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Fifty-Fifty: Sundarlal Bahuguna : A Prophet Easily Ignored

Sundarlal Bahuguna was the most passionate voice behind the anti-Tehri Dam protests for decades.

Photo Credit : Photograph: Envato Elements

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The passing away of Sundarlal Bahuguna did find reasonable mention in media last week. But in the deluge of deaths of the famous, and the not-so-famous, during this raging second wave of the pandemic, somehow Bahuguna, who jump-started environmental activism in India, did not get his fullest due. The Padma Vibhushan winner’s death was widely condoled by the high and mighty but the true legacy of India’s tallest environmentalist was not really dealt enough justice in death. 

I met Sundarlal Bahuguna once. It was in 2001. He had just been released from jail. He was very frail, but still remarkably energetic, and eloquent. But the meeting, and how it came about, merits the recounting of the back story. 

Sundarlal Bahuguna was the most passionate voice behind the anti-Tehri Dam protests for decades. He used Gandhian and satyagraha methods to voice his opposition to the creation of the dam that he felt would do more harm, than good. He repeatedly went on hunger strikes at the banks of the river Bhagirathi to protest the dam but despite widespread media support, his agitations cut little ice in Lucknow or New Delhi. In 1995, he called off a 45-day-long fast following an assurance from the then Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao who promised the appointment of a review committee on the ecological impacts of the dam. Thereafter he went on another long fast which lasted for 74 days at Gandhi Samadhi, Raj Ghat, during the tenure of Prime Minister H.D. Deve Gowda, who gave him a personal undertaking on review of the project by experts. Nothing of consequence really happened.  

On 31 March 2001, Bahuguna and his band of activists protested the government’s failure to relocate people displaced by the dam project. They began a sit-in dharna at the main site of construction. They forced construction to halt for three weeks. Before dawn on 22 April, after an announcement from the High Court that the project should continue, police arrested fifty campaigners from the sit-in. Protesters were dispersed among several different prisons. Two days later, they arrested Sundarlal Bahuguna, who began yet another hunger strike while detained. After his condition began to deteriorate, the government declared a new committee would be formed, and this time it would be comprised of representatives selected by both the government and campaigners from a pool of government nominees. While Bahuguna was recuperating, a meeting was arranged between him and me. I was then Group CEO of Zee Telefilms. I told him that we wanted to do a documentary on his continuing tussle with the authorities and if he thought the entire cause  was a battle he would ever win. The meeting went on for nearly two hours. I was fascinated by his answer when I asked him what was the essence of the Chipko movement? “What does the forest bear? Soil, water, and pure air!”

The Chipko movement, also called Chipko andolan, was a nonviolent social and ecological movement by rural villagers, particularly women, in India in the 1970s, aimed at protecting trees and forests slated for government-backed logging. The movement originated in the Himalayan region of Uttar Pradesh (later Uttarakhand) in 1973 and quickly spread throughout the Indian Himalayas. The Hindi word chipko means “to hug” or “to cling to” and reflects the demonstrators’ primary tactic of embracing the trees to impede the loggers. The first Chipko protest occurred near the village of Mandal in the upper Alaknanda valley in April 1973. Villagers embraced the trees to prevent logging.  Sundarlal Bahuguna, a local environmentalist, began to share Chipko’s tactics with people in other villages throughout the region. The Chipko movement began to emerge as a peasant and women’s movement for forest rights. In addition to the characteristic “tree hugging,” Chipko protesters utilized a number of other techniques grounded in Mahatma Gandhi’s concept of satyagraha (nonviolent resistance). Bahuguna famously fasted for two weeks in 1974 to protest forest policy. Local women tied sacred threads around the trees and read from the Bhagavadgita. In other areas, chir pines (Pinus roxburghii) that had been tapped for resin were bandaged to protest their exploitation. It is estimated that between 1972 and 1979, more than 150 villages were involved with the Chipko movement, resulting in 12 major protests and many minor confrontations in what is today’s Uttarakhand. The movement’s major success came in 1980, when an appeal from Bahuguna to Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi resulted in a 15-year ban on commercial felling in the Uttarakhand Himalayas. Similar bans were enacted in Himachal Pradesh and the former Uttaranchal.

It is said that it was his wife Vimla Bahuguna, a Gandhian herself, who showed Sundarlal Bahuguna the way. She agreed to marry him on the condition that he would commit to spending his life in the villages of present-day Uttarakhand. By the time the Chipko resistance took wing, Bahuguna’s work in the region had convinced him of the urgent need to conserve the forests if deathly floods and degradation had to be stopped. Through the many padayatras he undertook in the 1970s, he mobilised villagers and amplified the message of the Chipko movement, drawing national and international attention to its cause.

But somehow, despite his strenuous efforts, his personal sacrifices and his lifetime dedication to his cause, he really was a prophet easily ignored. He did manage to delay projects and extract promises from successive Prime Ministers but eventually he could not prevent governments from pursuing their original agendas. Between 1981 and 1983, Bahuguna marched 5,000 km (3,100 miles) across the Himalayas to bring the Chipko movement to prominence. Throughout the 1980s many protests were focused on the Tehri Dam on the Bhagirathi River. Similarly, a massive reforestation effort led to the planting of more than one million trees in the region.

Receding glaciers, flash floods, humungous loss of life and property in recent years in Uttarkhand could all have been avoided if Sundarlal Bahuguna’s sage advice had been heeded. But successive governments never really cared, or listened to the Gandhian activist. They gave him a Padma Shri and a Padma Vibhushan but just ignored the tenets of his environmentalism.

And yes, the Zee documentary never got made. Bahuguna was adamant that the narration be just his point-of-view, nothing else. That, I was unwilling to concede to. We needed to table as many perspectives as there were. His, and others. Sadly perhaps it was this stubborn inelasticity that diluted the towering legacy of the man.  

Dr. Sandeep Goyal is Managing Director of ad agency Rediffusion

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


Dr Sandeep Goyal

The author was Founder Chairman of Dentsu India. He has authored Konjo – The Fighting Spirit and Japan Made Easy, both Harper Collins publications, on his 25 years of working with Japan.

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