Vimla Bahuguna: Treehugger of the Chipko Movement

By Bhavani Prakash

Chipko women hugging trees : Wikipedia

Much has been said and written about the Chipko Movement. It continues to be one of the most prominent and analysed of environmental movements emanating from India. Long before ‘treehugging’ became a fashionable word in the west, women villagers of the Garhwal region on the foothills of the Himalayas (Uttarakhand District in Northern India) were practising it by becoming brave champions of the forests. To resist commercial felling of trees, they hugged them, giving rise to the term ‘Chipko’ which means ‘to stick‘ in Hindi.

The modern day Chipko movement is now nearly 40 years old.  On March 26, 1974, a group of peasant women in Reni village, Hemwalghati, Uttarakhand, India, prevented the cutting of trees by contractors of the state Forest Department.

Vimla Bahuguna

Vimla Bahugana, a Gandhian social worker became one of the prominent women leaders of the movement. Women bore most of the consequences of tree felling. They had to travel long distances to collect firewood. Water sources were drying up, and the soil was getting eroded as their trees were cut for cricket bats and other commercial products. Women were at the forefront of the movement.

Vimla’s husband Sunderlal Bahuguna , 84 years of age, has been a prominent leader of Chipko. Having taken to heart Gandhi’s message that “India is in her villages”, he has walked from Kashmir to Kohima, from the western side of the Himalayas to the eastern side -a distance of 4,870 kilometers to spread the message of the movement. He often says, “We are the runners and messengers. The real leaders are the women‘. According to him:

“Whenever the forest trees were marked for felling, women went to protect them. They camped in huts in the forest. Labourers were brought from Nepal, but women prevented their work by hugging the trees, when they sought a chance to cut the trees at night.  The authorities kept women in jails.  Vimla went with her six-year old child to jail in the movement. Many women went to jail. But they did not yield.  One think I should say from our own experience is that when women are in firm determination, when they decide, they will do it.  They will not leave in the middle. They will do it.  Once women decided that we have to stop tree-felling, they did not yield.  In spite of all the hardships and atrocities they continued the movement.”

The non-violent protests in the Gandhian tradition went on from 1973 to 1981 which led to a ban on tree felling for commerical purposes above 1,000 metres in Uttarakhand, and in the neighbouring state of Himachal Pradesh.  Chipko has renewed itself by spreading to other parts of the country such as the Appiko movement in Karnataka, India. It has also found a voice through the agitation by Sunderlal Bahuguna against the Tehri Dam project to dam two Himalayan rivers and more recently by the ‘Beej Bachao Andolan‘ or the efforts to save seeds against the onslaught of genetically modified ones.

Not all writers share the ‘ecofeminist’ narrative, even though it is a very important one. Two other major perspectives represent Chipko as a ‘peasant‘ movement or alternatively a broader ‘ecological’ one. Some analysts and activists question its relevance in the modern day context, especially those who seem to think conservation comes at the cost of development.  Others have argued that over-protection of the forests has deprived villagers of even basic and rightful access to the resources and wealth that are theirs.

Rather than give an intellectual analysis of the movement, of which there are abundant available in books such as  Chipko: India’s Civilisational Response to the Forest Crisis by J. Bandopadhyay and Vandana Shiva:Forest Futures by Antje Linkenbach , The Unquiet Woods by Ramachandra Guha (to name just three) and articles such as the excellent one in Uttarakhand.org by Amit Mitra from Down to Earth called Chipko: An Unfinished Mission,  I prefer to write here what I have personally gathered from my meeting with Vimla and Sunderlal Bahugana recently at Dehradun, India. It is their core message that I wish to share.

Vimla Bahuguna briefly talks of her experiences in this video:

Vimla Bahuguna told those who were present at Navdanya, Dehradun on 14th March, 2011 how she got her inspiration for the Chipko movement. When I caught a personal moment with her, she asked me if I knew about Sarla Behn (Miss Catherine Heilman), Gandhi’s disciple and advised me to read more about her. Her own activism was groomed under the tutelage of Sarla Behn with whom she had shared 8 years. It was in the Kumaon Himalayas that Sarla Behn had started an ashram for hill women, and her “full-time commitment was to make them realise that they were not beasts of burden, but goddesses of wealth, since they rear cattle and produce food, producing 98% of all labour in farming and animal husbandry.” [1]

Sunderlal Bahuguna

Sarla Behn’s ideas of women’s emancipation influenced Vimla to ask Sunderlal Bahuguna to leave the Congress Party and politics forever as a precondition to marriage, in order for them to settle down in the hills and awaken the women there.

Sunderlal Bahugana passed us a copy of his lecture delivered in Tokyo (presumably in 2009 – the publication date of the pamphlet) called, ” Environment Protection: The Way To Peace, Happiness and Contentment” I share here a few of the passages that I found powerful:

* The revival of our dying planet is a challenge to young people to come forward.  Our society should be replaced by one standing on four pillars: service instead of authority, sacrifice or restraint instead of wealth, peace instead of weapons, and good behaviour instead of high learning.

* So far as diversity is concerned, we are poorer than the primitive man.  This is due to the exploitative character of civilisation. The crisis which civilisation has created can only be solved by the message of culture. Culture prospered in the forests. In India, we have inherited an Aranya (forests) culture.  (And later)… There is a special thing about the culture of the East: we believe in the power of the soul. There are two different things. One is the body.  Another is the soul inside.  And if there is a confrontation between armies, a small army can be defeated by a strong army.  But even if there is one single person with a strong soul and firm determination, all the armies of the world cannot defeat him.

* These movements spread through folk songs. In a people’s movement the appeal is not to the head but to the heart. The message should reach the hearts of people. The beginning of our movement was thus from folk songs to awaken people. There were no speeches. There were no books. There were no newspapers. But there were folk songs. And people immediately came forward and joined the movement. Once an idea becomes implanted in the hearts of the people, it becomes their own thing. I do not think that when we make a good speech that people will repeat it. But they repeated folk songs.  And they go on repeating it.  The songs of the Chipko movement echoed in the hills and dales in the forest everywhere. Children, uneducated people, or women working in the forests and hills while cutting the grass and collecting the firewood, were singing these songs.  This is one special thing about the Chipko movement.

* Do not forget that you have been bestowed with three gifts. The first is the head to think, the second is the heart to feel, and the third is hands to construct.  Whatever is in your head, take it to your heart first and then act with your hands.

Vimla and Sunderlal Bahuguna at Navdanya, Dehradun sharing their experiences

I end with Vimla Bahuguna’s words that day that I hope will reverberate in humanity’s hearts:

” My husband and I have come a long, long way to share this message. The old are not redundant. The young are often inspired by elders in most social movements. The message of the elders is the voice of experience. We have learnt that power and money are not indicators of a good life, nor do they form the road to a meaningful life. Lead a simple life for the benefit of everyone. The hard won freedom (Indian Independence) is in danger of being lost, if we don’t understand the environment. Our model of development is totally skewed. Don’t spoil the environment, treat it is as your friend, so all of life can live in harmony. This is the challenge that we appeal to the young to take up.”

Further Links you may be interested in:

[1]Google Books: Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Development

YouTube: An Account of Chipko

Outlook India:  Green Jappi (Chipko in Japan)


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Posted by on Mar 28 2011. Filed under Biodiversity, Sustainable Agriculture. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

3 Comments for “Vimla Bahuguna: Treehugger of the Chipko Movement”

  1. [...] Further links you may be interested in: EWTT: Dr Vandana Shiva’s Sydney Peace Prize Lecture: Time to End War on Earth EWTT: Vimla Bahuguna: Treehugger of the Chipko Movement [...]

  2. Very very moving. I was thrilled to see the video.

  3. Thanks Preethi. She is inspiring!

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