In the more than eight decades of his existence, legendary environmentalist and Chipko visionary Sunderlal Bahuguna has never been witness to the kind of devastation that Uttarakhand has seen recently. In an interview, he explains why the government can no longer ignore the environmental concerns of the locals.
Tell us about your escape. We heard that you had to be carried away from the rising waters?
I have never seen so much rainfall at a stretch and the rivers near where I stay in such great spate and fury. The place where I stay, not very far from Dehradun, is next to two rivers and the waters kept increasing and entered my room. That’s when others carried me away to safety. The level went as high as the shoulders soon after.
With this kind of devastation, do you ever feel the Chipko Movement has been rendered a futile exercise?
Unfortunately, the government still really hasn’t understood the movement. It really was a people’s movement and the government failed to understand the feelings and sentiments of the people. It has hardly taken any lessons from it.
Other than dams, what are the main causes for the kind of degradation we are seeing in the hills?
Mainly unscrupulous development, like unplanned roads and facilities for tourists, that has led to widespread deforestation.
You have said there should be ropeways instead of roads. What other alternatives do you propose?
Decentralised power generation using smaller hydroelectric projects will help a lot.
Shouldn’t the locals also aspire to a lifestyle similar to those in bigger cities?
Our villages should have the minimum facilities so that people are not forced to flee their villages to the plains for employment. But urbanisation of the kind seen in cities is certainly not an answer.
A lot of the damage inflicted is also by locals. Do you think the people of Uttarakhand generally are still concerned about their environment?
Yes, definitely. There have been so many other movements after Chipko that have been pushing for a local resource-based economy, protecting eco-sensitive zones and our rivers. When has the voice of the rural people ever been heard? The government always claimed their cause was an emotional one but they can’t say so after this disaster. This is a lesson and we must change our policies.