Sunderlal Bahuguna: Simply Extraordinary

He lived the life he preached, giving us a wealth of ground truths

I first met him in 1979. As a group of youngsters beginning our journey into ecological issues, Chipko was already a legend, a movement to draw inspiration from. At a meeting in Delhi, Sunderlal Bahuguna spoke quietly but firmly about the havoc being caused by deforestation and road construction in the Himalaya, and of the resolve of villagers to stop this madness. His sing-song voice, his Garhwali phrases, the mix of cold science and grassroots wisdom in his arguments for why the Himalayan ecosystems had to be saved, the simplicity of his appearance — all these served to create a deep impression.

Forty-two years later, the imprint he made on my mind and heart has been moulded and shaped by countless other women and men who have braved the odds to protect India’s environment from destructive development, including the women of Chipko on the frontlines of saving Himalayan forests, and whom we, as members of Kalpavriksh, met on treks through Tehri Garhwal in 1980-81. But like the seeds we carry within us from our parents, some original voices and personalities do not disappear even after decades. Sunderlalji’s is one such.

Lots will be said about his contributions. The campaign to save Himalayan forests resulting in a ban on commercial felling above 30 degrees slope and above 1,000 msl (mean sea level) in 1981. The movement against the Tehri Dam, a mega-project with devastating consequences due to submergence, tree-felling, displacement, and possible seismic impacts; unsuccessful even after Sunderlalji undertook one of India’s longest fasts after Independence, over 56 days, and after an expert committee appointed by the central government said it should not be built.

His support for women-led movements against the liquor mafia in the hills, and for the Beej Bachao Andolan, a movement to save Himalayan agricultural biodiversity from being wiped out by the unsustainable, chemical-intensive Green Revolution. The untiring awareness campaigns across India and the world, including a jaw-dropping 4,800 km Kashmir to Kohima padayatra (foot march) in the early 1980s to bring attention to the entire Himalayan region. And even before much of this, with his wife Vimlaji, who was in his own words one of his strongest inspirations, the freedom movement and struggles against untouchability and casteist discrimination.

The list of contributions can go on. But what I’d like to remember him for is his personality. Gentle, quietly persuasive, firmly strong in his beliefs and arguments, occasional bouts of anger quickly left behind and replaced by his infectious smile. His delight in interacting with children and youth, charming them with the kind of open laughter only mountain people are capable of, giving them simple nuggets of wisdom. Like his mentor Gandhi, the ability to come up with pithy one-liners, such as “ecology is permanent economy”. And the simplicity of his lifestyle — always clad in khadi, eating sparsely but healthily, no frills; living the life he preached.

In his insistence on ecology being the foundation of everything, and “development” being anything but development if it does not respect this, Sunderlalji gave us a wealth of ground truths. Given the deepening chasm between India’s governance and these ground truths today (the hubris-filled Chardham and hydro-electricity projects in Himalaya as painful manifestations), and his own worsening health situation even before COVID-19 struck, perhaps it is just as well he does not have to live through these traumatic times. His was a life well-lived, and it is up to us to learn from it, and continue struggling for ecological sanity.

The author is with Kalpavriksh and Vikalp Sangam, in Pune.

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