River Ganga
River Ganga Image Credit: Ashwini Chaudhary

It was a small, sparse hut, with a mud floor and crude wooden rafters of slate and straw. What made it so audacious was not so much its stark simplicity, although that was a loud statement in itself.

It was really its location. The hut was at bottom of a gorge which would be totally submerged when the big dam came up. No wonder, it was called the doob khetra, the place of submergence. Literally a sink hole.

Now with somewhat of a sinking feeling, I was in luminous presence of the man in white who inhabited it. Sunderlal Bahuguna. His weathered and wrinkled visage broke into a smile, both playful and slightly mischievous, as he received me.

We sat on the bare floor for a few moments. I didn’t know what to say. I felt overwhelmed by the circumstances in which the meeting was taking place.

A people's man

Bahuguna had been on a fast to protest against the construction of the Tehri Dam. The year was 1996. I was a young Associate Professor at Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi. A number of us were part of a small support group that engaged with peoples’ movements.

When we received Bahuguna, he told us that his movement was not just environmental, but spiritual. The Tehri project was to come up at the confluence of two sacred streams, the Bhagirathi and the Bilangana, which later joined into India’s most revered river, the mighty Ganga.

These dams will not only kill the rich marine resources of the region, but obstruct the natural flow and oxygenation of the river. Disconnect from its source, the Ganga will itself lose its sanctity, he said.

The conscience of the nation

I didn’t follow Bahugana’s reasoning, but his mode of protest shook the conscience of the nation. His indefinite fast had crossed into the second month making both the central government and its mandarins uncomfortable.

I felt a sense of alarm when someone in our group told me, “This may be your last chance to see Sunderlal-ji.” I didn’t know exactly what to do, but I decided to visit him, as one might have Mahatma Gandhi, during the latter’s transformative experiments with truth and battles with the mighty British empire.

When I undertook the journey, I had been forewarned, “Do not attempt to talk to him. He must conserve all his energy during this fast simply to stay alive.” I bore that in my mind as I was now, suddenly, face to face with him. His wife and companion during his innumerable struggles, Vimala-ji, entered the hut in a quiet and unobtrusive manner. She asked in a low tone of voice, “You must tired from your journey. What can I bring for you?”

Yes, my journey had indeed by exhausting, almost surreal. From the raging heat of parched and dusty plains, I had disembarked at Haridwar, the town holy to the Hindus, which actually signified a door (dwar) to Hara (Shiva) or Hari (Vishnu). The Ganga flowed through this town down from the Himalayas.

Much of its contamination and pollution came further downstream, from the industries and tanneries that dotted its banks in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh.

Vimala-ji was waiting for my answer, “I can bring you some herbal tea if you don’t like angrezi chai (English tea).” I looked around the empty room. It had no utensils, no furniture, no sign of a kitchen.

A repentance fast

Bahuguna, with his keen, twinkling eyes, followed my gaze. “Oh! All this will soon be under water. We keep nothing here, except our bodies, which will also drown as the waters touch the skies.” I looked up at him with guilty astonishment. Had I inconvenienced him by coming up to intrude into his penance or “repentance fast,” as he called it?

Looking down, I asked, “Do you mean to say that you’ll lose? I can’t believe it. How can you give up?” His face became grave. In barely a whisper, he said, “What can one man do? The government seems to be in no mood to listen.

Even the villagers have been bought over. They all want New Tehri, with all its development. Only I don’t want any of it.” There was a finality to his voice, which brought a chill down my spine. Bahuguna added, “Do go check out the new town. Perhaps, you’ll also be impressed.”

I felt a bit angry and hurt as I stared at him. “It is very hard to stop what you call development. You are at IIT. Your engineers, politicians, and big business make all this happen. You’re wearing khadi (hand spun cloth, which Gandhi popularised) now. But soon you’ll be buying and selling shares of the very construction company which is building this dam.” I was distressed and nonplussed to the point of tearing up. The man in front of me seemed to understand my confusion. He added with a wry smile, “If you must buy shares, avoid that company. I’m sure it’ll go down too.”

Bahuguna had foresight. Though I had no interest in the stock market then, I would at a later stage, also become a modest, middle-class investor. That particular company, one of the largest construction conglomerates at that time, is now reduced to a penny stock. The summers of Delhi made life so miserable that a virtuous refusal to use air-conditioning itself became unsustainable.

Luckily, the frail, fasting man did not die. Then Prime Minister of India, H. D. Devegowda, persuaded him to give up his fast after 74 days in June 1996.

The dam was, however, built and the tiny hut in which I met the legendary activist – there is no trace of it. It must have been long washed away, the ground on which it stood now hundreds of feet below the waters.

(This is the concluding piece of a two-article series on the noted environmentalist Sundarlal Bahuguna who passed away recently)