Sunderlal Bahuguna, a leader of the Chipko Movement. Credit: Ulrike Altekruse/Right Livelihood Foundation.

Chipko Movement leader Sunderlal Bahuguna dies at 94

News 21.05.2021

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.

“Sunderlal Bahuguna carried the Chipko Movement’s message of environmental protection and non-violent resistance to India’s national stage,” said Ole von Uexkull, Executive Director of the Right Livelihood Foundation.

“Bahuguna’s activism was rooted in empowering others to act using peaceful means, helping the Chipko Movement spread around India and beyond. Bahuguna amplified the voices of many, leading the Indian government to act to protect forests and the livelihoods of rural communities. His dedication and philosophy of non-violence will be carried on by several generations to come.”

Fellow Right Livelihood Laureate Vandana Shiva has cited Bahuguna as a major influence for her activism.

“Through his life, his teachings, his courageous activism, his creative ideas, he taught me that to protect nature, we need to listen to her and to love her,” Shiva said.

The Chipko Movement started as a way for rural communities to take back control from the government over the use of forests. Inspired by Gandhian methods, the first non-violent demonstration took place spontaneously in the Himalayan region in 1973. The demonstrators hugged trees to save them from being cut down, giving the movement the name “chipko,” which is Hindi for “to embrace” or “to hug.” Soon, demonstrations began to spread all over India.

While the Chipko Movement had been largely decentralised, some leaders have emerged who amplified and carried the message forward on the national and global stage. Bahuguna was one of the most prominent of them. Born on January 9, 1927, Bahuguna was a Gandhian activist and philosopher.

Bahuguna, who had originally been planning to go into politics, was inspired by his wife Vimla to become an activist in remote rural areas. He started by challenging the caste system. In the 1960s, he walked across many areas to spread knowledge around the evils of the caste system, and during these walks, he became aware of the environmental problems from deforestation in the Himalayas.  In 1972, he began to mobilise for a non-violent protest against the massive felling of trees, laying the foundation for the Chipko Movement. In 1973 and 1975, he went on long foot marches in Uttarakhand.

His 5,000-kilometre trans-Himalayan foot march from 1981-1983 from Kashmir to Kohima was crucial to spreading the Chipko message. Bahuguna was also instrumental in Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s decision to enact the 1980 green-felling ban.

In the late 1980s, Bahuguna joined a campaign opposing the proposed construction of a Himalayan dam on the river near his birthplace of Tehri. In 1989, he began the first of a series of hunger strikes to draw political attention to the dangers posed by the dam, and in due course, the Chipko Movement gave birth to the Save Himalaya Movement.

Bahuguna went on a 45-day hunger strike in 1995, which he ended only when the Indian government promised to review the Tehri dam project. However, the promise was not kept, and the following year, Bahuguna committed himself to another hunger strike. This time, he broke the fast after 74 days when the prime minister made a personal promise to conduct a thorough review, largely on Bahuguna’s terms.

The veteran environmental campaigner, who was 70 at the time, also warned that the Himalayan glaciers were receding at an alarming rate. If this was not checked, the glacier feeding the Ganges would disappear within 100 years, he said.

In the new millennium, Bahuguna continued to warn about water scarcity and campaign for the protection of the forests, and just recently, he expressed his support for the farmers’ protests in India.

The Chipko Movement received the Right Livelihood Award “for its dedication to the conservation, restoration and ecologically-sound use of India’s natural resources.”

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