Sunderlal Bahuguna
Sunderlal Bahuguna Image Credit: ANI

The worldwide coronavirus pandemic gives us cause to reflect deeply on how we live. Even question the meaning of modern civilisation itself. One reason for the pandemic, which experts have flagged, is our relentless violation and exploitation of habitats, which brings man and animal in uncomfortable, sometimes, fatal proximity.

How? Because many of the most dangerous viruses and bacteria that infect us are zoonotic. That is they jump from animals, who are more resistant to them, to humans who are not.

The coronavirus, too, is believed to have jumped from bats to humans, possibly through an intermediary such as the pangolin, in the wet markets of Wuhan, China.

Will the pandemic, therefore, also give pause to modern civilisation’s incessant drive to attain higher levels of affluence and consumption?

Will it change our attitude to our environment, whose custodians we have become as the dominant species on planet earth? Or will we go back to reckless depletion of nature for our own greed and comfort?

Relationship with mother earth

History has shown that human memory, especially of misery, is all too brief. We return to our former, self-destructive ways within a few months of a catastrophe. But this extended, nearly two-year spell of both pandemic and panic, should give us the time and space to think of changing fundamentally and radically our relationship with mother earth.

Such were my thoughts when I heard, on Friday morning, May 21, the saddening news of the passing of Sunderlal Bahuguna. A noted Gandhian and environmentalist, he passed away due to coronavirus in the early hours.

Admitted to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Rishikesh, on May 8 with symptoms of COVID-19 pneumonia, he was put on life-support immediately. Bravely, he battled against the disease and its attendant complications for nearly two weeks before he succumbed.

That he had lived to the ripe old age of 94 did mitigate the sense of loss at his passing. But who knows how long we might have had him in our midst had it not been for the pandemic?

Bahuguna was internationally renowned for his leading role in the Chipko Movement of the 1970s against the deforestation of the Himalayas.

During the most intense phases of the struggle, men and especially women hugged trees to prevent contractors from felling them. The word of clasping or clinging in Hindi, chipko, gave the campaign its unique moniker. The name, quite appropriately, stuck.

In harmony with nature

Chipko did much more than expose the unscrupulous nexus between politicians, forest officials, and contractors who were felling and selling the magnificent, old trees of Uttarakhand. It brought to light the terrible destruction of a delicate ecology of which profit-driven deforestation was merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Soon, Chipko expanded to embrace other causes, including an anti-liquor crusade and the demand for separate statehood.

But at the heart of the movement was a deeper philosophical, even spiritual, dimension that went to the very roots of the modern project of development, progress, and consumption. The idea is as simple as it is stark: the prosperity and affluence of the modern civilisation is based on the plunder and pillage of our natural resources.

If unchecked, such large-scale degradation and depletion of our habitat will also bring about our own destruction.

The pioneer who made us aware of this fact was none other than the “father” of our nation, Mahatma Gandhi. After returning to India from South Africa, Gandhi founded the Satyagraha Ashrama in Ahmedabad.

In a speech at Madras (now Chennai) on February 16, 1916, explaining the vow of non-stealing (asteya) that the members of this community had to take, Gandhi said “it is the fundamental law of Nature, without exception, that Nature produces enough for our wants from day to day, and if only everybody took enough for himself and nothing more, there would be no pauperism in this world, there would be no more dying of starvation in this world. But so long as we have got this inequality, so long we are thieving.”

This principle later came to be summed up as “Nature has enough for every man’s need, but not for one man’s greed.” It also became foundational to Gandhi’s idea of trusteeship.

Writing in his journal Young India of December 20, 1928, Gandhi also said, “God forbid that India should ever take to industrialism after the manner of the West. The economic imperialism of a single tiny island [Britain] is today keeping the world in chains.

If an entire nation of 300 million took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.” It was principles such as these that became foundational to India’s, indeed the world’s, ecological movements, long before environmentalism and ecology properly came into existence.

It was Gandhi, the holistic environmentalist, who had influenced Bahuguna. The latter literally walked in his and his follower, Vinoba Bhave’s, footsteps, espousing both their theory and praxis.

Like Gandhi, Bahuguna was a spiritualist, activist, and ascetic, who walked, fasted, and agitated peacefully against overwhelmingly powerful adversaries. Cultivating fearlessness, kindness, and simplicity throughout his life, Bahuguna and his wife, companion in his travails and triumphs, inspired many.

Despite agitating against successive state and central governments, Bahuguna was awarded the Padma Vibhushan, the second highest civilian honour in India, in 2009. In 1981 he had refused the Padma Shri award which the government of India wanted to confer on him.

For his contributions to the Chipko Movement, he received the Jamnalal Bajaj Award for constructive work in 1986 and the Right Livelihood Award in 1987.

More than anything else, it feels as if an era has passed with his departure.

[To be continued]