‘Saving Ganga became a movement only because of Bahuguna’s work’

Magsaysay award-winner Dr Rajendra Singh recollects his association with the man behind Chipko Andolan and the first voice against big dams and their environmental impact

Dr Rajendra Singh (left) with Sundarlal Bahuguna in Dehradun on March 27, 2021.

If the forests of Himalayas and the rivers they gave birth to are alive it is because of late Sundarlal Bahuguna, said Magsaysay award winner Dr Rajendra Singh on Friday (May 21), paying tributes to the pioneer of the Chipko Movement who died of COVID in Uttarakhand on Friday. Bahuguna was 94 years old.

Sundarlal Bahuguna was a fierce opponent of Tehri dam on the Bhagirathi river (Ganga) in the 1970s and gained popularity because of the ‘Chipko’ (hugging the trees) movement, which drew the world’s attention to the ill-effects of cutting trees.

Dr Rajendra Singh, who had known Bahuguna for more than 30 years, said he was the first person in India to talk about environment and its conservation. “Our traditions and way of thinking, living have always been environment-friendly. But Bahugunaji was the first one to talk about saving rivers and forests,” said Singh, who admits that his present struggle to save Ganga is greatly inspired by Bahuguna and his works.

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Dr Rajendra Singh, known as the ‘water man of India’, first met Bahuguna at Tarun Bharat Sangh in Bhikampura (Rajasthan). Those days, Dr Singh was busy with his work of reviving small rivers that originated from the Aravalli mountain ranges by promoting traditional water conservation techniques, like building check dams or ‘johad’. Bahuguna told him, “Rajendraji, it is good you are working towards reviving small rivers, but you should come with me to Tehri in Uttarakhand and tell people there the importance of building small check dams and how such micro structures on rivers will not only save Ganga but also retain the greenery of the Himalayas.”

Small dams over big ones

Inspired by Bahuguna’s words, a 120-member team of Tarun Bharat Sangh, led by Bahuguna and Singh, started a yatra from Galta in Jaipur to Gangotri in Uttarakhand to create awareness about saving rivers.

“Bahugunaji told me that Bapu’s (Gandhi) dream of gram swarajya can be fulfilled by building small traditional dams and not huge cement structures like the one proposed on Ganga at Tehri.”

Bahuguna opposed a dam at Tehri because he knew that building large dams will block the natural springs that provide water to Bhagirathi (a headstream of Ganga), which would eventually kill the river. “He said we need to go back to our traditional practices and knowledge, which promote the idea of building small structures on rivers that stop water without affecting their flow,” said Singh.

The Magsaysay award-winner, who has been credited with reviving several rivers all over the country, recalled an incident during their 40-day yatra, that showed Bahuguna’s in-depth understanding of water. “Bahugunaji had told me that we should not eat rice because production of one kg of rice needs 3,500 litres of water. I agreed. But one day, the cook by mistake made rice. Bahugunaji smiled and said, ‘If people working in the area of water conservation forget the importance of water, then how can we take this movement forward.’ He was very disciplined in his thoughts and acts, but soft-spoken and had the ability to unite people for a cause,” said Dr Singh.

Chipko Andolan

The ‘Chipko’ Andolan (movement) was started in Gora village of Uttar Pradesh in 1974 by local women, who hugged trees that were about to be cut. “It was Bahugunaji who took the movement all over the world. So much so that people think he was the one who started it. He may not have started it, but he was definitely the one who enlightened people about the importance of not cutting trees,” said Dr Singh.

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It was because of Bahuguna’s effort that the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, put a 15-year ban on cutting of trees in 1980.

The man who protected Himalayas and Ganga

Dr Rajendra Singh says he was drawn towards Ganga and its plight because of Bahuguna. “He was a man of few words but a lot of action. He inspired people like me and late G D Agarwal, who died trying to save the Ganga. If saving Ganga has become a movement today, it is only because of the pioneering work done by Bahugunaji.”

The man never waited for anyone to join him. “Ekla chalo (walk alone) was the mantra of Bahugunaji. He kept doing his work with full dedication and consistency and his wife Vimalaji stood behind him like a rock,” said Dr Singh.

About Tehri dam

Bahuguna once said in the context of Tehri dam: “If the next generation of India has to survive, then the greenery of Himalaya and the purity of Ganga need to be protected…Ganga doesn’t just belong to three states but to the whole nation. Big dams should not be built at all.”

“He lived by his word. Bahugunaji dedicated his life to conservation and protection of forest and rivers. He said Himalaya’s greenery and the purity of Ganga, if maintained, will make India Vishwa Guru once again. If this thought percolates into our psyche, it will enlighten our conscious (antarchetna) and, thus, bring the society back to its original path of knowledge (gyantantra),” Dr Singh said.

It was Bahuguna and his pioneering work that saved dense forests in the upper regions of Himalayas — the region was declared an eco-sensitive zone; national parks were established and people paid attention to saving the Himalayan glaciers, said Dr Singh.

The Magsaysay award-winner said a true tribute to the legend will be a steely resolve of the government and the society to save Himalayan forests and rivers. “If dams are built, the Himalayan rivers will die. And if rivers like Ganga die, no river in India will survive,” said Dr Singh quoting Sundarlal Bahuguna’s words.

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