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‘Our economic sources have been killed’

Sunderlal Bahuguna, 88 years of age, is a living legend and an institution in himself. He derived international fame when he led the Chipko movement in Uttarakhand. He has won many coveted honours in the field of environment and ecological conservation while working to preserve the forests in the Uttarakhand Himalaya—the Padma Vibhushan, Padma Shri, Jamnalal Bajaj Award and the prestigious international Right to Livelihood Award. Bahuguna sat for 74 days on hunger strike against the construction of the Tehri dam in the 1980s. Sunil Negi spoke to him in Dehradun. Excerpts from the interview:


You have given more than seven decades of your life to environment conservation and social service as a Gandhian. You turned 88 last month. What would you like to share with our readers on this occasion?
In the 89th year of my life, I am not keeping good health. I am bedridden most of the time. I am really grateful, rather, thankful to my better half, Vimlaji, for looking after me. Also, my son-in-law, who is a senior doctor, has been monitoring my health. I have been given to understand by cardiologists that two of my heart’s arteries are blocked. But, due to my age, surgery can’t be done.

But, never mind, one has to leave this world one day. But, till one is alive, one should try hard to live for society, environment, ecology and people’s welfare. Even today I am deeply bothered and concerned about the environmental health of the Himalaya and of Uttarakhand and its people. I regret to say that even after Uttarakhand became a separate state 15 years ago, people’s expectations remain unfulfilled. The very reason for which Uttarakhand was formed has been defeated, despite 46 movement activists sacrificing their precious lives. Successive governments have completely failed us. During this period more than 30 lakh people have migrated to cities, towns and metropolises of the country for better jobs and health avenues. Had the governments of the state been genuinely concerned about people’s problems, the exodus of the youth and the local people would not have been so huge. Isn’t it shocking that in merely 15 years more than a double-digit figure (of people) have migrated outside Uttarakhand as compared to the influx during the five decades prior to granting of separate state status.

But the government of Uttarakhand has been talking 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 been saying it for years that pahadon ki jawani aur paani kabhi bhi pahadon ke kaam nahi aaya (the youth and water of the hills has never been of any use for the hills) and it has finally been substantiated by this mass exodus of youth to the plains. The way the water of the Ganges and its tributaries—all emanating from the Uttarakhand Himalaya—has been exploited by outsiders, either for power and irrigation through big dams or for other purposes, the same way the youth of Uttarakhand have been of no use to the state after migrating to cities. This is very unfortunate.

‘It’s because of lack of decentralised socio-economic and industrial development and anti people policies of the current and successive state governments that Uttarakhand is still the number one state in India in terms of massive exodus of youth to the cities’

You will be astonished and shocked to learn that during the 1960s, when Dr Longanathan had conducted the inter-state and inter-district economic survey in India, Tehri Garhwal was one of the poorest districts, with its per capita income the lowest in India. The district of Kumaon division, Almora, was the second poorest in the country. Unfortunately, even today, despite the government’s tall claims of a 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 issues of unemployment, poor health services and industrialisation are concerned. It’s because of lack of decentralised socio-economic and industrial development and the anti-people policies of the current and the successive state governments that Uttarakhand is still the number one state in India in terms of massive exodus of youth to the cities.

sunderlal-bahuguna2During the earlier days, the main source of income of the hill people was spiritual tourism. Now, since roads have been constructed, this source too has ended. It is extremely surprising that in Uttarakhand the land use per human is comparatively much more, but poverty is still prevalent in the interior. Our economic sources have been killed. The state’s economic status is in the doldrums despite the government’s tall claims of economic prosperity. The hills of Uttarakhand have been dependent on the money order economy for ages and the same trend is continuing. This is very disturbing. If the government of the day does not reform itself and work on decentralised 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 Uttarakhand state came into existence will be defeated.

Being a seasoned environmentalist and a Gandhian, what in your view is the remedy to this problem?
I think that the huge exodus to the plains is extremely dangerous from the social, economic, cultural and security points of view of Uttarakhand. And, I keep the security aspect on 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 state of both countries are being undertaken for normalisation of 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 neighbouring Nepal. It has even laid down hi-tech railway lines and roads in close proximity to our borders, with Nepal playing a major role in helping it. Even the Nepalese population is widespread in various blocks, districts and cities of Uttarakhand. China is clearly readying itself to militarily capture our border areas and villages by taking the local Nepalese people into confidence.

With our youth migrating from border villages in search of employment and other opportunities, our already fragile borders are in grave danger. It’s because of this that I had always been appealing to the central government to formulate a concrete policy for the Himalayan states of the country so as to enable not only the solid conservation of the environment of the Himalaya, but also to safeguard the borders of the Himalayan states from possible Chinese armed intrusion.

Apart from this, we will also have to change the land use of the hills, including the phase-wise clearance of the pine trees from higher altitudes on hilly terrain. Pine trees are a direct threat to our agricultural and mountainous land, making it barren. Pine trees make the soil acidic and, therefore, impotent for crop cultivation. All these measures would have to be included in the Himalayan policy structure of the government if we actually want to protect our hill states from onslaughts of nature and China.

In addition to this, the government is hell bent upon constructing bigger dams in the Himalayan states. These dams are completely anti-environment, anti-river, anti-people and anti-development. In a nutshell, I would say that formulation of a concrete Himalayan policy with all the above points included is the only effective alternative that can save Uttarakhand from further destruction.

Recently, the government of Uttarakhand had in principle agreed to your proposal to cut pine trees at high altitudes in a phased manner. It was one of your long-pending demands. Are you satisfied now?
Had it been so easy, I think the previous governments would have conveniently done this. Making hills bereft of pine trees is one thing, but planning multiple species of productive and environmentally friendly trees in large numbers alternatively to substantiate for the loss of pine is another important aspect of the problem. You can’t make the forests bald at a single go without arranging for plantation of a huge number of good species at high-altitude terrain. If the mountainous terrain is made completely bereft of pine trees in a single go, or even in a phased manner, the hills will become bald and there will be an imminent danger of earthquakes, floods, landslides and other calamities. The roots of the trees not only keep the soil together but also stop floods and avoid huge landslides. Not only this, but the incessant cutting of pine trees will 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, the already fragile environment of Uttarakhand is endangered and giving birth to natural calamities of gigantic proportions.

You had always been concerned about the environmental conservation and deforestation of the hills. How do you look at the catastrophic disaster in Kedarnath Valley in June 2013? Can we avert such calamities in the near future?

sunderlal-bahuguna3Nobody can control such catastrophic disasters, nor can we predict on a 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 development and blind, uncontrolled race of technological advancements, the whole world is in the grip of global warming, created by huge greenhouse emissions. A vast population in India and other countries of the world is suffering from various respiratory disorders and diseases like asthma and other contagious abnormalities. Global warming has not only increased the mortality rate the world over, but has also resulted in increased melting of Himalayan glaciers, which is highly dangerous. The catastrophe of 2013, which I consider purely a man-made one, is merely an indication of future disasters in the offing. It was just the tip of the iceberg. Whenever humanity has played with nature in the guise of anti-environmental scientific developments or advancements, nature has slapped humanity and governments with massive ecological disasters like that in the Kedarnath valley.

The Kedarnath catastrophe of 2013, which I consider purely a man-made one, is merely an indication of future disasters in the offing. It was just the tip of the iceberg

The Uttarakhand Himalaya is considered an abode of gods. Here spiritual and cultural tourism should have been majorly encouraged. But, unfortunately, the unholy nexus of capitalists, builders, contractors, politicians and corrupt bureaucracy has—by way of building huge dams, buildings, luxury hotels, buildings for commercial gains and huge structures alongside the rivers—played havoc with our already fragile environment. We shouldn’t forget that huge dams not only control the smooth flow of rivers, but also lead to massive landslides and, therefore, to flash floods. The explosions at dam sites lead to landslides and make our hills hollow from inside. Huge deforestation takes place. And, when an earthquake occurs, the hollow and weak hills come down like a pack of cards. Tonnes of silt, coming out of the tunnels of dams, fall straight into the rivers, making them narrow and hugely prone to flash floods.

Looking back into the past, do you think the Chipko movement was a success or a failure?
In my opinion, and also in the opinion of environmentalists the world over, Chipko was a trendsetter which mobilised a vast population of the globe towards environment conservation and against deforestation. It mobilised people and worked as a major and effective tool that not only made people environmentally friendly and conscious, but also led to many struggles against felling of trees and construction of big dams all over the world. I can say that it did have a very strong international presence, but was not that effective in India.

I salute Gaura Devi, who was the chief architect of this movement, for her perseverance, grit, determination and dedication to this noble cause. Any movement which has continuity is considered a success, but the Chipko movement definitely lacked a sequel. Had the governments strictly followed the tips of the Chipko movement, I am sure the hills of the Uttarakhand Himalayas, its environment, ecology and condition of its people would have improved manifold by now.

My two main slogans to preserve the ecology of the hills and improve the lot of the people were “Dhaar Einch Paani”, meaning bring the water through a hydraulic system or other means on the hilltops, and “Har Dhaal Par Taal”, meaning plant productive trees and fruit trees on the slopes of the hills in huge numbers, leading to all-round prosperity, progress and economic viability of the hills, then environment and people.

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