What does the forest bear?
Soil, water and pure air.
Soil, water and pure air
Are the basis of our life.

Chipko folk song

Sunderlal Bahugana is a small, bright-eyed man with a laughing voice. His unassuming exterior conceals a strength and determination which has been a driving force behind Chipko Andolan, the now world-famous tree-hugging movement which started among the Himalayan villages of Uttarkhand in 1973. I caught up with him on one of his rare visits to Delhi and although he was busy he immediately agreed to see me. The next morning at 8 o’clock he welcomed me like an old friend in the room at the Gandhi ashram where he stays when in town.

Sunderlal does not like to be in Delhi. He would far rather be out among the villages where his work is, speaking with the people, educating them and encouraging them, urging them on to fight for the protection of their environment. On this occasion he had come to the nation’s capital to lobby politicians as part of his long-running campaign to stop the Indian government building what will be Asia’s largest dam across the Bhagirathi-Ganges River at Tehri.

Sunderlal’s fight to save the Himalayan environment began in 1973. He was working among his native villages as a Gandhian community worker ‘dedicated to the highest good’. One of the major threats to the mountain people was the steady loss of their forests, cut down by commercial logging companies from the plains. This had been going on for a long time. It began when the British, having exhausted their own forests, looked to India to supply their timber needs for building their ships and firing their factories. By the 1850s there was a growing demand for railway sleepers and more and more of the magnificent hardwood forests of the Himalayas were being destroyed.

The people of the mountain valleys had always depended on the forests for their livelihood in one way or another, but they had never simply taken from them – they had preserved the forests for future generations, using only what they needed in a sustainable way. Now all that was changing. The government took over the forests and sold felling rights to timber contractors. Year after year the foothills became more and more denuded. Where trees were replaced after cutting, it was with faster growing and more profitable, but environmentally less desirable, pine trees instead of the Himalayan oak and deodar for which the hills were famous.

By the 1950s it was becoming apparent to many that the deforestation of the hills was having serious environmental consequences. The trees were being treated as a disposable source of instant wealth to feed industry, but they were also an essential protection for the land. Trees captured the moisture of the heavy monsoon rains and released it gradually into the river system, ensuring a steady round-the-year supply of water to the plains. They also held the fragile mountain-sides in place. Without tree-cover, they became disaster areas. Flash floods and landslides became regular occurrences and have been responsible for a growing toll of death and damage throughout the second part of this century. Diminishing forests also meant the drying up of mountain springs, loss of topsoil, fuel, fodder and fertiliser – all essential for village economy.

In 1973 things came to a head and a group of villagers who had formed a self-help action group decided it was time to stand up for their rights. They hit upon the idea of hugging the trees to prevent the axe-men from cutting them. “When a leopard attacks a child, the mother takes his onslaughts on her own body,” reasoned one of the activists. Thus the Chipko movement was born. The word Chipko literally means ‘to hug’. As soon as the village people began to gather to protect the trees they met with success. Time after time they were able to prevent contractors from cutting the trees down.

Sunderlal, passionately dedicated to campaigning for justice for the rural people, soon became the messenger and spokesman of this movement, and began to travel widely throughout the Himalayan villages. His classic method of spreading the word was the padayatra, marching on foot from village to village. In each village he would stay overnight and teach the people the value of their forests and encourage them to join in the Chipko movement. One of the Chipko folk songs recorded the confrontation that had taken place when a forest officer had been sent to persuade villagers to give up their struggle:

The forester asks:

What does the forest bear?
Resin, timber and foreign exchange.

To this the village women reply in chorus:

What does the forest bear?
Soil, water and pure air.
Soil, water and pure air
Are the basis of our life.

Here is a confrontation between two conflicting world-views. One sees nature simply as a commodity to be sold on the world market, and the other sees it as something sacred, the ‘basis of our life’. Through songs such as these, talks and debates, Sunderlal was able to convince local people that their own villages depended on the survival of the trees. Together with his co-worker, Chandi Prasad Bhatt, he succeeded in creating widespread support for Chipko among the villagers. This in turn lead to pressure being brought on the government to change their forestry policies.

In 1980, after years of campaigning (which included periods of public fasting) Sunderlal forced Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to declare a complete ban on commercial green tree felling in the Himalayas in the state of Uttar Pradesh. By this time he was becoming a well-known figure in India, and this was a major victory for him, but he was not satisfied. His desire was to take his campaign onto the wider stage. In 1981 he undertook an eighteen-month walk along the full length of the Himalayas, a distance of almost 5,000 kilometres. With personal good wishes from Indira Gandhi, he set out to visit villages and study the condition of the forests and valleys from Kashmir to Nagaland, the easternmost state of India, bringing his message to many who had never heard it before.

Sunderlal, now in his sixties, is now famous in India and in the international environmental movement. He writes, gives talks and is regularly invited to visit the west. He still spends time each year walking through his native hills and talking with the villagers. Having brought world attention to the deforestation of the Himalayas, he has now dedicated himself to stopping the construction of the Tehri dam. If this dam is completed it is calculated that it will submerge 11,000 acres of Himalayan valley, including the town of Tehri and 24 villages, displacing over 80,000 people. Of it Sunderlal says, “Such dams are disastrous. They do not serve any purpose. What you achieve is an illusory magnificence after a great deal of destruction. This is practically cheating the people.”

Sunderlal is a deeply religious man and his personal life is highly disciplined. He has always been a follower of Gandhi’s principles, and was particularly influenced by Mirabehn, one of Gandhi’s close disciples, in his youth. His actions are closely modelled on Gandhi’s, who said, “My life is my message.”

According to Gandhi, society is based on four pillars – Authority, Wealth, Army and Philosophy. “You may be surprised to know how philosophy is a pillar,” comments Sunderlal, “But all through human history these three, authority, wealth and army have been supported by philosophy. Everybody has a philosophy. Hitler had a philosophy, Stalin had a philosophy, Napoleon had a philosophy, and their philosophies have been supporting so many things.”

Gandhi’s first proposal was to replace Authority with Service: rather than demand obedience, governments should serve the people and encourage the people to serve one another. He further said that Philosophy should be replaced by Good Conduct. In other words, religion was meant to instil good behaviour in people – to be a way of life – not just a philosophy. This was why Gandhi said, “My life is my message.” Gandhi went on to say that Wealth should be replaced by Austerity, or the power to exercise self-control, which has long been accepted in India as the mark of true wealth. “You may have cows, elephants, diamonds and jewels,” goes the Hindi saying, “But once you find inner peace all this wealth will seem like dust.” That peace, as taught in the Gita, can be found through self-restraint. Finally, Gandhi concluded, if these other principles are practised there will be no more need for the Army which can then be replaced with Peace.

In accordance with Gandhi’s ideas, Sunderlal believes that personal morality and selflessness lie at the heart of any effective attempt to change the world. In his own words:

“Bhagavad Gita, our basic book of Hindu philosophy, tells us to carry on acting – doing things in this world – but without any desire for the fruits of our action. Every action has some result, good or bad, which we call the fruit of action. Krishna says that we should act without desire for this fruit. It is not I that am saying this – it is the Almighty: our duty is to work without any selfish end. This is a way of self-purification also. When we do only outward action and we do it for material gain, with no sense of inner purpose, then it does not purify us internally. Our work should be such that elevates us, that makes us more and more noble. This should be our objective in life, to do all work as divine work.”

Sunderlal’s work is not simply about the external environment. To change the world he must start with himself. It is from the heart, he says, that change must come.

“Your actions should be dictated by your heart, not by your head. The combination of these three – head, hands and heart – will make a balanced personality. These three represent the basic elements of the Gita – Knowledge, Action and Devotion. The difficulty today is that we have big heads – too much knowledge – so we try to solve all our problems just with knowledge. Unfortunately our destinies today are being decided by intellectual prophets and technocrats. Modern man has a big head, very feeble hands and no heart. We are unbalanced. The whole of life is unbalanced. That is the cause of the problems we are facing on every front.

“What we need is a human outlook. Instead of being human beings we have become socialists, capitalists, environmentalists – we have so many ‘isms’ – but we are not human beings. Gandhi said, ‘I have no ‘-ism’ – the day people will make an ‘ism’ out of me, I am dead.’ So the first thing we need is HUMANism. We should be human beings first, and human being means to have a balanced personality. This means being balanced in head, hands and heart. What we need today – from our heads to our hearts – is that whatever we are thinking we should feel. Today you think what you don’t feel! We have no heart, so it won’t feel anything. The world has become so complicated, so many things are happening, that they can have no impact on our heart. We only think about those things, we do not feel them.”

Finding balance is a theme of Sunderlal’s. Our mistake is to see problems in isolation from one another, forgetting that the universe is a single whole, that all problems are interlinked. He explains:

“Today we are seeing problems in pieces, whereas we should have a holistic view of the whole thing. We are just like the traveller going from one country to another and collecting stickers on his baggage – this airline, that airline – and in the end the whole baggage is covered with stickers and the actual thing disappears. Similarly today, we view problems with different angles and the real problem disappears: we only see the ‘isms’ outside.”

The key to Sunderlal’s success, he says, is that he has always concentrated on educating the masses. He has made great use of folk-songs, such as ‘The Appeal of a Tree’, originally written in Hindi, by folksinger Ghanshyam Sailani, a dedicated Chipko activist:

I have been standing for ages,
I wish to live for you.
Do not chop me, I am yours.
I wish to give you something in the future.
I am milk and water for you.
I am thick shade and showers.
I manufacture soil and manure.
I wish to give you food grains.
Some of my kind bear fruits.
They ripen for you.
I wish to ripen with sweetness.
I wish to bow down for you.
I am the pleasant season.
I am spring. I am the rains.
I am with Earth and life.
I am everything for you.
Do not cut me, I have life,
I feel pain, so my name is tree.
Rolling of logs will create landslides
Remember. I stand on slopes and below is the village.
Where we were destroyed,
Dust is flying there.
The hilltops have become barren.
All the water sources have dried up.
Do not cut us, save us.
Plant us, decorate the Earth.
What is ours is yours.
Leave something for posterity.
Such is the Chipko movement.

Travelling on foot-marches from village to village, Sunderlal carried songs such as this and told stories about Krishna. “During the campaign against the Theri dam I fasted as a protest,” he recalls,

“Then, when my fast was over, at the same place where I had been fasting on the dried-up bed of the river (it had been diverted in order to build the dam), we organised a ceremony to hear the story of Krishna for seven days. Through that story we explained the relationship of human beings with nature. The story of Lord Krishna is very popular in India. We have one week’s programme in which the whole story is recited and people come with great devotion bringing offerings of rice, vegetables or fruits – that was the old system. What we did was to explain the whole story in terms of three things: your relationship with your inner self, with society and with nature.

“For example, Krishna goes with his cowherd friends into the forest and says, ‘See how magnificent is this tree. This tree is living for others, not for itself. It gives shade to everybody. We should envy the selflessness of this tree and we should learn from this.’

“Women came with a handful of rice to listen to the story and the new interpretation of their religion, and the government people said, ‘Oh! so many people are coming here and the movement is gaining strength!’ They were so terrified that on the sixth day they put a ban on the entry of the people, posting police all around and telling people it was dangerous to enter. I said, ‘Let the women come!’ But the police prevented them because they were very much afraid of our strength. Religion amongst the people is so powerful. We organise the people, educate them and collect a handful of rice from each family – that means the involvement of each family – and people take a pledge to work for our cause and so it goes on.

“There are people in India who are very devoted to religion and that is the secret of success of the Chipko movement. We tried to interpret religion in its real sense. Ritual has done so much harm to religion in India that people have forgotten the real spirit of religion. The body is there, but without any heart. We have to revive the real spirit of the religion. This is what we did in Chipko movement.”

Feeling oneself to be one with nature is the great environmental message of Hindu culture, according to Sunderlal. Hindus see life everywhere, not only in human beings, but in trees, birds, animals and insects – a oneness of life in all creation – and they have a worshipful attitude towards this life. “Some see nature as a commodity,” he says, “They see a tree not as a living being, but as timber! But Hindu culture teaches us to worship life.”

Another aspect of Hindu culture is its respect for austerity. One who has less is the most respectable person in Hindu society. There are many examples – the sadhu, who lives alone devoted to religion with few possessions; the sannyasi, who has given up his family in order to teach and accept disciples; the brahmin teacher, who depends on charity. “Why is it that hermits were respected in our society while Kings were not?” asks Sunderlal. “Because one whose material needs are less will take less from nature.”

Traditional Hindu culture is in sharp contrast with today’s materialistic society which Sunderlal sees as having started from the Industrial Revolution. That revolution brought fundamental changes in human thinking. It destroyed the harmonious relationship between nature and humanity by teaching us to see nature as a commodity. It established human beings as the masters of nature, with science and technology as their tools of power to control and exploit, taking more and more for themselves.

“We have to chip at the roots of this thought,” insists Sunderlal, “And that we did through religion. We said, ‘See how Krishna has become one with the universe by his love for everything. When he plays on his flute the peacocks dance and the cows shed tears: the whole forest becomes happy, and this way Krishna enjoys himself.’ The Yamuna River, where Krishna bathes, is something living, she is loved by Krishna too. When the many-headed poisonous serpent Kaliya came and polluted the Yamuna with his venom, Krishna drove him away. And who is this Kaliya? He represents the pollution of our present day! Kaliya was polluting the river, and by that had become a nuisance for the whole society, for everything. This pollution is the Kaliya snake and every citizen has to play the role of Krishna today. That means you have to become like Krishna – a lover of all life; at one with the universe. Until you become ‘Krishna’ you cannot save this river from being polluted; you cannot save this world from being exploited by the demons like Kaliya.”

Sunderlal sees the problems of the world in profoundly simple terms. He says that our three great enemies are War, Pollution and Hunger and they are all linked together. People have been taught to want more and more, and in order to get it the big powers fight for control over the places where there are resources like timber or minerals. To maintain their spheres of influence, Sunderlal says, the Western countries have created the arms trade. Never in the history of humankind was the sale of arms such a big and profitable industry as it is today. Through it they are able to maintain their living standard. Poor countries have no choice but to export their only resources – cutting down their trees and poisoning their soil with chemical fertilisers to produce cash crops for export. “The best land is all used to earn foreign exchange,” he explains, “Whatever land is left is quickly drained of goodness and the water is polluted by manufacturing industries. This means, in a way, soil and water are exported to pay for arms. Soil and water are the two basic resources of humankind – if these are destroyed the people will starve and that is what is happening.”

In the face of these problems does Sunderlal feel there is any hope?

“Yes there is hope to change. Young people are needed who have hearts full of compassion and creative minds to find out the solutions and hands which are ready to serve. We need to bring three types of people together in small groups wherever they are. First are humanitarian scientists, who will use their knowledge to mitigate the miseries of human beings and mother earth. Then social activists who are impatient to bring a change through non-violent means. Third are compassionate artists, musicians, journalists and literary men and women. These three types of people should come together in small groups and find out the solutions to the problems.

“These three people are the symbols of three basic principles of the Gita – knowledge, action and devotion – jnana, karma and bhakti. Action, karma, is the way to communicate to the people – you must become the symbol of your thoughts and ideas – but the most important element is bhakti, devotion. Without it there is only argument. This is why the path of devotion has been regarded as the easiest path. When your mind is arguing and your hands are fighting, only devotion can help, can allow you to accept everything.

“Change is sure to come, but it will come only when these three types of people come together. Today they are apart. They are all very impatient to do something, but they are not in contact with each other. These people are very few, yes, but always in history a small minority has been able to change the course of society. They have always been swimming against the tide, but ultimately, because they had solutions for humanity’s problems, they changed everybody.”

Sunderlal Bahugana is one of those few.