Generations of activists learnt from him about the connection between forests, livelihoods, gender inequalities, and the sheer injustice of ‘development’ that stole trees, soil and water away from villagers for the benefit of city-dwellers.
“Kya hai jangal ke upkar
Mitti, paani aur bayar
Mitti, paani aur bayar
Yeh hain jindagi ke aadhar”
This slogan reverberated in the hills as we trekked through Tehri Garhwal, going from village to village, meeting the brave women of the Chipko Andolan. “What are the gifts of the forest? Soil, water and air. Soil, water and air, these are the foundations of life,” intoned Sunderlal Bahuguna as he greeted us in his simple ashram in Silyara, a 20-km walk from the town of Tehri.
Some of us, as school or college students, had met Sunderlalji in Delhi in the late 1970s, and been inspired by his earthy insistence on the need to protect the Himalayan forests. So when we agitated to save Delhi’s ridge forest from destruction for haphazard urbanisation and formed the environmental action group Kalpavriksh, we decided to learn more about Chipko. In the summer of 1980 and 1981, we went to Tehri Garhwal. For many of us, it was life-changing, as we were taught some basic home truths about the connection between forests, livelihoods, gender inequalities, and the sheer injustice of “development” that stole trees, soil and water away from villagers to benefit city-dwellers.
“Kya hai jangal ke upkar…” was not a slogan Sunderlalji devised. According to his old compatriot Vijay Jardhari, it came from Advani village in 1977 as part of the Chipko movement. What Sunderlalji did was to promote it — and other simple and effective slogans — along with that wonderful folk singer Ghanshyam Sailani, whose songs spread the movement’s ecological messages far and wide. In fact, it was his extraordinary ability to communicate as a journalist and activist, and as a Gandhian who could be gentle and firm, that made him the iconic figure he became.
With roots in India’s freedom struggle against British colonial rule, Sunderlalji was drawn to social work early on. Gandhi and Gandhians like Miraben, Thakkar Bapa, and Vinoba Bhave, as also his wife Vimlaji, inspired him to dive headlong into issues of justice. Parts of his life not so well known include his struggle against untouchability, setting up schools and hostels for the most marginalised children. Extensive traveling through the hills also brought home to him the devastation arising from large-scale commercial tree-felling and road construction. In the Chamoli area, women had begun taking this up as a livelihoods-environment issue, starting the Chipko movement in the early 1970s; Sunderlalji gave it his own flavour by stressing, in one of those characteristic Gandhian one-liners, “ecology is permanent economy”.
Vijay Jardhari, who initiated the Beej Bachao Andolan and led his own movements to save forests in villages like Jardhargaon, recalled several moments of his 50-year association with Sunderlalji when I called him up this morning. He spoke about Sunderlalji’s energy and infectious enthusiasm in their first long padayatra, Askot to Arakot in what is now Uttarakhand, in 1974. “This is when I was given deep lessons in the connection between environment, livelihoods, women’s empowerment, and the campaign against the liquor mafia,” said Vijayji. The two-month struggle in Badyarghat against tree-felling in 1978-79, including a 24-day fast by Sunderlalji (he was arrested on the 18th day), which brought intense media attention to the issue, was the trigger for the central government to accept that commercial felling needed to be stopped (it was banned above 1,000 msl and 30-degree slopes in 1981). He mentored people like Vijayji, Kunwar Prasoon, Dhoomsingh Negi, Saab Singh, Pratap Shikhar, and his activism drew from the ability to learn from people like Sudeshaben.
One of Sunderlalji’s most famous actions was the incredible 4,800-km long Kashmir to Kohima padayatra (foot march) in the early 1980s. These and many others were meant to create awareness about the huge issues the Himalaya faced. I recall with astonishment the weight of the pitthu (in Sunderlalji’s Garhwali pronunciation, “rooksack”) that he took on all his walks. It must have been at least 30 kilos, containing heaps of Chipko literature and even a slide projector!
Another famous action was his 56-day fast against the Tehri Dam, one of those monstrosities that only a hubris-filled, greedy, insane government could dream up. I remember meeting him somewhere around the 20th day, in his tiny tent just above the construction site of the dam. He was weak, but the voice and will were strong. Unfortunately, the combined might of the state and central government and construction company defeated the anti-Tehri Dam movement. Dozens of wonderfully productive and beautiful valleys and hills and settlements and agricultural lands and forests are now drowned out forever.
The passing of anyone is an occasion of sadness and grief — and we have seen too many of these in the last couple of months. But 94 years of a life well-lived is also a cause for celebration. Sunderlalji’s life was lived in simplicity — his clothes, mannerisms, sparse food, words, infectious smile and laughter. And so today I will celebrate it with having an extra handful of one of the foods he delighted in because it came without having to be violent to any life form — nuts. And while doing so, I will remember also his lifelong companion, the quiet, gentle and equally firm Vimlaji, who too is in hospital, and who I hope will recover soon and carry on her half of a partnership that has inspired countless thousands to tread the path of ecological truth and social justice.
First published by Indian Express on 22 May 2021 under the title ‘Voice of the Himalaya’.
Read another Obituary Sunderlal Bahuguna: Simply Extraordinary by the same author.