Sunderlal Bahuguna: Hugging For Dear Life

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    Talk about going the extra mile. Sunderlal Bahuguna did one better. From 1981 to 1983, he marched 4,700 km, from Kashmir in North India to Kohima in the North East, to save his beloved Himalayan homeland. As he had hoped, his long march drew attention to the damage wrought by mega developmental projects to the fragile Himalayan ecosystem and helped put in place legislation against the felling of trees in the region.

    Bahuguna was one of India’s early environmentalists and a true-blue Gandhian. A soft-spoken, gentle soul, he was born and raised in the Tehri-Garhwal region in present-day Uttarakhand. He devoted his life to campaigning for the ecologically sensitive Himalayan region and for the rights of his people, whose lives and livelihoods had begun to suffer due to environmental damage.

    At a time when climate change was not something most of us worried about (although we should have!), Bahuguna had already made the connection between deforestation, erosion of fertile land, loss of livelihoods and the migration of men from villages to cities to look for work.

    This mass migration invariably left women to tend to home and hearth. It was the women in the hilly reaches of Uttarakhand who became the backbone of the Chipko (tree-hugging) movement of the 1970s. A campaign to save the region’s forests from logging and destruction from big businesses, Chipko was led by Bahuguna. The movement spread across the Himalayan region and inspired similar movements in other parts of India.

    “I do not eat rice as the crop of paddy consumes too much water, which is bad for the environment,” Sunderlal Bahuguna had once said. Today, we call it ‘carbon footprint’ and we’re seeing what Bahuguna had only warned of then.

    In the early 1990s, Bahuguna kick-started his agitation against the Tehri dam, India’s tallest. The anti-Tehri movement is one of India’s most prominent environmental campaigns to this day. Bahuguna was against large hydropower projects in the ecologically sensitive Himalayas as they cause large-scale destruction and displace people.

    But these were only Bahuguna’s high-profile campaigns. For 25 years before he became headline news, Bahuguna worked hard for social justice. He grew up at a time when the Indian freedom movement was gathering momentum and his first protest was against the oppressive rule of the local Tehri king. He also campaigned against untouchability, championed women’s education, and rallied women to fight against liquor, which was ruining the lives of men in the region.

    The last decade has seen five natural calamities engulf Uttarakhand, the most recent being in February 2021, when a glacier collapsed and triggered flash floods in Chamoli District. Earlier, in June 2013, a massive and prolonged cloudburst caused floods and landslides in Uttarakhand, claiming thousands of lives and wreaking ecological havoc in the region.

    Sunderlal Bahuguna died on 21st May 2021 at the age of 94. Sadly, he lived to see his worst fears come true.

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