Updated on: Saturday, January 08, 2022, 05:38 PM IST

Sunderlal Bahuguna Birth Anniversary: Celebrating the Chipko movement pioneer


Kya hain jangal ke upkaar
Mitti paani aur bayaar
Mitti paani aur bayaar
Zinda Rahne ke Aadhar

(What are the blessings of forests on us. They provide us healthy soil, clean water and air which make life possible for us.)

This legendry slogan coined by journalist and poet Kunwar Prasun has echoed in the Himalayan valleys since the 1970s and galvanised an entire generation of environmentalists in the region. It was popularised by Sunderlal Bahuguna, leader of the famous Chipko forest conservation movement, that had men and women of Uttarakhand villages hug trees to protect them from the axe.

Sunderlal Bahuguna was a life-long environmentalist and was credited for founding the Chipko movement - the grassroots movement that swept through the Garhwal region in the 1970s with villagers hugging trees to stop them from being axed. Later in 1990s, he spearheaded the Anti-Tehri Dam movement and even went to jail for it in 1995.

It also became a movement that brought to the world's attention the devastation wrought by the environmental crisis in the world's highest mountains.

The 94-year-old environmentalist succumbed to Covid-19 on May 21, 2021, at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in Rishikesh, Uttarakhand.

Sunderlal Bahuguna was born on January 9, 1927, in Maruda village in the Tehri district, a hilly region of Uttarakhand, while India’s freedom struggle was in full swing. It was a time when people of his region were unhappy with the oppressive rule of the king of Tehri and had rebelled against him. On May 30, 1930, the king ordered the soldiers to open fire on unarmed protestors. Many died and their bodies were thrown in the river.

Bahuguna, who was leading the movement, appealed to then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to implement a ban on cutting down the trees. His appeal resulted in a 15-year ban on chopping green trees in 1980.

The following year, the government wanted to honour his efforts by awarding him the title of Padma Shri, but he turned it down. In 2009, he was honoured with the Padma Vibhushan.

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.

One of the finest accounts of Bahuguna’s life is written by renowned geologist Kharak Singh Valdiya. Valdiya declares Bahuguna Mahatma Gandhi’s soldier in Himayala and named the biography – Himalaya main Mahatma Gandhi ke Sipahi, Sundelal Bahuguna.

It was his wife’s inspiration and insistence that Bahuguna quit parliamentary politics – he was district president of congress party – and devoted all his life to social work. The couple founded Parvtiya Navjivan Mandal and worked for the education of dalits and the poor. Throughout his life, he maintained that he couldn’t have done what he did in his life unless his wife had supported him.

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Published on: Saturday, January 08, 2022, 05:38 PM IST