Sunderlal Bahuguna (left) with his wife Bimla (right) (Photo Courtesy: Navdanya)
| 5 min read

On Sunderlal Bahuguna’s 89th Birthday, Recounting Chipko’s Origins

On Sunderlal Bahuguna’s 89th birthday, this is a tribute to his service of nearly a century to protect India’s Aranya Sanskriti.

My ecological journey began in the forests of the Himalaya.

My father was a forest conservator, and my mother became a farmer after fleeing the tragic partition of India and Pakistan. It is from the Himalayan forests that I learned most of what I know about ecology. The folk songs and poems our mother composed for us were stories about trees and forests.

My involvement with the contemporary ecological movement began with Chipko, a non-violent response to the large-scale deforestation. Chipko means to hug, to embrace.

Word about the Chipko movement was spread through songs written by the folk poet Ghansyam Raturi, also known as Ghanshyam Shailani. Women declared that they would hug the trees, so the loggers would have to kill them first, if they wanted to cut trees.

The folk songs of that period spoke of nature and its beauty:

These beautiful oaks and rhododendrons,
They give us cool water
Don’t cut these trees
We have to keep them alive.

A tribute to Sunderlal Bahuguna’s service of nearly a century to protect India’s Aranya Sanskriti. (Photo Courtesy: Navdanya)
A tribute to Sunderlal Bahuguna’s service of nearly a century to protect India’s Aranya Sanskriti. (Photo Courtesy: Navdanya)

A Vow to the Environment

In 1973, I had gone to visit my favourite forests and swim in my favorite stream before leaving for Canada to pursue a PhD. But the forests were gone, and the stream was reduced to a trickle.

It is then that I decided to become a volunteer for the Chipko movement, and I spent every vacation on padyatras with Sunderlalji and his Gandhian colleagues spreading the message of Chipko.

I met Sunderlal ji in the early 1970s, who knew my parents well. Visiting the Silyara Ashram, he and Bimla di had become a part of my years of volunteering for Chipko.

Bimla di married Sunderlalji on the condition that they would move to a village and dedicate their lives serving the village community.

In order to make good on his promise to his wife, Sunderlal ji set up the Silyara Ashram when he got married to Bimla di. The ashram an epitome of Gandhian simplicity. We collected water from the nearby stream and joined Bimla di in the kitchen for simple meals .

The brilliance of Sunderlal ji lay in how he communicated about his life in the village at the national and international level. He was a journalist by profession after all, and wrote columns for many papers. When he was not busy with his padyatras, he was writing. His writings on Chipko are unforgettable.

Bimla di married Sunderlalji on the condition that they would move to a village and dedicate their lives to serving the village community. (Photo Courtesy: Navdanya)
Bimla di married Sunderlalji on the condition that they would move to a village and dedicate their lives to serving the village community. (Photo Courtesy: Navdanya)

‘We Have Come to Teach You Forestry’

One of most the dramatic moments of the Chipko movement took place in the Himalayan town of Adwani in 1977, when a local resident Bachni Devi, led a resistance against her own husband, who had obtained a contract to clear the forest. When the forest officials arrived, the women held up lit lanterns in broad daylight. When the forester demanded an explanation, the women replied saying, “We have come to teach you forestry.” He retorted mockingly, “You foolish women, how can you prevent the felling of trees by those who actually know the value of the forest? Do you know what forests bear? They produce profit, resin and timber.”

The women sang back in chorus:

What do the forests bear?
Soil, water, and pure air
Soil, water, and pure air
Sustain the earth and all she bears.

Sunderlal ji was arrested many times over. I remember the Badyargad Satyagraha where his hut was burnt down and he was arrested for protecting the forests. Bimladevi stepped in to support the hundreds of women who participated in the satyagraha.

The beautiful loving relationship between Sunderlal ji and Bimla di contributed greatly to the cause.

The  relationship between Sundarlal ji and Bimla di has been the reason for the effectiveness of their cause. (Photo: Navdanya)
The relationship between Sundarlal ji and Bimla di has been the reason for the effectiveness of their cause. (Photo: Navdanya)

Women Knew the Real Value of Forests

The women of Chipko understood the ecological functions and services of the natural forests. In the 1970s, women peasants from our region in the Garhwal Himalaya came out in defence of the forests. All the logging had led to natural disasters like landslides and floods, and a scarcity of water, fodder and fuel. Since the women arranged for their basic needs from the forests, the scarcity meant longer walks to collect water and firewood, and a heavier burden.

Women knew that the real value of forests was not the timber from a dead tree, but the springs and streams, food for their cattle, and fuel for their hearth.

By 1981, after severe landslides and flooding of the Ganges, the government finally woke up to the message of Chipko – that protecting river catchments was a primary necessity in the Himalayan belt. Logging was banned above 1,000 metres, and the forests of Garhwal are today managed as Consevation Forests, instead of Commercial Forests.

Sundarlal ji still comes to the Navdanya Earth University to teach courses on Gandhi and non-violence. (Photo: Navdanya)
Sundarlal ji still comes to the Navdanya Earth University to teach courses on Gandhi and non-violence. (Photo: Navdanya)

Plantations Are Not Forests

Plantations are not substitutes for forests because they are monocultures of industrial raw materials and do not perform the same ecological functions. Plantations of pine and eucalyptus in fact damage ecosystems, as a 1982 study on the Ecological Audit of Eucalyptus Monocultures pointed out.

The fact that forests and plantations are not ecologically equivalent to each other, has been forgotten despite the vital lessons of Chipko.

According to a Forest Survey report, since 2013, around 2,511 sq km of very dense and mid-dense forests have been completely wiped out, and become non-forest areas.

The addition of 3,775 sq km as plantations cannot repair the ecological damage of loss of natural forests.

Before it is too late, we need to wake up to the warnings of Chipko and Sunderlal Bahuguna to protect our forests and our Aranya Sanskriti.