mostly due to rampant deforestation. Between 1965 and 1970, he began anti-liquor drives, another scourge that was rampant in the hills at that time. His anti-liquor campaign was supported by women, who were to soon become the mainstay of his campaigns to protect the hills.
The uprising against the felling of trees and maintaining the ecological balance originated in Uttar Pradesh’s Chamoli district (now Uttarakhand) in 1973 and in no time spilled into other states in north India. Recalling those days, he told me, with a twinkle in his eyes about how the women kept an all-night vigil, guarding their trees and chanting “What do the forests bear? Soil, water and pure air”, how the news of this movement spread to nearby villages and more people joined in.
Finally in 1980, Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister, finally relented and announced a ban on cutting of trees and commercial forestry above 1,000 metres in the Garhwal Himalayas with the recognition that the highest value of these forests is for soil, water and biodiversity conservation not as timber mines.
The following year, the government wanted to honour his efforts by awarding him the Padma Shri, but he turned it down. “I would remain unfit for such an award till the flesh and blood of Mother India, in the form of precious topsoil from the Himalayas, flows down to the sea due to tree felling,” he said justifying his rejection.
The Chipko Movement received the 1987 Right Livelihood Award, also referred to as the Alternative Nobel Prize, "...for its dedication to the conservation, restoration and ecologically-sound use of India's natural resources.” In 2009, Bahuguna was honoured with the Padma Vibhushan.
My everlasting memory of this humble legend will always be him attired in signature white, Vimla-ji his lifelong partner by his side, both of them posing for a picture, Sunderlal-ji smiling as he tells me, “Remember, do what you will do today and not wait for tomorrow!” pointing at the sapling he had gifted me.