Chipko Andolan: more relevant today!

The octogenarian tree-lover Sunderlal Bahuguna is quite worried about degradation of our environment and cutting of trees. The lanky, frail looking bearded man now in his mid 90’s, Bahuguna is credited with launching India’s first non-violent agitation to save agitation to save environment. Urban Update interviews the environmentalist in Dehradun.

When this summer’s onset rang shrill alarm bells across the country with unprecedented rise in temperatures in the third week of March itself  (upwards of 42 degrees Celsius ) and some deaths reported in Maharashtra due to heat wave, I was instantly reminded of my recent meeting with the world famous environmentalist and Gandhian philosopher Sunderlal Bahuguna in Dehradun. The octogenarian tree lover was quite worried about degradation of our environment and cutting of trees.

That the rising temperatures have, among other reasons, a direct connect with consistent loss of tree cover, with government appearing to be one of the biggest fellers is a long story! What is shocking is more and more full grown trees per day are being cut in cities and jungles. The rate is frightening.

The lanky, frail looking bearded man now in his mid 90s, Bahuguna is credited with launching India’s first non-violent agitation to save environment. To be more precise, saving the trees! He is as erect as he was in 1974, but walks very slowly and speaks even lowly. Yet, he has not given up hopes completely though he is sad to see what is going around today. He says sooner than later India will have to understand the real import of ‘ChipkoAndolan’.

I had gone to interview him for my ongoing environment series ‘Astitava’ on the Lok Sabha TV, with some skepticism, given his health condition and memory. But I was not only surprised to meet him at the appointed time, was also able to speak at length with him about his historical  movement aimed at protection and conservation of trees and forests from being destroyed in the hills of what is now Uttarakhand. He stood up against those powerful men who were out to damage the ecological balance for their own greed 43 years ago. Much water has flown form all Himalayan rivers since then.

Chipko agitation by Bahuguna and Chandi Prasad Bhat and many rural women (like GauraDevi ) in the Chamoli district was the harbinger of many environment movements that began in India much later and the legislations introduced to save environment. But there is nothing like Chipko.  “I am of the firm opinion that forests and trees are sacred and part of India’s great culture…by cutting them, we not only damage the environment but also finish our centuries old culture” Bahugunaji had stated while talking to me. He went down memory lane recounting the valour of ordinary women who had embraced and hugged trees for hours together over a few months to draw national and international attention towards illicit and rampant felling in the Himalayas. He also recalled that the first rebellion in that poor and backward area took place forty years before Chipko,sometime in 1930 against crass commercialisation of forests.

Timber contractors would finish forest after forest within no time. In one incident, as recalled by Bahugunaji, people tried to stop the tree fellers in an organised revolt, but the army was let loose on the armless peasants and labourers. As many as 17 people were shot dead and 80 people arrested by the army which was sent by the then ruler to suppress the first of its kind movement for tree protection in British-ruled India. That was probably Chipko’s inspiration.

About Chipko he said, with a visible sparkle in his eyes, the word spread across the world quickly and many environment loving people from Germany, USA, England, Netherlands, France and Sweden started to visit India and went to the Chipko area in the remote parts of the hills in 70s and 80s. There was one fellow Richard St Barbe Baker called ‘the Man of Trees’ who was going around the world preaching for the protection and planting of trees. According to Sunderlal Bahuguna, he came to India in 1977 and when he heard about Chipko, Baker met him in Delhi and then went up there to talk to tree agitators and wrote about the agitation to spread the information to as many as 108 countries of the world then.

While today’s generation may possibly know just about Rio, Paris, Copenhagen or Marrakesh conferences for climate change and environment protection, Bahuguna fondly tells me about his bold and unique move to seek world’s attention at the World Energy Conference, Nairobi in 1981. Pyjama-kurta clad Bahuguna carried a big bundle of firewood on his back into the summit hall to show to the world what the real problem in India was. Poverty and backwardness werethe bane of lakhs of people living in forested areas. This unusual gesture took the suited and booted delegates from the West at the summit by complete surprise. Bahuguna’s purpose was served well. He was happy his message reached across the world.

But 36 years down the incident of 1981, Bahuguna is a saddened man today. He says “forests in India are shrinking fast but there is no trace of a Chipko-like Andolan now. Tropical forest is under grave danger and in the name of development, lakhs and lakhs of trees are being removed to make roads, rail tracks, Metros in cities and factories and what not “. I remember distinctly Bahugunaji was telling this author at this ripe age and in a very low tone sitting in the balcony of his daughter’s modest home in December 2016 about the peepul tree’s benefits. The tree, with a canopy of about 160 sq meters can give 1712 kg of oxygen in an hour and absorb 2252 kg of carbon dioxide, he informed me.  No surprise then that peepul tree has found so much importance in our ancient scriptures and that it used to be planted in a large number since time immemorial. But no longer! Is that rare traditional knowledge of no use today? Do we want to junk time-tested successful methods? If the way new and little known tree species are being planted in cities on main roads, near airports, in big official buildings is any indicator, clearly we have not learnt right lessons from our forefathers. We seem to want ornamental greenery rather than useful trees that would purify atmosphere, which is more polluted than ever before.

Chipko and GDP race

Is Chipko relevant any longer when India is madly chasing higher GDP growth? Something the poor and illiterate women and men did four decades ago when Rio had not happened, Paris Climate conference was nowhere even in the distant future, is not being mentioned much in the media. Bahuguna is strangely absent in the modern environment philosophy, though to me he is still very relevant. His thoughts are practical and can be a guiding force. He continues to be our environment hero. We can brush aside his thoughts and actions only at our own peril.

With the cacophony of development debates deafening  our ears and words like GDP rise, black money, Sensex, consumerism , urbanisation, smart cities, demonetisation, metro trains, malls and cricket matches in day and night at large stadia or crowd-pulling multiplexes dominating the present-day narratives, poor trees are clearly lost in the din. Are there no takers?  Have we gone mad not to understand importance of trees and jungles? After meeting Bahugunaji, I felt that what he did several decades ago must be refreshed for the benefit of society. Bahuguna’s struggle hasnot yet ended. It requires to be intensified by all. His worries were for the common man.

In the 70s, India was not a global power to reckon with. It was a small developing country which depended on imports of food grains to automobile parts. Europe and America were industrial giants scripting world’s economic roadmap. We had no global voice or standing. Yet Bahuguna was a towering man known in many continents.

Today, the scenario has completely changed and though India is still a developing country, sheer quantum of our 125 crore population has tilted the scales in our favour. Asia as a continent is emerging powerful. We are being seen as a big potential market by world’s suppliers. Simultaneously, domestic growth is impacting environment directly and dangerously. Saving our ecosystems appears a humongous challenge in the face of rapid economic growth. Everyone looks to be thinking in terms of material growth with immediate benefits and not long term advantages.

When Chipko was launched in faraway northern India and it reverberated in the world that had not invented internet yet, India did not have Forest Conservation Act (it came in 1980), Environmental Protection Act was way too long to be legislated (it came in 1986  in the aftermath of Bhopal Gas Tragedy of 1984) and forest policy had not been formulated (it was framed in 1988). But there were people whose voice was being heard. Yes Bahuguna was being heard. Not any longer-strange, saddening but true.

As the human needs grew steadily and population pressures impacted our overall biodiversity, a set of relevant laws were born in India. Government had no choice but to enact them. But are they effective enough? Are they helping humanity?

Bahuguna being a visionary, knew what was coming and hence led the Chipko agitation in 1974 and carried his anti-Tehri dam crusade fiercely for many years later when problems had not turned that serious, compared to the present day. His 40-day long fast to save rivers Bhagirathi and Bhilangana had shaken the government in Delhi then. Is it possible now? Look at poor MedhaPatkar who almost lost her war over Narmada after waging it for 30 long years. Her Narmada BachaoAndolan faded faster than other similar movements from public memory.

But as a country which is fast turning into an urban conglomerate, India is not willing to realise what a tree gives us to live happily–a 50-year old tree, for example, provides services like oxygen, water recycling, soil conservation and pollution control worth Rs 20-23 lakh, as per green economy experts. But if it’s cut down and sold it would fetch a one-time meagre Rs 50,000 or so.  If one tree can provide so much, what the forests would do for us can easily be gauged. If there are no forests, our rivers would run dry and without water no development worth its name can sustain. Trees in city contain heat and pollution. Economists and urban experts would do well perhaps to calculate the cost benefit ratio between physical infrastructure development and crucial ecosystem services. A way out has to be found.

Bahuguna in his long interaction with me did not use any idiom which is coined by the new environmentocracy. He did not talk about SDGs, he did not tell me about climate change indicators, he was blissfully unaware about any smart city. But he perfectly knew what trees and environment, rivers and birds can do to make human life better and sustainable.

(The author is an environment journalist and can be contacted at  @abhikhandekar1 is his Twitter handle)

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