Gasping for Oxygen: Homage to Sunderlal Bahuguna, 1927-2021

With the passing of Sunderlal Bahuguna on May 21, the great social activist who added the “Chipko Movement” to the glossary of environmentalists worldwide, COVID has found one of its most illustrious victims.  Bahuguna was hospitalized on May 8 after testing positive for the coronavirus and breathed his last nearly two weeks later, dying from complications arising from COVID.  His death is rightly being mourned as a monumental loss to the Indian environmental movement.  He was also, however, one of the last great witnesses to the Gandhi era—that is a loss which is almost inestimable.

It was, I think, the summer of 1986 when I first met him.  My memory of the meeting has not dimmed even if the exact dates elude me.  It was certainly some time before the publication in 1989 of Ramachandra Guha’s The Unquiet Woods: Ecological Change and Peasant Resistance in the Himalaya.  At least a decade had elapsed since the onset of the Chipko movement and I wrote to him seeking an audience.  A week or two later a light-brown colored postcard bearing 10 paise postage appeared in the letter-box at my residence in west Delhi.  Bahuguna wrote to say that he expected to be in Delhi for some work the following week and that he would be taking the midnight bus from ISBT (Inter-State Bus Terminal) to his ashram in the Tehri Garhwal region.  Would I care to join him and spend a few days with him at his ashram?  These were the days before the internet; but even the telephone was rather remote to his way of life.  It would be sufficient if I just showed up at ISBT, he assured me.

We rode the midnight bus to Silyara Ashram.  The bus dropped us off perhaps 7-8 hours later on the main road; it was a steep hike to his ashram.  Bahuguna was then more than twice my age, but he ambled up the hillside as if he were a goat—leaving me far behind.  The mountain air, he told me, had strengthened his lungs; there were few roads and he cut his own (to borrow an expression from Bruce Chatwin) song lines across the hills nearly at will.  We were greeted at the ashram by his wife Vimla, who survives him, and who reportedly married him on the condition that he would forgo any political ambitions and serve the people of the region as a social activist.  “Spartan” is perhaps the word that captures the ambiance at the ashram and the lifestyles embodied by Sunderlal and Vimla Bahuguna.  Bathing was under a hand pump:  the water was snow melt but, even in the summer, frosty cold.  He offered hot water but advised me that a bath with cold water in the open air was calculated to do wonders—for one’s health and clear thinking. Vimla prepared the simplest meals, using only millet and barley for rotis:  as they explained to me, they had given up the use of rice and wheat.  These grains were far more expensive, and they did not feel justified in consuming them considering that the villagers among whom they worked could not afford them.  Barley and millet, I was told, are more resilient; they take up far less water to grow and are apt for an age when resources are dwindling.

Sunderlal and Vimla Bahuguna. Source: Getty Images.

“What do the forests bear?  Soil, water and pure air.”  The women of the Chipko movement, founded by Chandi Prasad Bhatt but most closely associated with the name of Bahuguna, coined this slogan.  Bahuguna’s life of activism did not, however, commence with the Chipko movement.  Inspired by Gandhi, Bahuguna, after flirting with Congress party politics, had in his 20s taken up anti-untouchability work and he also closely worked with village women to create an anti-liquor drive in the hills.  The other slogan that would grow out of the Chipko movement, “ecology is permanent economy”, was Bahuguna’s own distinct contribution.  The Chipko movement has most often been understood as an attempt, in which village women played the critical role, to prevent contractors—most of them coming from the plains—from cutting down trees for the lumber industry.  They would hug the trees:  thus the word ‘chipko’, ‘to hug’. 

A scene from a village in Uttarakhand in 1973 (then part of Uttar Pradesh) where women are hugging the trees: thus the beginnings of the Chipko Movement. Source:  https://www.indiatimes.com/news/india/chipko-andolan-was-the-strongest-movement-to-conserve-forests-india-needs-it-again-342183.html

“Let me humbly correct you”, Bahuguna unhesitatingly reminded his audiences, whenever he was given the credit as the author of the Chipko movement, “it was the village women of Uttarakhand who started the Chipko movement by embracing the trees to save them from being cut by government contractors for making cricket bats!” Thus was born what became the template for nonviolent environmental movements in India and elsewhere in the world, often led by women.  Large-scale deforestation, as the people in the hills knew, led to ecological devastation and precipitated flooding. However, rural livelihoods were also adversely impacted: firewood and fodder, as well as water for drinking and irrigating the fields, were all in short supply.  But Bahuguna understood that the exploitative political economy of foresting—to which he opposed the “permanent economy” that arises from an awareness of the fact that the only economy which enables people involves the true husbanding of wealth, from a proper management of material resources—implicates contractors, forest officials, and the elites living in the cities who have a fundamentally parasitic relationship with the rural countryside.

Bahuguna, fortuitously, became a renowned environmental activist at a time in India when people such as him were not hauled into jail on charges of sedition as is the case today.  The conferral of awards on activists of his standing is always a tricky matter, involving a deliberation by the state on whether more is gained by acknowledging the achievement or ignoring it.  In 1981, Bahuguna declined the Padma Shri, though in 2009 he accepted the Padma Vibhushan, a far more exalted honor second only to the Bharat Ratna (“Jewel of India”).  Though in 1980 Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had at his instigation instituted a 15-year ban on commercial felling of trees in Uttarakhand, Bahuguna saw little evidence that the ban was being implemented by forest officials.  He went on to undertake what can only be described as a heroic padyatra or walk across the entire range of the Himalayas, traversing nearly 5000 kilometres both to inspire grass-roots activism and to bring the question of deforestation to the fore.  By this time, Bahuguna was also beginning to immerse himself in a related cause:  he would go on to steer the long and protracted movement against the mammoth Tehri Dam, a 261-metre high, 575-metre wide dam that the government was promoting as the country’s largest multi-purpose dam and as a sign of its commitment to “development”.  In 1989 he undertook the first of many fasts in protest against a dam project which activists criticized for displacing over 100,000 villagers and for the dangers it posed to the fragile ecosystem of the Himalayan foothills. 

Bahuguna, perhaps more so than any of the other major environmental activists from recent decades, remained extremely close in spirit to the life and teachings of Gandhi.  This is not only evident from his exceedingly spartan lifestyle, but from his ease of communication with people from all walks of life and his keen awareness that a nonviolent activist must also seek to engage with a wider public and sway the court of public opinion.  At the same time, he had also absorbed enough of Gandhi’s teachings to embrace the view that the social activist must continue to labor without any regard for recognition.  Though Bahuguna remained active to the end of his life, and in more recent years had become an outspoken advocate on behalf of young campaigners for climate change, there were unquestionably long periods of time during which he seemed to disappear from the public gaze.  That ‘invisibility’ never unfazed him nor did it diminish an iota his commitment to social transformation.  His frequent hunger strikes have most often been mentioned as suggestive of the extent to which he was beholden to Gandhi but it is a wholly mistaken view to suppose that hunger striking—which Gandhi distinguished from fasting, though this is not the place to elaborate on the distinction—ipso facto is ‘Gandhian’.  A detailed study of Bahuguna’s own recourse to fasting will be required at some point in order to understand its place in modern Indian politics and social transformation.

Sunderlal Bahuguna with school children. Source: Reuters.

Bahuguna was preeminently a man of the hills, born and bred there, and if he traveled to Delhi to negotiate with the mandarins in the South Block, it was always to return home to the hills and to village India.  In common with Gandhi, he held no illusions about the degradation of life in much of rural India.  In his own lifetime, apart from being a witness to the devastation wrought by ill-conceived ‘development’ in the hill regions and the deleterious consequences of climate change, he would have seen hundreds of villages in his native Uttarakhand turn into ghost towns as young men migrated to the cities. Nevertheless, Bahuguna was still insistent in holding to the view that without attentiveness to the problems of villagers, India could not hope to move towards social equality and justice.  From our conversations over two days nearly four decades ago, one of his observations is seared in my memory:  “Bharat ki atma gaon mein hain” (“The soul of India resides in its villages”). 

Some readers will put this sentiment down to the romanticism with which Gandhi and his followers are often associated, and point to such a thought as the very reason why the time for Gandhi has long been over. This view remains oblivious to the consideration that villagers as well as those who advocate for rural India also do so because they are sensitive to the question of scale and what most befits, if I may put it this way, the stature of man.  That is one reason among others why Bahuguna remained opposed to big dams.  The critics who love to pounce upon any worldview which smacks of what they deride as “romanticism” do not pause to think that people such as Bahuguna have never taken anything from the earth, the soil, and the air—beyond what is required for existence itself. I suspect very much that it is the example of Bahuguna—besides the judgment of a court in New Zealand—that moved the Uttarakhand High Court to pronounce in 2017 a judgment that is altogether radical and liberating—for women, men, nature and our very earth.  The Ganga and the Yamuna rivers and their tributaries, wrote Judges Rajeev Sharma and Alok Singh, are “legal and living entities having the status of a legal person with all corresponding rights, duties and liabilities.”

Bahuguna was, if it may be put this way, a great champion of oxygen-producing trees and clean air.  His was also a struggle to increase the quantum of oxygen.  It is cruel, perhaps a bitter truth of our warped times, that at the very end he should have been felled by the lack of oxygen.  It is true that he had been ailing for some months, but the circumstances of his life—the relatively clean air of the mountains, a life of dignified labor, no attachment to possessions, a long and happy marriage, communion with nature, the advantage of clear and noble thinking, contentment with the simplicities of a rural lifestyle—were conducive to a yet longer life than the 94 years with which he graced the world with his august presence.  What an indictment of our society that our last vision of this giant of the mountains, a man who befriended oxygen-emanating trees, should be of someone strapped to a CPAP machine, gasping for oxygen.

First published under the same title on 30 May 2021 at abplive.in, here.

3 thoughts on “Gasping for Oxygen: Homage to Sunderlal Bahuguna, 1927-2021

  1. Pingback: Chipko movement: “A people’s revolt against mindless deforestation” inspired by Gandhi – India’s 10 most powerful movements | Tribal Cultural Heritage in India Foundation

  2. Wow, the life that Bahuguna lived was a life full of fulfillment and joy. His engagement in the Chipko movement, his advocacy for climate change, and simply his protests for what was right will never be forgotten. Bahuguna truly embodied Gandhi through his selfless acts of help and protection. The last line of this post truly got me thinking – “What an indictment of our society that our last vision of this giant of the mountains, a man who befriended oxygen-emanating trees, should be of someone strapped to a CPAP machine, gasping for oxygen”. The harsh reality of life is that you cant fully control what happens, so you might as well live life to the fullest until the very last day.

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  3. This was such an amazing read, and incredibly sentimental as well. May Bahugna rest in peace, now that he has passed. It’s very upsetting to hear, especially with the ongoing oxygen and COVID crisis going on in India right now. However, reading of his stories is truly inspiring, knowing of his work, and not only that, but living in a way that embodied simply living with the Earth, taking only what is necessary. It’s also very humbling and touching to hear him correct others to recognize the village women of Uttarakhand for starting the Chipko movement, it’s reminiscent of many other social revolutionary groups that begun with other faces, but it’s nice to see them acknowledged for a change. A true social revolutionist, keeping his word, it’s awe-inspiring to hear.

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