Bahuguna and the seeds of struggle in the Himalayas

By Manshi AsheronJun. 28, 2021in Environment and Ecology

Sunderlal Bahuguna may have departed, but there are many formidable repositories of diverse oral and embodied knowledge that we could fall back on

Ratan Chand, Sunderlal Bahuguna, Kulbhushan Upmanyu

In the era of irreversible ecological destruction, initiatives to ‘save the environment’ mushroom every day. It is, after all, also the age of ‘solutions’. ‘Green’ is now a pre-fix to growth and technology. As an environmental activist, one is constantly grappling with dilutions and schisms within environmentalism. It is crucial, today more than ever, to revisit the roots and branches of ecological movements on our land. Last month, we lost a persistent worker of one such struggle. ‘Earth warrior’, ‘Chipko Bahuguna’, ‘Gandhian fakir’ — many titles have been bestowed upon Sunderlal Bahuguna.

To understand the environmentalism he exemplified, one could also turn to Himachal where two activists in particular engaged closely with him. Both, Kulbhushan Upmanyu, who started his work as a sarvodayi, and Ratan Chand, a communist, are now in their 70s. Both practising farmer-horticulturists hail from Chamba and have been at the forefront of environmental work in the region.

From a family of priests (sewadars) of Chamba’s famous Laxmi Narayan temple, Ratanji’s gentle demeanour, unassuming appearance and non-evocative speaking style camouflage his dogged nature. At an early age, he distanced himself from the family occupation as he explored his Left leanings. His home in Saho village has photos of Karl Marx, Gandhi and Vivekanand on the wall. A staunch trade unionist who joined the Communist Party of India (CPI), his activism ranged from fighting for wage rights of the labourers at a hydropower project in Chamba, to gaining compensation for those who lost their land to it back in the late 1970s.

When the Baira Siul project became functional, he was quick to observe the deforestation, landslides and threats to local lives and livelihoods. This laid the ground for building an environmental consciousness. In 1981-82, Bahuguna, on his Kashmir to Kohima yatra carrying the message of protecting the forests of the Himalayas from commercialisation, was visiting Chamba. Ratan Chand paid him a visit and from then on, even as he remained associated with the CPI, he became an ally of Bahuguna, visiting his Silyara Ashram in Uttarakhand annually.

Influenced by the ideas of Gandhi and Vinoba Bhave, Upmanyu began working with the JP movement during the Emergency. Apart from supporting the implementation of land reforms in Bhatiyat, where he lives, he also resisted the authoritarian policies of the Central regime and worked on gram swaraj. His first meeting with Bahuguna, also in 1981, was at Prasthan Ashram in Pathankot; the simple man with the patka (headcover) left quite an imprint. Upmanyu too later donned the patka, considered a symbol of resistance. During the Kashmir-Kohima yatra, Upmanyu spent two months with Bahuguna, travelling from one end of HP bordering Jammu right up to Jaunsar Bawar. Interactions with people, observations of forest conditions and discussions with Bahuguna confirmed Upmanyu’s own analysis of what was happening in the name of forest conservation. The forest department’s ‘improvement forestry’ was converting rich biodiverse forests of oak and other fodder species into timber woodlots. Chir-pine monoculture plantations were impacting grassland ecosystems and encroaching on Gaddi-Gujjar pastoralist lands. Thus began a local movement, with slogans like ‘Chir-safeda band karo, chaare ka prabandh karo’ and ‘Aaj Himalaya ki lalkaar, van par gaon ka adhikar’.

Apart from sit-ins and fasts, a powerful direct action in this resistance was entering forest department nurseries to replace seeds of pine and poplar with indigenous species. Simultaneously, community afforestation efforts were organised on village lands with the panch jeevan species (fodder-fruit, fuel wood, leaf litter, fibre and medicinal plants). The movement spread over 18 panchayats. The state government was forced to concede to their demands to stop commercial felling of trees and restrict promotion of timber species. Several cases were filed against Upmanyu and fellow activists during this movement. He spent two months in Chamba jail in 1986. Ratan Chand organised solidarity protests involving schoolchildren in Chamba at the time, he recollects fondly.

Both are full of stories from the Tehri andolan. Ratanji recalls being lathicharged at the proposed dam site in Uttarakhand in 1997. Years later, he would once again be brutally attacked in Chamba as part of a long struggle against the Hul hydropower project. This movement played a crucial role in highlighting the impacts of what are often referred to as ‘green and clean’ energy hydropower projects in the state. He and Upmanyu questioned the extractive model of ‘development’ being pushed in the Himalayas even as they worked to protect local forests with community participation.

In the late 1990s, Upmanyu set up the Himalaya Bachao Samiti to continue the work around forest governance and, more recently, implementing the Forest Rights Act 2006. Ratan Chand started Paryavaran Chetna Kendra, an educational centre, at his village. Upmanyu steered clear of electoral politics, while Ratan Chand contested locally and even led terms as the panchayat president and District Council chairperson. By 2007, the year Bahuguna visited Manali to stand with protests against Ford’s mega ski resort, the need for an economic paradigm shift, especially in the Himalayas, became their clarion call under the campaign ‘Himalaya Niti Abhiyan’.

“Simplicity is a human value, not a sacrifice,” says Upmanyu. Perhaps that’s why environmentalists of this league mostly led unsung lives. “People like Bahuguna are given the stature of ‘icons’ when convenient, but for the most part, they bear the brunt for countering dominant worldviews,” adds Ratanji. Bahuguna may have departed, but there are many such formidable repositories of diverse oral and embodied knowledge to fall back on, so that we learn and unlearn, in our quest for change.

— The writer is an environmental activist with Himdhara Collective

First published by The Tribune on 6th June 2021.

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