Updated: May 22, 2021 8:06:19 am
What does the forest bear? Soil, water, and pure air!” The slogan of the Chipko movement, which began with the courageous stand of women in Reni village in Uttarakhand in March 1973, identified the true worth of nature not in the profits that accrue from its exploitation, but because it is a source of life itself. It was a message that inspired Sunderlal Bahuguna, Gandhian and pioneering environmentalist, in his many campaigns to defend the Himalayan ecosystem that he undertook through his life. His death on Friday at the age of 94 — he died of Covid-19 — marks an end to an age of idealism and activism.
Born in pre-Independence India, Bahuguna was drawn to Gandhian methods of politics and social service. But it was his wife Vimla Bahuguna, a Gandhian herself, who would show him 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 their cause.
Bahuguna became the public face of Chipko, though he was one of its many streams, along with environmentalists like Chandi Prasad Bhatt and Gaura Devi. His remarkable skill was in joining the dots between the local and the global. Long before climate change challenged the consensus on “growth”, Bahuguna had warned about the high costs of the unchecked march of profit. By 1989, when he and Vimla moved to another Himalayan town to protest against the construction of the Tehri dam, he had become a prophet easily ignored. The recent disasters in his beloved Himalaya, from the Kedarnath floods to the Chamoli tragedy, are a reminder that Bahuguna’s lessons can be ignored at our own peril.
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