The man who taught us the importance of hugging trees is no more | Condé Nast Traveller IndiaMay 24, 2021
In the 1970s, he started a statewide movement to protect Uttarakhand’s forests. In 1983, he marched 4,000km in the Himalayas to draw attention to environmental degradation. In 1992, he shaved his head and went on a fast for nearly 75 days to protest the Tehri dam and protect the hundreds of trees surrounding it. Sunderlal Bahuguna, the indefatigable environmentalist who taught Indians to care for the environment, passed away due to COVID at 94 in Rishikesh, Uttarakhand.
The man behind the Chipko Movement
Bahuguna was born in Tehri in 1927. At the age of 13, he had turned into a social activist. He fought against untouchability and started anti-liquor drives from 1965 to 1970. In 1970, he switched gears and his focus on the environment. Bahuguna did not have any formal education in the subject. In fact, his wife, Vimla Bahuguna, was quoted in a research report saying that they were born as slaves to the Britishers, and they had to travel long distances for even the most basic education. But his love for the hills drove him to pursue environmental conservation. “Hills are a storehouse of resources but people in the hills are still poor. Protecting these resources will definitely improve the lives of people,” he said.
It was during the Chipko Movement that Bahuguna was brought to attention in India. In the early 70s, the Uttarakhand government decided to auction 2,500 trees surrounding the Alaknanda river in Raini. When the loggers reached Raini village to cut the trees, a local girl spread the word among its inhabitants. To protect the trees, women came out and did something unexpected. They hugged them and continued to do so for days until the government changed their mind. The act conveyed ‘Our bodies before our trees’.
The idea of Chipko (to hug trees to protect them) was that of Sunderlal’s wife. But Sunderlal, also a staunch follower of Mahatma Gandhi’s principles, was the one who gave the movement wings. He spread the idea of hugging trees from Raini to many other villages in Uttarakhand. The peaceful movement became so strong that it caused the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to impose a 15-year ban on cutting trees in the state.
A true visionary
This was also a time when the Uttarakhand floods had devastated the state. Historical records show that natural disasters had taken place in 1893, 1968 and 1970. Bahuguna started to point out the link between deforestation, landslides and floods due to erosion. Over the years, he received the support of women and students in great numbers. They went on peaceful demonstrations, hugged trees and fasted to impact a change in the environment. “Kya hai jungle ke upkar; Mitti, paani or vayvhar, Mitti, paani or vayvhar hai jeene ke aadhar (Forests bless us with pure soil, water and air, which are essential for life),” he said in an interview.
Bahuguna was an evangelist of sustainable practices, and often spoke about the need for India to produce biogas from human waste, harvest solar and wind energy. He suggested the importance of improving machines so they consume less energy. “Industrialisation and development have adversely affected the environment. Earlier, people used to have a connection with the environment, which is disappearing nowadays. People need to understand the importance of the balance between the environment and human development for the healthy existence of all species,” he said.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the passing away of Sunderlal Bahuguna has been a monumental loss for the nation. “He manifested our centuries-old ethos of living in harmony with nature. His simplicity and spirit of compassion will never be forgotten. My thoughts are with his family and many admirers…,” he wrote on Twitter.
Bahuguna’s Chipko Movement lives on even today. In 2018, when Mumbai’s trees were being culled to make way for a metro facility and parking space, many activists revolted against it. Their way of expressing it took form in his language—by hugging trees. In March this year, women in Uttarakhand’s Jakhani village hugged trees to protect them from being axed to make way for a construction project. Sunderlal Bahuguna will always be remembered as a tireless protector of our environment, not just for his times, but also the future generations.