RIP Sundarlal Bahugunaji, Sentinel of the Slopes

The story of the Chipko Movement was one of the examples that was held up to the youth of the ‘70s and ‘80s, to inspire them towards caring for the environment, and to urge them towards peaceful activism.

Deeply rooted in the Gandhian philosophy and the Sarvodaya movement, Sundarlal Bahugunaji and Chandiprasad Bhatji were at the forefront of this, one of the first people’s movements in the country which saw the connection between the degradation of the environment and the well-being and livelihoods of people.

For decades, Bahugunaji had been working in the Tehri Garwhal area of what would become the state of Uttarakhand, organzing people along Sarovdaya lines, addressing issues of livelihoods, women empowerment and ecological protection.

These years of work prepared the ground for what would become the Chipko Movement.

The story begins in the monsoon of 1970. The Alaknanda, along with other Himalayan rivers was in flood and swept down the valley, leaving behind a wake of destruction. The people in the area could clearly see that the extent of the havoc was linked to the destruction of the thick forests that had once covered the mountain-sides. For many years now, trees were being cut by contractors, and the wood taken away to the cities. This left the slopes exposed, unstable and vulnerable to floods like this. Not only that, while the contractors were allowed to cut wood, the communities who had lived in and around the forest for generations and depended on them for food, fuel, medicine, timber  and other forest produce, were denied these. The forests were originally of oak, and the people knew these trees and used them in a number of ways. But now, contactors were not only destroying the oak forests, but they were also replacing them with chir pine which was not suited to the area, nor useful to the people, but whose wood was prized commercially. All this led to an increasing sense of frustration in the people.

The spark was lit on a March morning in 1973. A group of people from a sports-goods factory in Allahabad reached Gopeshwar village in Chamoli District. They had come to cut ash trees for the manufacture of cricket bats.

The villagers were in no mood to let these people cut their trees. They requested the axemen to go back, but they were under orders to cut the trees, and so refused. The villagers spontaneously decided that they were not going to let a single tree be touched even at the cost of their own lives, and rushed forward shouting ‘Chipko, chipko’ (roughly, ‘hug the trees’). They clung to the trees. The axemen, not knowing what to do, returned without cutting a single tree.

It was a battle won, but the war continued. Two months later, the contractors got permission from the local forest officer to cut the trees in a forest near the village of Rampur Phata, about 60 km away.

News of this reached Gopeshwar. The people were incensed. The entire village—men, women, old and young—set off in a procession to Phata. They carried drums and trumpets and banners with messages like ‘Chop me, not the tree’. The marched to Phata, singing and shouting slogans. People from other villages along the way joined them, and ‘Chipko’ was on everyone’s lips.

The huge procession reached Phata. The axemen were once again forced to flee by a peaceful crowd ready to give up their lives for the tree.

Confidence grew in the communities that they could protect their forests and environment.

But the contractors were worried. They were plotting and planning. Once, when they knew that the menfolk of Reni village would be away, they sent their men to the forests there. But the news of this reached the village, and a procession of women and children led by the fearless Gaura Devi walked towards the forests. At first the contractor’s men were not worried, as they thought here was not much the women could do. But they were wrong! Gaura Devi made it very clear that they would hug the trees and not let them touch a single one. ‘Shoot us first. Shoot us, only then can you cut this forest which is like a mother to us.’

Once again the axemen had to return empty-handed.

Not only did the women make the tree-cutters exit this once. They saw that the men had to cross a path to reach the forests. But this path on the steep mountain route had caved in during a landslide. A cement slab had been placed across it to allow people to cross from one side to the other. This was the only access to the forest. The women had a brainwave. With a strong stick and their combined strength, they managed to push the slab into the deep gorge below. The path could no longer be crossed!

And so the Chipko movement took root, impacting not only that area, but the environmental consciousness of the country and the world.

And this is the legacy left to us by Sundarlal Bahugunaji. The troubling question is whether we are living up to it.

–Meena

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