By George James
May 21, 2021
The passing of the renowned environmentalist, Sri Sunderlal Bahuguna, on May 21, 2021, at the All India Institute of Medical Science (AIIMS) in Rishikesh represents a colossal loss for the people of the Himalayas, for India, and for the world. Bahuguna’s advocacy for the natural environment and for harmony with nature will be remembered and valued. Born in 1927, Bahuguna joined India’s freedom struggle at the tender age of 13 and was imprisoned at age 17. After his release, and after independence, he became involved in Gandhi’s constructive program for the villages of the Himalayas. This involved him in the struggle for the preservation of the forests. His engagement with environmental issues became visible in his leadership role in the famous Chipko Movement in the 70’s. Chipko, meaning “hug,” was a grassroots environmental movement committed to saving the forests from contract felling by hugging the trees to shield them from the axe. Bahuguna underlined the principles of this movement with foot marches, fasts, and discourses on the cultural, environmental, and religious significance of the forests. He maintained that his ecological vision of a harmonious relationship with nature is rooted in the soil of Indian religions. In 1981, accompanied by a small group of colleagues, Bahuguna undertook a foot march from Srinagar in Kashmir to Kohima in Nagaland, a journey of 4870 Km, raising awareness of the exploitation to which the forests and the lives of the mountain people were exposed. The success of the Chipko movement has engendered movements of a similar nature in the south of India, in Sri Lanka, and elsewhere, and resulted, in India in 1981, in a 15 year moratorium on the cutting of trees for commercial purposes above the elevation of 1,000 meters.
While Sunderlal Bahuguna is practically a household name in India, he is known chiefly for his activism. The philosophy behind his activism integrates insights from contemporary ecology with the spiritual traditions of India and the non-violence of Gandhi. The question of the relevance of India’s environmentalism to that of western countries remains a contested issue in the emerging field of environmental philosophy. Some western scholars have tried to infer the nature of an Indian environmental ethic from their exploration of ancient Indian religious texts. Others have argued that the use of such texts is selective and misleading. Bahuguna’s activism and advocacy demonstrates the significance of the people’s perception of nature and their devotion to the forests they depend upon for their collective life.
See Also — Right Livelihood mourns the passing of Indian environmental activist Sunderlal Bahuguna. As a prominent leader of the Chipko Movement, which received the Right Livelihood Award in 1987, Bahuguna had a tremendous impact on India’s environmental policies, including the preservation of forests and other natural resources in the Himalayan region. Bahuguna died on Friday, May 21, 2021, at the age of 94 from complications of Covid-19.
“We are doing violence towards the earth, towards nature. We have become butchers of nature,” Sunderlal Bahuguna once told an interviewer.
Bahuguna, who died with Covid-19 on Thursday aged 94, was known the world over as the man who taught Indians to hug trees to protect the environment. He was one of the main leaders of the Chipko movement in northern India in the 1970s. In Hindi, chipko literally means “hugging”.
Heeding calls by Bahuguna and fellow activist Chandi Prasad Bhatt, men and women in the Indian Himalayas embraced and chained themselves to trees to stop loggers from cutting them down. It was a powerful symbol that conveyed, ‘Our bodies before our trees’.
It also became a movement that brought to the world’s attention the devastation wrought by the environmental crisis in the world’s highest mountains.