Obituary: Sunderlal Bahuguna

By George James
May 21, 2021

The passing of the renowned environmentalist, Sri Sunderlal Bahuguna, on May 21, 2021, at the All India Institute of Medical Science (AIIMS) in Rishikesh represents a colossal loss for the people of the Himalayas, for India, and for the world. Bahuguna’s advocacy for the natural environment and for harmony with nature will be remembered and valued. Born in 1927, Bahuguna joined India’s freedom struggle at the tender age of 13 and was imprisoned at age 17. After his release, and after independence, he became involved in Gandhi’s constructive program for the villages of the Himalayas. This involved him in the struggle for the preservation of the forests. His engagement with environmental issues became visible in his leadership role in the famous Chipko Movement in the 70’s. Chipko, meaning “hug,” was a grassroots environmental movement committed to saving the forests from contract felling by hugging the trees to shield them from the axe. Bahuguna underlined the principles of this movement with foot marches, fasts, and discourses on the cultural, environmental, and religious significance of the forests. He maintained that his ecological vision of a harmonious relationship with nature is rooted in the soil of Indian religions. In 1981, accompanied by a small group of colleagues, Bahuguna undertook a foot march from Srinagar in Kashmir to Kohima in Nagaland, a journey of 4870 Km, raising awareness of the exploitation to which the forests and the lives of the mountain people were exposed. The success of the Chipko movement has engendered movements of a similar nature in the south of India, in Sri Lanka, and elsewhere, and resulted, in India in 1981, in a 15 year moratorium on the cutting of trees for commercial purposes above the elevation of 1,000 meters.

While Sunderlal Bahuguna is practically a household name in India, he is known chiefly for his activism. The philosophy behind his activism integrates insights from contemporary ecology with the spiritual traditions of India and the non-violence of Gandhi. The question of the relevance of India’s environmentalism to that of western countries remains a contested issue in the emerging field of environmental philosophy. Some western scholars have tried to infer the nature of an Indian environmental ethic from their exploration of ancient Indian religious texts. Others have argued that the use of such texts is selective and misleading. Bahuguna’s activism and advocacy demonstrates the significance of the people’s perception of nature and their devotion to the forests they depend upon for their collective life.