1993 Laureate Vandana Shiva, credit: Wichian Longlalerng

Vandana Shiva remembers Chipko Movement leader Sunderlal Bahuguna

Essays 21.05.2021

Remembering Sundarlalji

By 1993 Laureate Vandana Shiva

Sundarlal Bahuguna has been my inspiration for nearly half a century. His inspiration will continue for generations to come.

I first met him at his Ashram in Silyara when I made a commitment to volunteer for the Chipko Movement. I first heard of “Chipko” from a roadside chaiwala near Chamba in Garhwal.

I was born and grew up in the Himalayan forests where my father was a forest officer.

Chamba and the hills between Chamba and Mussoorie had a dense oak forest. Below the forest rest house flew a stream.

In the early 1970’s I was leaving for Canada to do my PhD in the foundations of Quantum theory. Before leaving I wanted to do a small trek, visit a favourite forest in the Himalaya, and take the memory with me.

But the oak forest was gone, and the stream that had its source in it was a trickle.

I felt as if I had physically lost part of me. The forests and streams of the Himalaya had shaped me and made me who I was.

While waiting for a bus to get back to Delhi at a dhaba,  I started talking to the chaiwala about my sadness and pain seeing the forests disappear.

He responded. “Now there is hope. Chipko has started.”

I heard about women stopping logging in Reni and other places. I heard about Sundarlal Bahuguna.

While I had to catch my flight to join my University in Canada, I took a pledge to return, find “Chipko” and volunteer in all my summer and winter vacations.

The first time I came home, we went to the Silyara Ashram which had been started by Sundarlal Bahuguna and Bimla Bahuguna. Since that day in the early 1970s, Sundarlalji has taught our generation that nature’s economy is the real economy which supports all economies, including the market economy.

Every vacation when I came to volunteer with Chipko, first while doing my PhD in Canada, and later while working at Indian Institute of Science and IIM Bangalore, Sundarlal would ask us to undertake padyatras. From the mid-1970s to 1981, under Sundarlal and Bimla Bahuguna’s guidance, we undertook padyatras, documenting the movement, learning from women.

We went to Advani and Badyargad, to Gangi and Phata, and other important locations of Forest Satyagrahas.

Through Chipko, I learnt the practise of Satyagraha, of acting from truth and refusing to obey unjust law or follow unjust policy which was based on violence against nature and people.

Because of his tireless efforts, green felling was stopped in the central Himalaya in 1981.

Sundarlaji was the continuity between our freedom movement and today’s ecology movement.

He was inspired by Sri Dev Suman, worked with Vinoba Bhave and Gandhi’s disciples, Mira Behn and Sarla Behn.

I have been blessed to learn Gandhi’s principles first from my mother and father, and later from Sundarlal and Bimla Bahuguna.

These are the principles that have seeped into my thinking and work.

Sundarlal Bahuguna and Bimla Bahuguna are my teachers in Gandhian philosophy, that ecology is a permanent economy, that simple living in service of others is central to making a shift from egocentric thinking and living to ecocentric thinking and living. Egocentrism leads to greed, consumerism, taking others’ share. Ecocentrism leads to caring, sharing and not taking others’ share.

The three Gandhian principles that I have learnt from Sundarlal and Bimala Bahuguna are

1. Swaraj, Self Rule and Self Organisation,

2. Swadeshi, Self reliance, local economy, and

3. Satyagraha, the force of truth and the obligation to not cooperate with unjust brute law.

Swaraj was  Gandhi’s view of democracy. Swaraj is Sundarlal’s worldview. As he said, “Gandhi’s Swaraj means freedom for each village – freedom to produce, freedom to decide its development.” This means all power, all rights reside with the village.

Satyagraha, a “No” to violence and injustice from the deepest conscience, is rooted in a constructive vision of non-violence, Ahimsa, and compassion.

I have been blessed to participate in the Forest Satyagraha, Chipko, to protect the Himalayan forests from the greed of commercial forestry and monoculture plantations. I was privileged to do the study on Doon Valley Mining for the Ministry of Environment which led to a Satyagraha for the mountains. I have had the honour to support Sundarlal’s Ganga Satyagraha to protect the Ganga from the ravages of Tehri Dam.

The Satyagraha’s for nature that Sundarlal has led have shaped the contemporary ecology movement in India.

His Ashram was destroyed in the 1991 earthquake. But he continued to spread his message of non-violence and love for nature from his tent on the banks of the Ganga while doing his Satyagraha to protect the Ganga from Tehri dam.

Whether it was protecting the integrity of the Himalayan forests of oak and rhododendron in the 1970s through the Chipko movement, spreading Chipko as Appiko in the western Ghats, or defending the integrity of Mother Ganga through his Ganga Satyagraha at the Tehri dam, Sundarlalji was the voice of nature, the voice of the Himalaya, the voice of the Ganga.

His inspiration was not limited to India. He marched to protect the forests in Nairobi.

I remember a journey with him to Mexico in the mid-1980s at the invitation of Ivan Illich and Gustavo Esteva.

Richard Barbe Baker, also known as there as Man of the Tress, wrote of Sundarlal Bahuguna, “As far as I know, in the entire world Sundarlal is the only person who has gone on a fast unto death for trees. Sundarlal is my guru. And the Chipko movement is the leading movement for protecting our forests.” (pg 116 Valdiya)

The Satyagraha for the forest came from a deep love for the forest.

Chipko and Sundarlal Bahuguna received the Alternative Nobel Prize in 1987.  In 2009, he was honoured with the Padma Vibhushan.

In spite of his awards and recognition, Sundarlalji and Bimlaji lived in simplicity and grace.

He came frequently with Bimladi to teach at the Earth University at Navdanya in courses on Gandhi and Globalisation and on Ecology.

And whenever we had the opportunity, we would visit him and Bimladi.

His life embodied the teachings of Gandhi, “The Earth has enough for everyone’s needs but not for a few people’s greed.”

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.

Listening to the mountains and the rivers has become a survival imperative for us in India, and for humanity across the world.

To listen to nature we need to listen to Sundarlal Bahuguna, follow his teachings, and the path he has walked.

Speaking to the future generations Sundarlal asks,

“Politicians have loudspeakers.

But who will speak for the tree that will be cut?

Who will come forward for the dying river?

Who will protect the mountains?

It is now time to hear the voice of the tree being cut, the voice of the river, the scream of the mountain that is sliding.

(pg 116, KS  Valdiya, Himalaya Me Mahatma Gandhi ke Sipahi, Sundarlal Bahuguna, Sasta Sahitya Mandal Prakashan, New Delhi, 2017)

Sundarlal had spoken as the voice of nature. He lived for nature and her protection. His life was a continuous Satyagraha for life and freedom. His legacy shows the way to the future of humanity living with respect for, and in harmony with nature.

The text was published with Vandana Shiva’s permission and is based on her forthcoming Memoir of Sundarlal Bahuguna.

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