The 70s in India saw large scale deforestation along the Himalayan ranges which triggered an increase in landslides and flooding in the region. Several rural communities that were nestled in the mountains came under the threat of losing not only their livelihoods but also the local forest cover and the delicate balance of natural resources that they had worked hard to maintain. Time and again, we see that economic growth happens at the expense of sustainability and this case was initially no different. However, the events that followed and the lessons that emerged form a huge part of the nation's environmental conservation history and gave rise to one of India’s most inspirational leaders in the fight against climate change - Sunderlal Bahuguna.
Born in 1927 in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand, Sunderlal Bahuguna is seen as a huge visionary who put Gandhian principles at the forefront of his movement to defend the country's ecology. He joined the freedom struggle at a very young age and significantly contributed towards the fight against untouchability in India. However, it is his involvement in the Chipko Movement that propelled Bahuguna’s popularity as an environmentalist and social activist in the years that followed.
Exhibit 1: Sundarlal Bahuguna
So, what really is the Chipko Movement? It was essentially an organized resistance against commercial logging activities that were threatening to destroy the ecological balance in the state. The word "Chipko" literally means "to stick" in Hindi. Large groups of villagers, especially women, came forward to protest against deforestation by hugging the trees and standing in the way of the logging contractors. Within rural communities, women traditionally shouldered the responsibility of foraging fruits and timber wood from the forests. The depleting forest cover meant they had to cover more ground to gather these basic necessities. Consequently, large groups of women had started to mobilize to fight for the conservation of the forest, playing a pivotal role in managing the movement. Together they sang songs and chanted slogans, one of the more popular ones being "Our bodies before the trees".
Exhibit 2: Women in the Chipko Movement
Sunderlal Bahuguna and his wife, Vimala, gave direction to this decentralized movement that was slowly springing up in more and more areas. He led several demonstrations that were now garnering global attention to the community's efforts against deforestation. The simple action of hugging trees had now succeeded in imposing a 15-year ban against the commercial felling of trees in the state of Uttarakhand. Further, the Chipko Movement was also quickly evolving to become a powerful landmark in India's journey to establish women's rights while strongly communicating the basic tenets of ecofeminism.
Bahuguna’s contributions towards ecological conservation also extend to his protests and repeated hunger strikes against the construction of the Tehri dam in the 1980s. The construction of this dam meant that thousands of people had to be displaced while the fragile local riverine ecosystem also suffered the consequences. Bahuguna was one among the many displaced by the subsequent construction of the dam. In 1987, he was awarded the Padma Shri, one of the highest civilian awards annually awarded by the government, for his environmental conservation efforts. Bahuguna, however, refused to accept the award - a silent protest against the government's decision to cancel the construction of what is currently the largest dam in the country.
His persistent fight for climate justice over the years has inspired many generations, from villagers rallying for conservation of natural resources to kids who, even today, learn about his pioneering efforts through textbooks. At a time when the need for sustainability and coexistence with our natural surroundings is at an all-time high, we would do well to draw on the lessons and legacies that Bahuguna and many others like him have left behind.
Written by Ritika Sowda