In early 1974, the state government announced the auction of 2,500 trees overlooking the Alaknanda river in the upper reaches of what is now Uttarakhand. Loggers arrived in Raini village to cut the trees. A local girl saw them and informed the villagers. Women in large groups came out and stopped the loggers by hugging the trees. Three local women, Gaura Devi, Sudesha Devi and Bachni Devi, championed the cause. Through the night and the days that followed, they refused to leave the trees.
That marked the beginning of the Chipko (to hug) movement. It was actually the brainchild of a Gandhian activist named Vimla Bahuguna.
On Friday, her husband and fellow Gandhian Sunderlal Bahuguna—they married with the clear understanding that they would live in the village in an ashram—who took the Chipko movement to the world and lived a life of austerity, died in Rishikesh on Friday from covid-19. He was 94.
Bahuguna transformed the spontaneous movement into a turning point in India’s forest conservation efforts by taking it to different parts of Uttarakhand, forcing the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, to impose a 15-year ban on tree-cutting in the state.
He was admitted to All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Rishikesh on 8 May after testing positive for covid-19.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Uttarakhand chief minister Tirath Singh Rawat and several environmental activists expressed condolences. “He manifested our centuries-old ethos of living in harmony with nature. His simplicity and spirit of compassion will never be forgotten,” Modi said.
Bahuguna was born in Tehri in 1927; by his teens, he was a social activist. Then, inspired by Mohandas Gandhi, he was a nationalist and freedom fighter. He was a tireless protector of the hills, walking thousands of kilometres through them. But it was the Chipko movement that brought him to national attention.
The root cause of the movement was reckless cutting of trees in 1970s in the upper reaches of Uttarakhand by timber merchants. From Raini village, the movement spread to other villages as women hugged trees to protect them. Bahuguna gave a national voice to the movement.
Bahuguna, with other activists such as Shekhar Pathak and Chandi Prasad Bhatt, started a statewide campaign to protect the forests and people’s livelihood.
“He was able to give direction and words to people’s sentiments in the hills. He understood their pain. Nobody could match his dedication to the Himalayas,” Pathak said.
Rajendra Singh, water conservationist and founder of Tarun Bharat Sangh, said Bahuguna took the Chipko movement, started by Gaura Devi and other women, from Raini village to the world.
Bahuguna also opposed the construction of the Tehri dam by fasting for 75 days and was able to convince the authorities to reduce the dam height to reduce the submergence area, thereby saving hundreds of trees. He broke his fast at the insistence of the then PM, H.D. Deve Gowda. The veteran environmentalist was also active in filing public interest litigations for protecting forests in the Himalayan region at the Uttarakhand high court, Supreme Court and National Green Tribunal.
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