Sunderlal Bahuguna: From freedom fighter to Chipko movement leader
New Delhi, Aug 10: Sunderlal Bahuguna, who breathed his last on May 21, was known as the man who taught Indians to hug trees to protect the environment. But very few of them know that the environmentalist not only fought for the environment, but also for human rights.
Born on January 9 in Tehri district, Bahuguna whole life revolved around fighting for the rights of the people who lived in the hilly state. His father Ambadatt Bahuguna served in the forest department in the then Princely State of Tehri Garhwal. This was when the country was fighting for Independence from British rule.
Early on, he fought against untouchability and later started organising hill women in his anti-liquor drive from 1965 to 1970. He started social activities at the age of 13, under the guidance of Dev Suman, who was a nationalist spreading a message of non-violence, and he was with the Congress Party of Uttar Pradesh at the time of Independence.
Bahuguna also mobilised people against colonial rule before 1947. He adopted Gandhian principles in his life and married his wife Vimla with the condition that they would live among rural people and establish ashram in village.
Inspired by Gandhi, he walked through Himalayan forests and hills, covering more than 4,700 kilometres on foot and observed the damage done by mega developmental projects on the fragile ecosystem of the Himalayas and subsequent degradation of social life in villages.
Bahuguna was also considered the pioneer of the Chipko movement of the 1970s which he had launched along with dedicated environment conservationists like Gaura Devi to save forests. In Hindi, chipko literally means 'hugging'.
Started by Bahuguna at the foothills of the Himalayas in 1973 in Uttarakhand, then a part of Uttar Pradesh, the Chipko movement was a forest conservation movement in India. It later became a rallying point for many environmental movements all over the world.
Conferred with the Padmavibhushan and many other honours for his pioneering work in the field of environment protection, Bahuguna also led the protests against the construction of the Tehri dam.
He had observed an 84-day fast and got his head tonsured in protest against the project which displaced a huge population rendering them homeless.
He dug in his heels in protest against the project till the last minute. He had lost his own ancestral home due to the construction of the dam.
He also protested against the erstwhile Tehri royals which landed him in jail. He was also one of the most vocal critics of luxury tourism in the Himalayas and the construction of hotels which according to him did irreparable harm to the fragile Himalayan ecology.
He undertook several 'padyatras' to create awareness among people about conserving the Himalayan ecology and environment. He was a big critic of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
While best known as an environmental activist and as a passionate defender of the Himalayan people and India's rivers, Bahuguna also worked to improve the plight of the hill people, especially working women, and was associated with temperance movements and earlier on with struggles against casteist discrimination.