Outside / Inside: The Life and Legacy of Sunderlal Bahuguna and the Chipko Movement in India

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On May 21, 2021, Sunderlal Bahuguna died of COVID-19 at the age of 94. His death did not make the news in any of the mainstream media in the United States. But he got wide coverage in India.

Bahugana was the best-known leader of the Chipko movement in India, an anti-deforestation movement in the Indian Himalayas in the 1970s. Most of the Chipko activists were rural women, poor, mostly illiterate, living on a livelihood. . They faced a powerful government forest service that was increasingly in contact with large private companies and won.

The movement takes its name from an infamous action in which villagers allegedly kissed and shackled trees to prevent loggers from cutting them down.

“So Chipko in Hindi means hug,” said Haritima Bahugana, Sunderlal’s granddaughter.

“They used to hug trees, and they used to say, ‘if you’re going to cut this tree, you’re going to cut me too, because it has the same life as me.'”

The Chipko movement not only sparked greater environmental awareness across India, but also inspired other environmental movements around the world.

The beginnings of the movement

The Chipko movement began in 1973 in Uttarakhand, a rural and mountainous region in northern India. Many men from Uttarakhand left to work in towns and cities, and the women stayed behind, depending on the forests. They collected firewood for heating and cooking, grass to feed their livestock, and wild medicinal herbs.

But as more and more trees were cut down for the manufacture of railway sleepers, furniture, paper, and sports equipment like tennis rackets, local women had to walk further and further to get their shoes. daily necessities.

The tipping point came when the government granted access to a sporting goods company to cut down hundreds of trees, just after rejecting a local cooperative’s request to cut down just ten trees.

The companies sent their loggers to cut the trees, but the villagers faced them in the forests and held on.

While this first confrontation was predominantly male, most of the subsequent confrontations were led by women.

Bahuguna’s life

Bahuguna is well known as the face of the Chipko movement because he was its messenger. He introduced the Chipko movement on foot, including a 4,870 kilometer (3,026 mile) tour in the early 1980s.

“I am simply the messenger of the movement. It’s the ladies who hug the trees. I just went with this message from one village to another, ”he said in an interview for a documentary.

“He was actually instigated by Gandhi who actually told him that if you have a message you cannot [concentrate] in an area and expect it to be larger. So they advised him to travel as much as he could and spread the message, ”Haritima said.

Bahuguna had been influenced by Gandhian principles of civil disobedience since the age of 13, when a disciple of Mahatma Gandhi approached him and his friends in the street, carrying a large box with a charkha, a kind loom or spinning wheel, inside.

This was in 1940, when India was still under British colonial rule and the government had abolished the weaving of clothing by the Indian people.

“And he said, ‘this is the weapon with which we are going to produce our own clothes,” said Haritima.

The meeting inspired the young Bahuguna. After India’s independence, he joined the National Congress in 1948.

As a politician, Bahuguna met a woman named Vimla Behn, a Gandhian social activist dedicated to educating women in the village. Bahuguna and Vimla Behn’s family members arranged for them to marry, but Vimla Behn said she would marry him on one condition: he must leave politics and settle in the hills, where together they would help people.

He accepted. After their marriage in 1956, they moved to a remote village in Uttarakhand, where they created an ashram that was not restricted by caste or gender. Usually an ashram is a spiritual retreat community in Indian religions, but this particular ashram was dedicated to the education of the villagers. Their ashram has become the meeting place for many Gandhian activists to discuss issues such as alcoholism, caste, gender discrimination and, increasingly, deforestation.

In Uttarakhand, much of the forests and grasslands had been replaced by pine plantations, monocultures which contributed to increased soil erosion, flooding, landslides and drought.

Ecological damage like this mostly affects women, according to some environmental experts including Vandana Shiva, a globally recognized anti-GMO activist and founder of the Save the Seed movement, which she says was inspired by the movement. Chipko.

Yet Bahuguna has become the face of the movement.

“Bahuguna has been an effective messenger of women’s concerns. He developed this knowledge about the philosophy of natural forests as survival systems and the struggle of the Chipko as a struggle to conserve them. It is largely by listening to the calm voices of women during his padyatras that Bahuguna has retained the ability to articulate Chipko’s feminine ecological principles, ”Shiva wrote in his book, Staying Alive: Women, Ecology, and Development.

In 1981, the Indian government presented him with one of the highest civilian honors in India, the Padma Shri Prize. But Bahuguna refused it.

“He refused because even then the government did not ban forest deforestation in Uttarakhand. He said to me, “I don’t deserve any honor or reward until what I want is done and what clearly isn’t done.” He therefore refused the prize, ”said Haritima, Bahuguna’s granddaughter.

Less than two months after Bahuguna’s denial of the award, the government finally banned all logging above 1,000 meters in Uttarakhand. UN data shows that during this time India’s forest cover went from a steady decline to a steady increase that continues on an upward trajectory to this day.

Chipko is also at least partially credited with establishing a completely new government agency in 1980 called the Ministry of Environment and Forestry.

In love with music and poetry, her granddaughter recalled that Bahuguna often recited a verse from the Bhagavad Gita.

“It means… do your job, don’t worry about the results,” Haritima said. “He always used to tell me that it’s my job to do my job to the best of my potential … and that whatever I get is not in my hands, it’s is someone else who decides. “

Sunderlal Bahuguna passed away on May 21, 2021. A memorial service was held for him on June 5, which is World Environment Day, a day established by the UN to encourage awareness and action to protect our environment. .

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