Tribute to Sunderlal Bahuguna

Annapurna range
Photo: Annapurna range (Giacomo Berardi, Unsplash)

I confess to be an inveterate obituary hawk. The ‘vet’ bit in inveterate is telling as my compulsion comes with the territory of the latter half of life.

I don’t scour obituary columns for names I know or like or love, or even for people whose behavior I despise, for (the bell) “it tolls for thee”. Obituaries pack the history of a whole life into a tiny capsule and occasionally one captures my attention so vividly I hunger to know more and feel sad to miss the subject’s acquaintance.

I never met Sunderlal Bahuguna and didn’t even know his name until he died from covid-19 on May 21, 2021, at the age of 94. What drew me to his story by Hridayesh Joshi, a Mongabay journalist who knew him, was the transparent goodness of a life dedicated to caring for an environment that his people in the Himalayan foothills loved and needed to thrive.

As a bright and educated Indian, he gave up a potential career in parliamentary politics to serve his home district. As an early environmentalist he had a great impact nationally, even internationally, yet acclaim didn’t go to his head. He remained modest and credited much of his achievement to his wife.

As a young man he became a devout follower of Mahatma Gandhi, which says much about his character and lifestyle. He went on long marches, fasted to make public protest, fought against ‘untouchability’, and practiced non-violent activism against political and commercial oppressors of his people and the forest.

For many years he led the Chipko movement against logging companies whose depredations threatened fragile ecosystems around local communities. He organized protests against the Tehri Dam project (largest in India) for displacing of thousands of people from homes and affecting a watershed feeding the sacred Ganges.

The Chipko movement began in the 1970s in the hills of Uttarakhand, a famous destination for Hindu pilgrims and site of the 1968 Beatles Ashram. It started when local women opposed loggers by literally hugging trees (Chipko=hugging). The expression tree-hugger is often pejorative in the West, but only ignorance of its solemn history covers that shame.

Three centuries ago, hundreds of Bishnoi people, most of them women, obstinately resisted the felling of trees in their district to clear land for a new palace. They were massacred. In the end, the maharaja relented and canceled the project. The martyrs helped to inspire a modern movement of forest guardians that wins more sympathy by the year.

In his later years, Bahuguna-ji looked like a brown Santa Claus, a genial figure of gentle temperament. He practiced what he preached by living simply and sustainably, even giving up a rice diet because paddy fields use a lot of water.

We may wonder how a modest exterior with little worldly ambition can make a difference today, though he didn’t achieve all his goals (the Tehri Dam). But he had a facility for mingling care for human welfare with respect for what science knows, driven by a great fire of determination in his heart.

A life for rich pickings by an obituary hawk.

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By Roger Gosden

British-born scientist specializing in reproduction & embryology. Career as professor & research director spanned from Cambridge to Cornell's Weill Medical College in NYC. Married to Lucinda Veeck Gosden, embryologist for the first successful IVF team in America. Retired early to Williamsburg, Virginia, to write and recover from 'nature deficit disorder'. Currently a visiting scholar at William & Mary. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roger_Gosden

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