Sunderlal Bahuguna: A Himalayan voice for ecological truth and social justice
“With roots in India’s freedom struggle against British colonial rule, Sunderlalji was drawn to social work early on. Gandhi and Gandhians like Miraben, Thakkar Bapa, and Vinoba Bhave, as also his wife Vimlaji, inspired him to dive headlong into issues of justice. Parts of his life not so well known include his struggle against untouchability, setting up schools and hostels for the most marginalised children. Extensive traveling through the hills also brought home to him the devastation arising from large-scale commercial tree-felling and road construction. In the Chamoli area, women had begun taking this up as a livelihoods-environment issue, starting the Chipko movement in the early 1970s; Sunderlalji gave it his own flavour by stressing, in one of those characteristic Gandhian one-liners, “ecology is permanent economy”.
… One of Sunderlalji’s most famous actions was the incredible 4,800-km long Kashmir to Kohima padayatra (foot march) in the early 1980s. These and many others were meant to create awareness about the huge issues the Himalaya faced. I recall with astonishment the weight of the pitthu (in Sunderlalji’s Garhwali pronunciation, “rooksack”) that he took on all his walks. It must have been at least 30 kilos, containing heaps of Chipko literature and even a slide projector!
Another famous action was his 56-day fast against the Tehri Dam, one of those monstrosities that only a hubris-filled, greedy, insane government could dream up. I remember meeting him somewhere around the 20th day, in his tiny tent just above the construction site of the dam. He was weak, but the voice and will were strong. Unfortunately, the combined might of the state and central government and construction company defeated the anti-Tehri Dam movement. Dozens of wonderfully productive and beautiful valleys and hills and settlements and agricultural lands and forests are now drowned out forever.
… Sunderlalji’s life was lived in simplicity — his clothes, mannerisms, sparse food, words, infectious smile and laughter. And so today I will celebrate it with having an extra handful of one of the foods he delighted in because it came without having to be violent to any life form — nuts.”