His name may be synonymous with the Chipko movement – the practice of hugging trees to prevent their felling – but Sunderlal Bahuguna, a practising Gandhian, was passionate about many other social issues as well, including women’s empowerment, the anti-liquor movement, removal of caste discrimination, promotion of nonviolence and the agitation against large dams.
The 94-year-old activist died of Covid-related complications in the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Rishikesh, where he was admitted on May 8 after testing positive for Covid-19. The end came around noon on May 21; but as he departed, he left behind a valuable legacy of social activism based on Gandhian and humanitarian principles, fired with compassion and a strong sense of responsibility.
In the early 1970s, the government decided to auction 2,500 trees near the Alakananda River and when the women of Chamoli saw the men approaching to carry out this order, out of sheer desperation to stop them, and motivated by the example and activism of Chandi Prasad Bhatt who agitated against tree felling, they began hugging the trees and the Chipko or tree-hugging movement began. But it was left to the articulate Bahuguna to organize this into a mass movement and petition the then prime minister Indira Gandhi to stop tree felling. And he succeeded in getting a ban in place. He popularized the slogan, “Ecology is permanent economy” and his passionate green activism inspired a great many people to join forces with him.
The 1980s saw Bahuguna championing the cause of Himalayan rivers and leading the agitation against big dams like the one over the Tehri river. He was the voice of the people who would get displaced due to the project; he was also vocal about the adverse effects such a large dam would have on the environment, especially since it was in a fragile seismic zone; the protest continued until 2004. He was among the early ones who wrote of the symbiotic relationship between trees and springs – that destruction of forests would accelerate drying up of water bodies nearby.
His home in Silyara Ashram, Tehri Garhwal, where he lived, became a veritable pilgrimage destination for youngsters and others who were inspired by Bahuguna’s philosophy and life work. Awarded the Padma Shri, Padma Vibushan, the Jamnalal Bajaj Award and recipient of many other such recognitions, what must have given him the greatest satisfaction is the fact that he touched the hearts and minds of people – whether they were simple rural women and young students fired by ideology or political aspirants who viewed political power as a means to perform genuine social service – for he knew that change begins within. And he knew that even one inspired person has the potential to inspire many others to carry on with his legacy.