Having completed 90 years of his struggle full life, a living legend and an institution in himself, Sunderlal Bahuguna is widely known as a Chipko leader of international fame. Recipient of many coveted honors for the environment, ecological conservation n for preserving the forests of Uttarakhand Himalayas viz. Padmavibhushan, Padmashree, Jamunalal Bajaj and prestigious international Right Livelihood Awards, Sunderlal Bahuguna undertook 74 days of incessant hunger strike against Tehri dam during the eighties. Sunil Negi, a freelance journalist visited him at Dehradun and interviewed him in detail. Here are some excerpts of the interview.
Question: Sir, you‘ve just completed the protracted 90 challenging years of your life last month. You’ve almost given more than 7 decades or more of your pivotal life to environment conservation, deforestation, and social service as a Gandhi an. How does u feel now?
As you know, having been in the 90th year of my life I am not keeping a good health. I am bed ridden most of the time. I am really grateful and rather thankful to my better half Vimlaji for looking after me entirely and taking care of my health very minutely. This is how I am able to push my immortality further ahead. However, my son in law is also a senior doctor under whose able and experienced medical supervision and monitoring I am alive. I have been given to understand by the cardiologists that two of my heart’s arteries are blocked but due to being too old, surgery can’t be conducted. I am therefore moving ahead quite cautiously. Never mind, one has to leave this materialistic world one day. But till one is alive one should always try hard to live in the society, environment, ecology and peoples’ welfare. Even today I am deeply bothered and concerned about the environmental health of the Himalayas, Uttarakhand and its people. I regret to say that even after Uttarakhand gaining its separate existence 17 years’ ago, has not lived up truly, to the peoples’ expectations. The very concept for which Uttrakhand has been formed has been badly defeated despite 46 movement activists sacrificing their precious lives. The successive governments, I think eight in numbers, during the last 15 years, have proved to be completely futile as during this period more than 30 lakh people have migrated to cities, towns, and metropolis of the country for want of better job and health avenues. What a tragedy? Had the governments of the state been genuinely concerned about people’s problems related to the social, economical, industrial, cultural, health and educational aspects, the exodus of the youth and the local populace would not have been so tremendous. Isn’t is shocking that in merely one and a half decade just more than a double digit figure( of people ) have migrated outside Uttarakhand as compared to the total influx during the last 5 decades prior to granting of separate Uttrakhand status.
Question: But the government of Uttarakhand had always been boasting of extraordinary growth rate and sufficient per capita income as compared to other states. What’s your take on this?
This is absurd and ridiculous. I have always been saying for years together and it has finally been substantiated by this mass scale exodus of youths to plains from the UK and i.e. the youth and the water of Uttarakhand Himalayas has never been of any use for Uttarakhand.(Pahadon ki jawani aur paani kabhi bhi pahadon ke kaam nahi aaya).The way the water of the Ganges and its tributaries emanating(starting) from Uttarakhand Himalayas has been exploited by the outsiders either for power and irrigation through large scale dams or for other purposes, similarly, the youths of Uttarakhand after migrating to cities and metropolis are of no use to the hills. This is something very unfortunate. You will be astonished and shocked to learn that during the 1960s when Dr. Longanathan had conducted the interstate and inter district economic survey in India, Tehri Garhwal was accounted for as one of the poorest districts’ with its per capita income the lowest in whole of India whereas the district of Kumaon division, Almora was the second poorest in the country. And unfortunately even today, despite the government’s tall claims of revolutionary change in terms of development and per capita income and growth, in my personal opinion the hills of Uttarakhand are still backward and poor as far as the question of unemployment, poor health services, and industrialization is concerned. It’s only because of the lack of total absence of decentralised socio-economic and industrial development and the anti people policies of the current and the successive state governments that Uttarakhand is still a number one state in India in terms of massive exodus of youths to the cities with villages becoming empty day by day and the agricultural fields not prone to KHETI or crop cultivation. During the ancient days, the main source of income of the hill people was through spiritual tourism. Now, since roads have been constructed this very source of income of the local hill populace has also been finished. It sounds extremely surprising that in Uttarakhand the land use per human is comparatively much more but poverty is still prevalent in the interior villages, as usual. Our economic sources have been killed. The state’s economic status is in doldrums AND JEOPARDY despite the government’s tall claims of economic prosperity. The hill of Uttarakhand had been merely dependent on the money order economy since ages and the same trend is still continuing as the majority of youths of the state have migrated to cities for jobs. This a very disturbing trend. If the government of the day would not reform itself and work on decentralized economic development right up to the village level I am afraid in the near future the villages will be totally bereft of people and the very purpose for which the Uttrakhand state came into very existence would be actually defeated.
Question: Being a seasoned environmentalist and a Gandhian what is the actual remedy to this very problem?
I personally think that the state of the huge exodus (migration) to the plains is extremely dangerous form the social, economic, cultural and security points of view of Uttarakhand. And I keep the security aspect on the top. It’s a universal fact that expansionist China considers India as its enemy number one, though a number of mutual visits by the respective heads of the states of both the countries is being undertaken for normalization of the relations. Everybody knows how China backstabbed us in 1962 after giving the slogan of Hindi Cheeni Bhai Bhai. Today China is actively constructing its Army bases in neighboring Nepal. It has even laid down its hi tech railway lines and roads in close proximity to our borders with Nepal playing a major role in helping them. Even the Nepalese population is widespread in various blocks, districts, and cities of Uttarakhand. China is absolutely readying itself to capture, militarily our border areas and villages by bringing the local Nepalese people into confidence. Moreover, in view of our border villages being emptied day by day by the local populace in view of the dearth of employment and other opportunities our already fragile borders are in grave danger. It’s only because of this major lacunae I had always been appealing to the central government to formulate a concrete Himalayan policy for all the Himalayan states of the country so as to enable not only the solid conservation of the environment of the Himalayas but also to safeguard the borders of the Himalayan states from the possible Chinese armed intrusion inside our already porous borders. Apart from this, we will also have to change the land use of the hills including the phased wise clearance of the pine trees from the higher altitudes of the hilly terrains which are a direct threat to our agricultural and mountainous lands(slopes) making them totally barren and not prone to cultivation any further. The pine trees make the soil fully acetic and therefore impotent in terms of crops cultivation. All these measures would have to be inculcated in the Himalayan Policy structure of the government if we actually y want our hills, Himalayan states and Himalayas to be protected from future onslaughts of nature and our neighboring China. In addition to this, the government is hell bent upon constructing bigger dams in the Himalayan states which are the completely anti environment, anti rivers, anti people and anti development. In nutshell, I would say that formulation of a concrete Himalayan policy with the above-cited points and change of land use of Uttarakhand hills compounded with small and run of the river hydropower projects n repatriation of people from cities to hills is the only effective alternative that can save Uttarakhand from further destruction and deaths.
Question: Recently, the government of Uttarakhand had in principle agreed to your proposal that the pine trees situated at high altitudes of the mountains will be abruptly cut in a phased manner, under a special policy to rid the hills of this dangerous species, which is entirely harmful. Does it not amount to fulfilling of one of your major long pending demands? Are u satisfied now?
Had it been so easy and convenient, I think the previous governments would have conveniently made the Uttarakhand hills bereft of these pine trees. Making hills bereft of pine trees is one thing but planning multiple species of productive and environmentally friendly tree in large numbers alternatively to substantiate for the losses of pine is another important aspect of the problem. You see, you can’t make the forests bald at a single go without arranging for the planting of a huge number of good species on the high altitude terrains. If the mountainous terrains are made completely bereft of pine trees in a single go or even in a phased manner the hills will become completely bald and there will be imminent danger of earthquakes, floods, landslides, natural catastrophes and another sort of calamities. The roots of the trees not only keep the soil together but also stop the floods and avoid huge landslides are the order of the day in the Uttarakhand Hills. Not only this but the incessant and massive cutting of pine trees will apart from creating environmental and ecological havoc also create a new breed of timber mafia who under the guise of making huge profits will also cut other useful species of productive and environment-friendly trees. Uttarakhand is unfortunately already in the grip of such mafias who are amassing huge wealth in collaboration with politicians by way of illegal mining in various parts of the state as a result of which the already fragile environment of Uttarakhand is at stake and giving birth to natural calamities of gigantic proportions.
Question: You had always been concerned for the environmental conservation and deforestation of the Hills and had been on 74 days hunger strike against Tehri dam. How do u look at the catastrophic disaster of Kedar Valley that happened in June 2013? Can we avert such calamities in the near future?
Nobody can ever control the catastrophic disasters nor can we predict it on the definite basis as to when exactly the calamity arrives. Yes, we can counter it to a great extent. Today, unfortunately, under the guise of revolutionary scientific developments and the blind uncontrolled race of technological advancements, the whole world is in the grip of global warming created by huge green house emissions. A vast population of India and other countries of the world are suffering from various respiratory disorders and diseases like asthma, of heart and lungs including contagious abnormalities. This dangerous trend of global warming has not only increased the mortality rate world over but has also resulted in speedy melting of the Himalayan glaciers which are highly dangerous to the global civilization’s existence. The gigantic Himalayan catastrophe of 2013 which I consider purely a manmade one is merely an indication of future disasters in the offing measuring as just a tip of an iceberg. Whenever the humanity has played with nature under the guise of anti environmental scientific developments or advancements, nature has slapped humanity and governments with massive ecological disasters like that of Kedar valley one that happened in June 2013.Uttarakhand Himalaya is considered to be an abode of Gods where spiritual and cultural tourism would have been majorly encouraged but unfortunately the unholy nexus of the capitalists, builders, contractor, politicians and corrupt bureaucracy has by way of building huge dams, buildings, luxury hotels, buildings for commercial gains and huge structures alongside the rivers have literally played havoc with our already fragile environment, hills, rivers and the local populace thus inviting such huge calamities taking the toll of thousands and leading to colossal loss to public exchequer. We shouldn’t forget that huge dams not only control the smooth flow of rivers but also lead to massive landslides and therefore in return to flash floods. The explosions at dam sites lead to landslides and make our hills hollow and vibratory from inside. Lots of deforestation takes place. Mountains become bereft of plants, trees, and green vegetation. And when an earthquake occurs the hollow and weak hills in the form of huge landslides including building come down like the pack of cards. The tons of silt coming out of the tunnels of dams fall straightaway in the rivers making them narrow and hugely prone to flash floods. There are umpteen other reasons that make our hills and its environment prone to such disasters and fatal consequences.
Interview of Sunder Lal Bahuguna, eminent environmentalist of world fame By SUNIL NEGI