Sunderlal Bahuguna: Episode of Hope in Indian perspective

  • NET Web Desk

The story of that great son of mother India who relentlessly fought to save and protect environment till his last snuffle. Stood as a savior of environment and outnumbered the inflictors despite all kind of intimidations.

The saga of Sunderlal Bahuguna – the tallest banyan tree, the pioneering and inspiring leaders of the environmental movement in India, an irreplaceable jewel for very diverse reasons.

With his Gandhian background, frugal lifestyle and a grounded and cultural base in the Garhwal Himalayas, he was a contrasting figure when compared to other environmentalists or wildlife conservationists of that era who were often from urban, privileged backgrounds.

During the struggle against the Tehri Dam this brought some controversies and criticisms for him, which in my opinion was somewhat misplaced. The environmental movement in many parts of India is often identified on the Left-of-Centre but to have an impact, you sometimes need icons and leaders who command respect across the political spectrum— Bahuguna was one of those figures.

In 1979, during Chipko Movement one of the slogans of the movement was from a folk song: Kya hain jungle k upkar? Mitti, paani aur bayar (what are the gifts of the forest? Soil, water and air). Today, you have terms like ‘ecosystem services’ that carry the same meaning. These terms didn’t even exist back then. Bahuguna was a pioneer with respect to moving away the focus from a wildlife-centric approach to conservation that was then the norm amongst many of us, and making it directly relevant for larger environmental aspects as well as the livelihoods of people.

In fact, when nobody even dreamt about such environmental pollution, his clairvoyance clicked, and he started working as a doctor to eradicate the environment’s main ailments –  saving soil, water and air from venomous pollution.

Bahuguna drew our attention to the importance of Himalayan forest, especially oak-dominated forests, and the role the greens played in maintaining the health of local agriculture and water resources for local communities. So this link between healthy agriculture and healthy forests, and between healthy forests and healthy hydrological systems is something that we learnt from the Chipko Movement and in Bahuguna’s company. That has left an impact.

Sunderlal’s long march from Kashmir to Kohima, the march across the Himalayas an attempt to make his local struggles and discourse pan Himalayas. His focus, however, remained in the western Himalayas in the region now the state of Uttarakhand. His ashram in Silyara is an inspiration to so many people who visited the place and learnt about the Chipko Movement. Bahuguna referred to the fragility of the Himalayas— that we probably shouldn’t have the type of conventional roads in Himalayas that we have elsewhere. He believed smaller villages should be connected with very well-made footpaths linked to few roads. What he said with respect to the hazards of road-building by cutting through mountain slopes is now so relevant, consider the Char Dham project and the widening of the roads and repeated hazards that the Himalayas are facing, like extreme rainfall events and landslides. He was probably the earliest voices that warned us against these dangers, specifically in relation to conservation and sustainable development in the Himalayas.

This greatest Padma Vibhushan warrior against all kind of environmentalcruelty lost his battle in Covid on May 21, this year at the age of 94, but, ushered a new era of hope, positivity and awareness.