It all started when I got to know an experienced journalist and writer, Jagmohan Balodi, who was associated with the Chipko movement in Uttarakhand. It may have been 1990, but I started my career as a freelance journalist; I was still studying at the university level. It was when Mr. Balodi and I met Mr. Sunder Lal Bahuguna for the first time at the Garhwal Srinagar conference organized by Himalaya Bachao Aandolan (Save the Himalayan Movement). I was enthusiastic to talk to him about the Chipko Movement. I did not have the opportunity then, but later, we had several opportunities to discuss environmental and geopolitical issues with Mr. Bahuguna and we understood the real concerns of the movement.
The Chipko Movement was a non-violent social movement by rural people, especially women, in India in the 1970s to protect trees and forests designated for state-sponsored logging and environmental movements. The movement started in 1973 in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand and quickly spread throughout the Indian Himalayas. The protesters’ main strategy was clinging to trees to deter lumberjacks.
Sunderlal Bahuguna is well-known as the confront man of the Chipko development since he was its delivery person. He spread the word of the Chipko development on foot, counting 4,870 kilometers within the early 80s. “I am essentially the delivery person of the development. It was the women who embraced the trees. While talking to a journalist once he said “I went with this message from one town to another”. “He was a true follower of Gandhi, who told him that in case you’ve got a message you cannot limit it in a region and anticipate it to be greater.
So the teaching of Gandhi prompted him to travel as much as he can and spread the message. Sunderlal Bahuguna had been impacted by Gandhian standards of gracious noncompliance since the youthful age of 13, when a follower of Mahatma Gandhi strolled up to him and his companions on the road, carrying a huge box with a charkha, a kind of linger or turning wheel, interior. This was back in 1940 when India was still beneath British colonial run the show and the government smothered the weaving of dress by the Indian individuals. “And he said, ‘This is the weapon with which we are aiming to create our claim of clothes.’” The experience motivated the youthful Bahuguna. After Indian independence, he joined the National Congress in 1948. As a leader, Bahuguna met a lady named Vimla Behn, a Gandhian social dissident devoted to the instruction of town ladies. Family individuals of Bahuguna and Vimla Behn organized for them to be hitched, but Vimla Behn said she’d wed him on one condition: he must take off legislative issues and settle in the slopes, where together, they’d offer assistance to individuals.
He concurred. After they were hitched in 1956, they moved to an inaccessible town in Uttarakhand, where they set up an ashram that wasn’t restricted by caste or sexual orientation. An ashram may be an otherworldly withdrawal community in Indian religions, and this specific ashram was devoted to the instruction of town individuals. Their ashram got to be the assembly grounds for numerous Gandhian activists to examine issues like liquor abuse, casteism, sex separation, and, progressively, deforestation.
In 1981, the Indian government conferred Bahuguna with one of the most noteworthy civilian respects in India, the Padma Shri Award. But he denied it. “He refused because indeed at that point, the government had not prohibited timberland deforestation in Uttarakhand. He said, ‘I don’t merit any honor or Award until what I need is not done,” Two months after Bahuguna refused the Award, the government at long last prohibited all logging over a thousand meters in Uttarakhand.
Another aspect of the story is the post-border dispute between China and India that ended in 1963; the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh experienced a surge in development, especially in rural Himalayas. Inland roads that were built because of the conflict have attracted many foreign logging companies seeking access to the region’s vast forest resources.
Rural villagers depended heavily on forests for their livelihoods, both directly for food and fuel and indirectly for services such as water treatment and soil stabilization. Fields could not be cultivated and access to timber was denied. Many commercial logging activities are poorly managed even today and deforestation has resulted in reduced crop yields, erosion, depleted water resources, and increased flooding in many surrounding areas.
In 1964, environmental activist and Gandhian social activist Chandi Prasad Bhatt founded a cooperative organization, Dasholi Gram Swaraj Sangh, to promote small-scale industries for local villagers while utilizing local resources. When industrial logging became associated with severe monsoon floods that killed more than 200 people in the region in 1970, the DGSM became an opposition force against the big industry.
The first Chipko protest took place in April 1973 near the village of Mandal in the upper Alaknanda Valley. Villagers were denied access to a handful of trees to make farm tools and were outraged when the government allocated much more land to sporting goods makers. After their appeal was dismissed, Chandi Prasad Bhatt led the villagers into the forest and clung to the trees to prevent deforestation. After days of these protests, the government revoked the company’s logging permits and granted the quotas originally requested by DGSM.
Following the success in Mandal, the local environmental activist Sunderlal Bahuguna began sharing Chipko’s strategies with people from other villages in the area. One of the next large protests took place near the village of Leni in 1974, resulting in the cutting of more than 2,000 trees. After mass student demonstrations, the government summoned men from surrounding villages to nearby towns to demand compensation, ostensibly to allow loggers to continue their activities without confrontation. However, they met village women led by Gaura Devi who refused to leave the forest and eventually forced the woodcutters to retreat. The actions in Leni prompted the provincial government to set up a commission to investigate logging in the Alaknanda Valley, ultimately leading to a 10-year ban on commercial logging in the area.
Thus, the Chipko movement began to develop as a farmers’ and women’s movement for forest rights, while the various protests were largely decentralized and autonomous. In addition to the typical “hugging a tree,” Chipko protesters used a variety of other techniques based on Mahatma Gandhi’s concept of Satyagraha (nonviolent resistance). For example, Bahuguna famously fasted for two weeks in 1974 to protest against forest policies.
As time passed by, Sunder Lal Bahuguna took the movement to its height. Issues related to forest protection and large dams were discussed in the world media. This pressured Indian lawmakers to scrutinize development projects then.
But slowly over time, the demand for civil society and independent voices were not heeded leading to the construction of the Teri and Sardar Sarovar Dam, etc. The threat of large dams has also been defended in the courts but to no avail.
The main issue of the Chipko movement was the uncontrolled and continuous deforestation in the mountains, which seriously affected the ecosystem. The continuous felling of trees by the timber mafia with the support of government workers can wreak havoc in the coming years. Another issue was the construction of large dams across narrow rivers in the mountain region.
The logic comes from extensive studies of the Dhoula Dhar mountain range, which is already threatened by massive human settlements and the construction of unplanned concrete structures in the form of hotels and commercial hubs.
Recently, the world saw one of the biggest tsunamis in the same Dhoula Dhar hills in the Kedarnath area which claimed thousands of lives. In later years, Mr. Bahuguna continued as our mentor. We also visited Silyara Ashram, a temporary camp on the banks of the river where Mr. Bahuguna camped for years. The Chipko movement gave us an insight into mountain life and its culture.
Mr. Bahuguna practiced the true letter and spirit of Gandhian philosophy throughout his life. As a human worker, he worked for marginalized workers and forced migrants. He suggested strengthening the rural economy to stop migration to cities. The Teri Dam was later built in defiance of the danger theory and displaced thousands of people without creating an alternative source of livelihood. There was much grumbling about the compensation given to them. Now, there is news of continuous landslides and buildings crumbling into dust in Joshimath near Auli in Uttarkashi district and locals are losing sleep. They blame the policy of blind commercialized urbanization.
Mr. Bahuguna – the great environmentalist and whistleblower is no more. He passed away on May 21, 2021, at the time of Covid- 19. But we remember him for the voice he raised to save trees, animals, birds, and of course people, but also valleys, rivers, and mountains. The threat of fissures and landslides knocks at the door as deforestation continues in the guise of development and prosperity