HUGGING THE TREES
does the forest bear?
Sunderlal Bahugana is a small, bright-eyed man with a laughing voice. His unassuming exterior conceals a strength and determination which has been a driving force behind Chipko Andolan, the now world-famous tree-hugging movement which started among the Himalayan villages of Uttarkhand in 1973. I caught up with him on one of his rare visits to Delhi and although he was busy he immediately agreed to see me. The next morning at 8 o'clock he welcomed me like an old friend in the room at the Gandhi ashram where he stays when in town.
Sunderlal does not like to be in Delhi. He would far rather be out among the villages where his work is, speaking with the people, educating them and encouraging them, urging them on to fight for the protection of their environment. On this occasion he had come to the nation's capital to lobby politicians as part of his long-running campaign to stop the Indian government building what will be Asia's largest dam across the Bhagirathi-Ganges River at Tehri.
Sunderlal's fight to save the Himalayan environment began in 1973. He was working among his native villages as a Gandhian community worker 'dedicated to the highest good'. One of the major threats to the mountain people was the steady loss of their forests, cut down by commercial logging companies from the plains. This had been going on for a long time. It began when the British, having exhausted their own forests, looked to India to supply their timber needs for building their ships and firing their factories. By the 1850s there was a growing demand for railway sleepers and more and more of the magnificent hardwood forests of the Himalayas were being destroyed.
The people of the mountain valleys had always depended on the forests for their livelihood in one way or another, but they had never simply taken from them - they had preserved the forests for future generations, using only what they needed in a sustainable way. Now all that was changing. The government took over the forests and sold felling rights to timber contractors. Year after year the foothills became more and more denuded. Where trees were replaced after cutting, it was with faster growing and more profitable, but environmentally less desirable, pine trees instead of the Himalayan oak and deodar for which the hills were famous.
By the 1950s it was becoming apparent to many that the deforestation of the hills was having serious environmental consequences. The trees were being treated as a disposable source of instant wealth to feed industry, but they were also an essential protection for the land. Trees captured the moisture of the heavy monsoon rains and released it gradually into the river system, ensuring a steady round-the-year supply of water to the plains. They also held the fragile mountain-sides in place. Without tree-cover, they became disaster areas. Flash floods and landslides became regular occurrences and have been responsible for a growing toll of death and damage throughout the second part of this century. Diminishing forests also meant the drying up of mountain springs, loss of topsoil, fuel, fodder and fertiliser - all essential for village economy.
In 1973 things came to a head and a group of villagers who had formed a self-help action group decided it was time to stand up for their rights. They hit upon the idea of hugging the trees to prevent the axemen from cutting them. "When a leopard attacks a child, the mother takes his onslaughts on her own body," reasoned one of the activists. Thus the Chipko movement was born. The word Chipko literally means 'to hug'. As soon as the village people began to gather to protect the trees they met with success. Time after time they were able to prevent contractors from cutting the trees down.
Sunderlal, passionately dedicated to campaigning for justice for the rural people, soon became the messenger and spokesman of this movement, and began to travel widely throughout the Himalayan villages. His classic method of spreading the word was the padayatra, marching on foot from village to village. In each village he would stay overnight and teach the people the value of their forests and encourage them to join in the Chipko movement. One of the Chipko folk songs recorded the confrontation that had taken place when a forest officer had been sent to persuade villagers to give up their struggle:
The forester asks:
To this the village women reply in chorus:
Here is a confrontation between two conflicting world-views. One sees nature simply as a commodity to be sold on the world market, and the other sees it as something sacred, the 'basis of our life'. Through songs such as these, talks and debates, Sunderlal was able to convince local people that their own villages depended on the survival of the trees. Together with his co-worker, Chandi Prasad Bhatt, he succeeded in creating widespread support for Chipko among the villagers. This in turn lead to pressure being brought on the government to change their forestry policies.
In 1980, after years of campaigning (which included periods of public fasting) Sunderlal forced Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to declare a complete ban on commercial green tree felling in the Himalayas in the state of Uttar Pradesh. By this time he was becoming a well-known figure in India, and this was a major victory for him, but he was not satisfied. His desire was to take his campaign onto the wider stage. In 1981 he undertook an eighteen-month walk along the full length of the Himalayas, a distance of almost 5,000 kilometres. With personal good wishes from Indira Gandhi, he set out to visit villages and study the condition of the forests and valleys from Kashmir to Nagaland, the easternmost state of India, bringing his message to many who had never heard it before.
Sunderlal, now in his sixties, is now famous in India and in the international environmental movement. He writes, gives talks and is regularly invited to visit the west. He still spends time each year walking through his native hills and talking with the villagers. Having brought world attention to the deforestation of the Himalayas, he has now dedicated himself to stopping the construction of the Tehri dam. If this dam is completed it is calculated that it will submerge 11,000 acres of Himalayan valley, including the town of Tehri and 24 villages, displacing over 80,000 people. Of it Sunderlal says, "Such dams are disastrous. They do not serve any purpose. What you achieve is an illusory magnificence after a great deal of destruction. This is practically cheating the people."
Sunderlal is a deeply religious man and his personal life is highly disciplined. He has always been a follower of Gandhi's principles, and was particularly influenced by Mirabehn, one of Gandhi's close disciples, in his youth. His actions are closely modelled on Gandhi's, who said, "My life is my message."
According to Gandhi, society is based on four pillars - Authority, Wealth, Army and Philosophy. "You may be surprised to know how philosophy is a pillar," comments Sunderlal, "But all through human history these three, authority, wealth and army have been supported by philosophy. Everybody has a philosophy. Hitler had a philosophy, Stalin had a philosophy, Napoleon had a philosophy, and their philosophies have been supporting so many things."
Gandhi's first proposal was to replace Authority with Service: rather than demand obedience, governments should serve the people and encourage the people to serve one another. He further said that Philosophy should be replaced by Good Conduct. In other words, religion was meant to instil good behaviour in people - to be a way of life - not just a philosophy. This was why Gandhi said, "My life is my message." Gandhi went on to say that Wealth should be replaced by Austerity, or the power to exercise self-control, which has long been accepted in India as the mark of true wealth. "You may have cows, elephants, diamonds and jewels," goes the Hindi saying, "But once you find inner peace all this wealth will seem like dust." That peace, as taught in the Gita, can be found through self-restraint. Finally, Gandhi concluded, if these other principles are practised there will be no more need for the Army which can then be replaced with Peace.
In accordance with Gandhi's ideas, Sunderlal believes that personal morality and selflessness lie at the heart of any effective attempt to change the world. In his own words:
Sunderlal's work is not simply about the external environment. To change the world he must start with himself. It is from the heart, he says, that change must come.
Finding balance is a theme of Sunderlal's. Our mistake is to see problems in isolation from one another, forgetting that the universe is a single whole, that all problems are interlinked. He explains:
The key to Sunderlal's success, he says, is that he has always concentrated on educating the masses. He has made great use of folk-songs, such as 'The Appeal of a Tree', originally written in Hindi, by folksinger Ghanshyam Sailani, a dedicated Chipko activist:
Travelling on footmarches from village to village, Sunderlal carried songs such as this and told stories about Krishna. "During the campaign against the Theri dam I fasted as a protest," he recalls,
Feeling oneself to be one with nature is the great environmental message of Hindu culture, according to Sunderlal. Hindus see life everywhere, not only in human beings, but in trees, birds, animals and insects - a oneness of life in all creation - and they have a worshipful attitude towards this life. "Some see nature as a commodity," he says, "They see a tree not as a living being, but as timber! But Hindu culture teaches us to worship life."
Another aspect of Hindu culture is its respect for austerity. One who has less is the most respectable person in Hindu society. There are many examples - the sadhu, who lives alone devoted to religion with few possessions; the sannyasi, who has given up his family in order to teach and accept disciples; the brahmin teacher, who depends on charity. "Why is it that hermits were respected in our society while Kings were not?" asks Sunderlal. "Because one whose material needs are less will take less from nature."
Traditional Hindu culture is in sharp contrast with today's materialistic society which Sunderlal sees as having started from the Industrial Revolution. That revolution brought fundamental changes in human thinking. It destroyed the harmonious relationship between nature and humanity by teaching us to see nature as a commodity. It established human beings as the masters of nature, with science and technology as their tools of power to control and exploit, taking more and more for themselves.
Sunderlal sees the problems of the world in profoundly simple terms. He says that our three great enemies are War, Pollution and Hunger and they are all linked together. People have been taught to want more and more, and in order to get it the big powers fight for control over the places where there are resources like timber or minerals. To maintain their spheres of influence, Sunderlal says, the Western countries have created the arms trade. Never in the history of humankind was the sale of arms such a big and profitable industry as it is today. Through it they are able to maintain their living standard. Poor countries have no choice but to export their only resources - cutting down their trees and poisoning their soil with chemical fertilisers to produce cash crops for export. "The best land is all used to earn foreign exchange," he explains, "Whatever land is left is quickly drained of goodness and the water is polluted by manufacturing industries. This means, in a way, soil and water are exported to pay for arms. Soil and water are the two basic resources of humankind - if these are destroyed the people will starve and that is what is happening."
In the face of these problems does Sunderlal feel there is any hope?
Sunderlal Bahugana is one of those few.