Sundarlalji: The Tree Whisperer

Dr Vandana Shiva /

A favourite disciple pays tribute to her departed mentor, who moulded her thinking and influenced her life’s ecological mission premised on Gandhian values

Sundarlal Bahuguna addresses a gathering of villagers on the banks of the Ganga during Ganga Satyagraha | Credit Navdhanya archives

Sundarlal Bahuguna has been my inspiration for close on half a century. I first met him at his ashram in Silyara when I made a commitment to volunteer for the Chipko movement. This was after having heard of it from a roadside chaiwala near Chamba in the Garhwal.

In the early 1970’s, this daughter of a forest officer born and bred in the Himalayan forests, was leaving for Canada to do my PhD in the foundations of Quantum theory. Before that I wanted to trek in a favourite part of my childhood forest to carry memories with me of the Himalayan forests and streams that had moulded me into who I was.

The hills between Chamba and Mussoorie sheltered a dense oak forest, below which gurgled a swift stream. Alas, the forest had vanished, and the stream dwindled to a trickle. It felt as if I had lost a part of my body. While waiting despondently for a bus to get back to Delhi I started chit chatting with a chaiwala in a dhaba about my grief and pain on having seen a part of the forest disappear.

The Bahuguna couple along with the writer at Earth University, Navdanya, Dehra Dun
The Bahuguna couple along with the writer at Earth University, Navdanya, Dehra Dun | Credit Navdhanya archives

It was then that he uttered the magic words: “Now there is hope, my child. Chipko has started.” I heard about women stopping logging in Reni and other places. There was also mention of one Sundarlal Bahuguna. As I had to catch my flight to Canada, I took a pledge to return, find Chipko and volunteer for the movement in my summer and winter vacations.

On my first return to India, I went to Silyara ashram which had been started by Sundarlalji and Bimla. Since that day in the early 1970’s he taught our generation that nature’s economy is the real economy which supports all other economies, including that of the market. Every vacation when I came to volunteer with Chipko, first while doing my Ph D, and later while working in Indian Institute of Science and IIM Bangalore, Sundarlalji would ask us to undertake padayatras. From the mid 1970’s to 1981, under Sundarlalji and Bimladi’s guidance, we trod on documenting the movement, and most crucially learning from women. We went to Advani and Badyargad, to Gangi and Phata, and other major locations of forest satyagrahas.

Sundarlal Bahuguna and wife, Bimla
Sundarlal Bahuguna and wife, Bimla | Credit Navdhanya archives

Sundarlaji was the continuity between our freedom movement and today’s ecology movement. He was inspired by Sri Dev Suman, and worked with Vinoba Bhave and Gandhi’s disciples, Mira and Sarla Behn. I have been blessed to learn Gandhian principles first from my parents, and later from the Bahuguna couple. Through Chipko, I learnt the practise of Satyagraha, of acting from truth, and refusing to obey unjust laws or follow unjust policies, based on violence against nature and people. These are the principles that have seeped into my thinking and influenced my work.

Sundarlalji and Bimladi are my teachers in Gandhian philosophy, that ecology is a permanent economy; that simple living in the service of others is central to making a shift from egocentric thinking and living to an eco-centric one. Egocentrism leads to greed, consumerism, and taking others' share. In contrast, eco-centrism leads to caring, sharing and giving others their due.

The three Gandhian principles that I have learnt from the Bahugunas are:

  • 1 Swaraj, self rule and self organisation
  • 2 Swadeshi, self reliance, local economy
  • 3 Satyagraha, the force of truth and the obligation not to cooperate with unjust laws.
I have been blessed to participate in the Forest Satyagraha, Chipko, to protect the Himalayan forests from the greed of commercial forestry and monoculture plantations. I was privileged to conduct the study on Doon Valley mining for the Ministry of Environment which led to a satyagraha for the mountains. It was an honour to support Sundarlalji’s Ganga Satyagraha to protect the river from the ravages of Tehri Dam. The satyagrahas for nature that he spearheaded have shaped contemporary Indian ecology movement. Because of his relentless efforts, green felling was stopped in the central Himalayas in 1981.

His ashram was destroyed in the 1991 earthquake. But he continued to spread his message of nonviolence and love for nature from his tent on the banks of the Ganga while undertaking his satyagraha to protect the Ganga.

Bimladi and Sundarlalji in Tehri
Bimladi and Sundarlalji in Tehri | Credit Navdhanya archives

Whether it was protecting the integrity of the Himalayan forests of oak and rhododendron in the 1970’s through the Chipko movement, spreading Chipko as Appiko in the western Ghats, or defending the integrity of Mother Ganga, Sundarlalji was the voice of nature, of the Himalaya, and of the Ganga.

His inspiration was not limited to India, having marched to protect the forests in Nairobi. I remember a journey with him to Mexico in the mid-1980s at the invitation of Ivan Illich and Gustavo Esteva. Richard Barbe Baker also known as the Man of the Trees wrote of Sundarlalji: “As far as I know, in the entire world Sundarlal is the only person who has gone on a fast unto death for trees. Sundarlal is my guru. And the Chipko movement is the leading movement for protecting our forests”. - p. 116 Himalaya Me Mahatma Gandhi ke Sipahi, Sundarlal Bahuguna K S Valdiya {Sasta Sahitya Mandal Prakashan, New Delhi 2017}

Chipko and Sundarlal Bahuguna received the Alternative Nobel Prize in 1987. In 2009, he was honoured with the Padma Vibhushan. In spite of awards and recognitions, Sundarlalji and Bimladi lived a life of simplicity and grace.

He came frequently with Bimladi to teach at the Earth University at Navdanya in courses on Gandhi and Globalisation and on Ecology. And whenever we had an opportunity, we would visit him and Bimladi. His life embodied the teachings of Gandhi “The Earth has enough for everyone’s needs but not for a few people’s greed”.

Sundarlalji with Bimladi in attendance, addressing Navdanya seed keepers in 1991
Sundarlalji with Bimladi in attendance, addressing Navdanya seed keepers in 1991 | Credit Navdhanya archives

Through his life, his teachings, his courageous activism, his creative ideas he taught me that to protect nature, we need to listen to her and to love her. Listening to the mountains and the rivers has become a survival imperative for us in India, and for the entire humanity. To listen to nature we need to listen to Sundarlal Bahuguna, follow his teachings, and the path he walked.

Speaking to the future generations Sundarlalji asks:

“Politicians have loudspeakers.

But who will speak for the tree that will be cut.

Who will come forward for the dying river?

Who will protect the mountains?

It is now time to hear the voice of the tree being cut,

the voice of the river, the scream of the mountain that is sliding. - ibid., p.116{original of the opinion page piece in Mathrubhumi daily of May 22, 2021, based on the author’s forthcoming memoir of Sundarlal Bahuguna}

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