The axe forgets but the tree remembers,’ goes an African proverb. Sunderlal Bahuguna, who passed away on Friday at the age of 94, felt and remembered the pain of every tree that was felled on the pretext of development or for brazenly commercial purposes. He was the leading light of the Chipko movement, which lent a voice to every tree, every forest that was threatened by human rapacity and recklessness. The very name ‘Chipko’ — clinging to a tree as if one’s life depended on it — summed up the non-violent agitation that was inspired by Gandhi’s satyagraha. Bahuguna himself was a tireless Gandhian, having the courage of his convictions.
His heart bled not only for the trees but also for the hapless people whose lives and homes were endangered by mega projects. Bahuguna fought a long and hard battle against the construction of the Tehri Dam, red-flagging the grave consequences of building major infrastructure in an environmentally fragile zone. It was his dream to recreate an ecosystem in which all life forms were respected, be it on land, in the air or in water. ‘Man cannot continue as the exploiter of other species,’ he had said, in a scathing indictment of humankind’s plundering and blundering ways.
During the last decade of his life, Bahuguna was an agonised witness to two ecological disasters in Uttarakhand, his native state; the flash floods of 2013 and the Chamoli tragedy of 2021. Acknowledging that the Chipko movement of the 1970s had helped create awareness about the need to save trees, he felt that the situation was much more serious now in view of rampant deforestation and pollution. He had called for launching new Chipkos to protect the green cover so that every citizen could breathe clean air and drink potable water. A world grappling with the challenges of climate change and global warming needs to take a leaf out of Bahuguna’s green book to save itself from self-destruction. His simple message — every tree matters — is a mantra for sustaining life on our troubled planet. The onus is on us.