Environment crusader and Padma Vibhushan awardee Sunderlal Bahuguna died on Friday in AIIMS Rishikesh at the age of 94 due to COVID-related complications. His wife, Bimla Bahuguna, in her late 80s , has also contracted COVID for being with him and is now under isolation.
Bahuguna was known for spearheading the Chipko movement in 1973, along with Gaura Devi, which had started from Chamoli district in Uttarakhand and spread out to the entire Himalayas prompting women to embrace trees in order to save them from felling by state government authorities.
Born in Maroda village, situated on Bhagirathi river, in Tehri district of Uttarakhand on January 9, 1927, Bahuguna’s father was in the forest service under the Tehri kingdom.
Tracing back the milestones leading to his life’s journey dedicated to saving the environment, Shekhar Pathak, a Padma Shree awardee historian, told NewsClick: “Bimla Bahuguna, his wife, who was first graduate from her area, put up a condition before him that she would marry him only if he takes a pledge to remain committed to social service for his whole life. That was a major turning point in Sunderlal ji’s life, who quit his political post as district secretary of Congress and took to social service. His coming in contact with iconic freedom fighter and social activist Sridev Suman, who revolted for freedom from the rule of the Tehri kingdom, was another milestone in shaping up his life.”
“Then nothing could stop him. Be it Chipko movement , anti-Tehri dam campaign, long Himalayan journey from Kashmir to Kohima, his agitations and hunger strike against hydro power projects, his contributions towards environment and society remains endless,” Pathak said, adding that it is a great loss for the environment as there are very few genuine Gandhian volunteers left who could speak up fearlessly. Those remaining are people associated with NGOs who cannot speak up openly in today’s times, he added.
Another well-known environmentalist and Padma Shree awardee Anil Joshi too paid his tribute to the legendary environmentalist, saying: “Sunderlal ji was a great symbol of environment conservation. He professed Gandhian philosophy of simplicity and urged people to not to indulge in greed and chop down trees and forest in name of development and prosperity. His death has created a huge vacuum and, I cannot see anybody else taking his position.”
Vimal Bhai, national convener of Matu Jansangh also remembered Bahuguna saying that he always advocated slogan, ‘Ganga Ko Aviral Rahne Do, Ganga ko Aviral Behne Do (Let Ganges flow unhindered and clean) by vehemently opposing restricting rivers’ flow and endangering lives of aquatic species by building dams over them.
Hemant Dhyani , convener of Ganga Ahawan movement, who has been fighting relentlessly against hydro power projects and Char Dham Pariyojna told NewsClick: “The generation which Bahuguna belongs to and who raised issued on environment protection because they were intrinsically connected and deeply committed to the causes is now disappearing amongst us. Nowadays people talk about environment because they think it is important for their survival and, not because of their dedication and affection for the mother nature.” He shared one anecdote on how Bahuguna had tonsured his head to express his grief over impeding the flow of “Ma Ganga” under Tehri dam project.
As an environment reporter of the Times of India in Uttarakhand , I got several opportunities to interact with Bahuguna. He would always oppose felling trees and suggested other ways to get things done. For instance, he would profess building ropeways, as the most viable method to facilitate connectivity in hilly terrain than building roads for which innumerable trees and forests are cleared. He would express worry over depleting water sources and drying up of springs and support planting broad-leaf indigenous tree/plant species like oak to augment ground water and, enrich biodiversity in the surrounding area.
Bahuguna would often propose clearing land off chir pine trees from five km radius of each village. It was on his recommendation, I once visited the Tehri dam site and witnessed soil erosion, landslides and houses that had developed cracks due to blasting to make a tunnel for the powerhouse. I also met people who were displaced for the same project
Seema Sharma is a Chandigarh-based independent environment journalist.