To the credit of the Government of India and the State Government of Uttarakhand, they have been prompt and generous in their homage to the great environmentalist Sunderlal Bahuguna who passed away recently. However, will they also honor his vision for the Himalayan region for which he devoted his life? His vision was based on his interactions with thousands of Himalayan villagers all his life and dozens of long foot marches in interior and remote areas.
After achieving great success in the Chipko movement and although weakened much by his long fast for protecting forests, he did not rest on his laurels and immediately plunged into his most high-risk undertaking of Kashmir to Kohima foot march. This foot march covered not just a vast part of the Himalayan region in India but also parts of Nepal and Bhutan.
It was in the course of this march that he could get a confirmation again and again that the problems which had most engaged his attention in Uttarakhand have a much larger relevance for the entire Himalayan region as a whole.
His concerns were not confined just to Himalayan region. He was invited by environmentalists in other ecologically very important hill areas like the Western Ghats and the Aravalis and he was also committed to their protection. He was also invited to visit some areas outside India and his sage advice was well received at international gatherings. His vision of a future rooted in protection of environment , with special emphasis on protection of mountains and rivers which got linked very closely to his own life and that of his wife Vimla, has a larger relevance for the entire country and the entire world. This is evident also from his sympathy and support for numerous other movements along similar lines like the famous Narmada Movement and the Appiko Movement.
Before coming more specifically to the vision of Sunderlal Bahuguna, or more appropriately the shared vision of Vimla Ji and Sunderlal Ji, it may be mentioned at the outset that the wider reference point of their vision is the life and vision of Mahatma Gandhi. Both of them were equally firm in their commitment to Mahatma Gandhi and saw their aim in life as the realization of the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi in the context of the challenges that existed in contemporary life, more specifically in the context of the Himalayan region. In fact they can be regarded as two of the most sincere, hard-working and creative disciples of the Mahatma in the post-independence period, as is best revealed in their life and work. Vimla Ji is now very weak and frail in body but not in spirit and I am sure that she will continue to spread this vision in the days to come within the limits of her health conditions.
A very important part of their vision is that there is no real conflict between economic and ecological objectives, if understood properly. The economic objectives of an individual or a nation should be based on ethical factors of simplicity ,equality and sustainability. Need and never greed should be the basis of economic life. Hence simplicity and frugality or the voluntary, happy limitation of one’s needs is an essential part of a socially responsible life. Ecology is the economics of permanence, or in other words secure and durable livelihoods are best achieved if these are rooted in protection of environment.
The ashram life which Vimla and Sunderlal lived was based on simplicity which they encouraged among all activists. As they saw the situation around them and discussed with villagers, the protection of forests and rivers appeared to be of the greatest urgency and this engaged their greatest attention. They struggled during the most active years of their life to protect forests and to resist the construction of high-risk dams on Himalayan rivers, particularly the most dangerous Tehri Dam Project.
While they opposed commercial felling of trees and dam-construction, their alternative vision for Himalayan regon placed great emphasis on protection of the remaining forests and trees , regeneration of degraded forests with the involvement of people and ( by and large) on free-flowing rivers. Sustainable livelihoods were to be created around this understanding, with emphasis on sustainable utilization of non-timber produce of forests, natural farming, protection of biodiversity and traditional seeds, the concept of khadi , better opportunities for youth within the villages for livelihoods based on improving villages instead of being forced to migrate.
In the social sphere while some aspects of good traditions like people working together for common good are welcome and should be protected, at the same time the harmful aspects of traditional life like the practice of untouchability should be firmly opposed. Sunderlal asserted dalit rights and had no hesitation in getting beaten up in the effort. He held land rights of dalits and the landless to be important and participated in the Bhoodan movement. Social reform is essential and opposition to alcoholism and domestic violence is an important part of this. The two are related. Harmony and unity of people of all faiths is very important. One of the most beautiful learnings I remember from my days in their ashram is the all-religion prayer which we all sang before eating our dinner.
When we compare this vision with what is happening in today’s India dominated by glaring pushing ahead of narrow commercial interests of powerful forces and repeated pushing aside of crucial ecological concerns for this, we begin to have serious doubts about whether the vision of Sunderlal Ji will be respected by the authorities, whether in the context of the Himalayan region or in the wider national context. Similarly there are huge and increasing doubts whether his commitments to inter-faith harmony and giving more attention to the concerns of the poorest people are likely to be honored by those who dominate today. Nevertheless those who believe in these values should continue to strive for them despite all the hurdles and problems. This would be their best homage also to the great Sunderlal Bahuguna.
Bharat Dogra is a journalist and author who was close to Sunderlal Bahuguna. His recent books include Man Over Machine ( Gandhian ideas for our times ) and Vimla and Sunderlal Bahuguna—Chipko Movement and the Struggle Against Tehri Dam Project.