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.

The Real Emergency in “Climate Emergency”: Consumption, Social Anomie, and Loss of Meaning

Concluding part of “The Politics of ‘Climate Emergency'” 

Viewed in totality, and over a long-term historical perspective, the one and only inescapable conclusion is that the United States remains, by far, the worst polluter in the world.  Some 400 billion tons of CO2 had been released into the atmosphere between 1751 and 2017, and the United States accounted for 25% of these emissions.  It is no longer the manufacturing Goliath of the world, just as its share of the world’s CO2 emissions has decreased to the point where another colossus, China, has now overtaken it to claim this dubious honor.  Nevertheless, it is unimpeachably true that the 340 million residents of the United States, constituting some 5% of the world’s population, consume a quarter of the world’s energy.  The average American consumes as much energy as 13 Chinese, or 31 Indians, or 128 Bangladeshis.  The levels of consumption in the United States are, in a word, obscene; and to the extent that the ‘American Dream’ has become everyone’s dream, the obscenity of consumption is the regnant pornography of our times.  The rest of the world has for decades watched America consume.  There is a voyeurism of consumption, too; and Indians, Chinese, Nigerians, Egyptians, Indonesians and others want nothing more than to consume much like the Americans—and their country cousins, the allegedly benign Canadians and the allegedly easy-going Australians who have their own sordid, or rather I should say, malignant history of exterminating and cordoning off ‘undesirables’. Those who have been left out of this grand narrative want not only cars, refrigerators, and flat-screen TVs, but meat on the table, the chimera of choice, the luxury of luxury goods.

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Global Warming and co2 Emissions–in the Here and Now, and in the Past

Part II of “The Politics of ‘Climate Emergency'”

The periodic reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN body charged with assessing the science related to climate change, and the World Meteorological (WMO), a specialized agency of the UN which monitors changes in weather and climate and assesses the behavior of the Earth’s atmosphere, have charted the impending disaster in increasingly ominous language. Extreme climate events, far in excess of the occasional hurricane or drought that made it to the world news twenty years ago, have been aplenty: raging fires in Australia and the United States; record flooding in Europe, Africa, and Kerala; droughts in Argentina, Uruguay, and Afghanistan; and heat waves in London, Paris, and, to add a new gloss to the idea of the surreal, Greenland.  The scenes of devastation are writ large in the language of apocalypse.  “Australia’s hellish fire season has eased,” states a recent article in the New York Times, “but its people are facing more than a single crisis.”  The word “hellish” alerts us to the extraordinarily trying times that Australians have already experienced and will doubtless have to go through before their ordeal is over—if it is over:  the cycle of “drought, fire, deluge” is repeated with intensifying effect.

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Perhaps the most iconic image from the wildfires in Australia 2020: A kangaroo rushes past a burning house amid apocalyptic scenes in Conjola, New South Wales. Picture: Matthew Abbott / New York Times / Redux / eyevine)

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Climate Emergency:  OED’s Word of the Year, 2019

Part I of The Politics of “Climate Emergency”

(in three parts)

In 2004, the Oxford English Dictionary, better known to most by its acronym OED, commenced the practice of choosing a word or phrase that through “usage evidence” reflects “the ethos, mood, or preoccupations of the passing year,” and is likely to “have lasting potential as a term of cultural significance”. The Dictionary’s choice of the word of the Year 2016 was simply chilling:  post-truth. Every religion has posed the question:  is there life after death? A new question has come to the fore in our times: is there life after truth—and what kind of life? Post-truth:  post-chronology:  let us keep in mind that post as a noun also signifies pillar, and that “the noblest minds”—a quaint, even archaic, phrase to some—have sought to make truth the pillar that steadies them as they sojourn through life.  The noun “post” has still another meaning, signifying “station”, as in our “station” in life.  Donald J. Trump had, before the year 2016 was brought to a close, just been elected President of the US, and whatever did not agree with him then—and consider the precipitous decline since, three years later—was already being branded as “fake news”. But OED’s choice pointed to the fact, even if those who exercised this choice did not fully realize the implications of their decision-making, that we are living in near totalitarian times, even as more societies continue to display the necessary outward accoutrements of what is called ‘democracy’. Many have been the definitions that have been put forward to explain totalitarianism, a political ideology that necessitates the massive and total accumulation of power and a rigid intolerance for dissent, but the essence of it is a system where it becomes difficult to distinguish truth from falsehood.

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Gandhi and the Ecological Sensibility

(Second of a long series that will continue through the year on the occasion of the 150th birth anniversary of Mohandas Gandhi.)

The word ‘ecology’ appears nowhere in Gandhi’s writings and similarly he never spoke on environmental protection as such. Yet, as the Chipko Movement and the Narmada Bachao Andolan, or, in a very different context, the manifesto of the German Greens and the action against the Mardola dam in Norway have clearly shown, the impress of Gandhi’s thinking on ecological movements has been felt widely.  The Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess, who traveled through India in 1969 with Johan Galtung and Sigmund Kvaloy, and with whose name “deep ecology” is associated, confessed that it is from Gandhi that he came to the realization of “the essential oneness of all life.”  Gandhi was a practitioner of recycling decades before the idea caught on in the West and he initiated perhaps the most far-reaching critiques of the ideas of consumption and that fetish of the economist called “growth” that we have ever seen.  Thus, in myriad ways, we can begin to entertain the idea that he was a thinker with a profoundly ecological sensibility.

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*Climate Change:  A Catastrophic Future for India?

In India’s recently concluded elections, there was much that divided the BJP from an array of political parties constituted as the opposition, among them the Congress, the CPM, and the parties that forged the so-called mahagathbandhan.  But there was also much that was common to all the parties, nothing more so than the fact that climate change was almost entirely obscured as an issue deserving of the voter’s attention.  What does it mean for the country that not one political party has shown any real sensitivity to the question of climate change and any awareness of the catastrophic certainty that it will seriously erode any possibility of “normal life” for hundreds of millions of Indians unless the country changes course?

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New Delhi: Capital of India, and world capital of air pollution. Is this the royal city that the architects dreamt of?

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