Sunderlal Bahuguna, a leader of the Chipko and anti-big dam movements and one of India’s foremost environmental activists, was born on January 9, 1927 in Maroda village near Tehri in Uttarakhand. When he was 13 he met Dev Suman, a freedom fighter from Garhwal, and was attracted to the nationalist cause especially using Gandhian methods of civil disobedience.
He started distributing pamphlets, and organising meetings and protests in the hill regions.
At 18 he went to Lahore to study. He also campaigned for the rights of Harijans to enter temples. When he married 23-year-old Vimla they decided to live in a village and establish an ashram in the hills. Later he led a campaign against the consumption of liquor in and around Tehri. In the 1960s he turned his attention to protection of forests and tree cover in the Himalayas.
In the 1970s a movement that originated in the Himalayas became a rallying point for environmentalists in India and beyond, and today is seen as a seminal event in the country’s modern environment movement. This was the Chipko movement. There was a growing peaceful agitation against felling of trees in the Garhwal Himalayas in the beginning of that decade. A flashpoint was reached on March 26, 1974 when a group of village women in Chamoli district resorted to hugging trees to prevent them from being felled. The protest soon spread far and wide.
In the early 1980s Bahuguna made the movement even more popular by undertaking a 5,000-kilometre march through the Himalayas. He visited hundreds of villages in the region to spread awareness and gather support for the cause. He also met the then prime minister Indira Gandhi, a meeting that is said to have paved the way for a ban on felling of green trees for 15 years in the region.
The other major campaign which Bahuguna spearheaded was against the Tehri Dam along the Bhagirathi river and the adverse ecological effects it would cause. He went on several hunger strikes against the construction of the dam including a month-and-a-half fast during the tenure of Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao. However, despite the years of peaceful protests, work re-started on the dam and in 2004 when the dam reservoir started filling up, he was forced to move to Koti, a little hillock near the river. He told rediff.com in an interview: “It [building the dam] is a temporary solution to a permanent problem. It will benefit the richest farmer, it will uproot the forests of Tehri. The benefits will go to the rich farmers of Western UP and to Delhi’s residents. They say the dam will withstand earthquakes. But these hills will not. Already there are cracks visible in some hills. If the dam breaks, within 12 hours the entire region up to Bulandshahar will be wiped out. Look around, even America is breaking their big dams.”
In another interview to Frontline magazine in August 2004, the aging environmental crusader said: “The people have got a raw deal. Especially the villagers. Even if they have got land elsewhere, they have been deprived of their open spaces, which the mountains provided them. These open spaces used to meet their fodder, firewood and other requirements. Those spaces are no longer available to them. Besides, the sense of security, which used to be here, is not present in the areas to which they have been shifted. Men can no longer go out to work because they have to guard their houses. The spirit of freedom that a highlander enjoys has been taken away from us. There can be no financial compensation for that.”
Despite the setback, Bahugana’s campaigns continued, inspiring many other younger green crusaders in various parts of the country. In 2009, the Indian government honoured him with the Padma Vibhushan. But as the devastating floods in Uttarakhand in June 2013 showed, the governments at both the state and Centre had not been heeding his warnings. He told Outlook magazine in the aftermath of the floods: “There have been so many other movements after Chipko that have been pushing for a local resource-based economy, protecting eco-sensitive zones and our rivers. When has the voice of the rural people ever been heard? The government always claimed their [the people’s] cause was an emotional one but they can’t say so after this disaster. This is a lesson and we must change our policies.”
Also on this day:
1922 — Hargobind Khorana, Indian American biochemist who won the Nobel Prize, was born
1923 — Satyendranath Tagore, first Indian to join the Indian Civil Service, passed away
1952 — Kaushik Basu, economist and academic, was born
1965 — Farah Khan, Hindi filmmaker and choreographer, was born
1974 — Farhan Akhtar, Hindi film director and actor, was born
2004 — Nissim Ezekiel, Indian Jewish poet and critic, passed away