Chipko’s relevance: Present-day activists have much to learn from Sunderlal Bahuguna’s life and Chipko
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In November, UK and Italy will co-host a global climate conference called COP26. One of the goals of the meet is to persuade all countries to work towards reducing net emissions of greenhouse gases caused by human activity to zero by 2050. A pathway to the goal up for discussion revolves around ways to curtail deforestation. A global summit in 2021 which plans to discuss deforestation highlights how far ahead of its time was the Chipko movement, spearheaded by Sunderlal Bahuguna who passed away last week.
Chipko was a product of the restless 1970s, though the seeds were sown earlier. It’s arguably the most impactful environment movement India has witnessed in recent memory. What makes it unique is that the call to action was not top down, catalysed by complex science. It was a grassroots movement in Uttarakhand where the forest became the focal point of both environment and livelihood issues. If Bahuguna and his associate Chandi Prasad Bhatt were the faces of the movement that began in March 1973, its durability and impact came from villagers in the Himalayas, particularly women. Lived experience of villagers was the motive force of the Chipko movement.
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The environmental damage wrought by deforestation in the Himalayas is not in question. But the lessons continue to be ignored. Bahuguna, who was noted for his aphorisms, observed “ecology is permanent economy”. The increasing incidence of extreme climate events is extracting an escalating economic cost. Development versus environment is a false argument. They are intertwined. As the global movement towards leaving behind this false binary gains momentum, India needs to revisit the lessons of the Chipko movement. So should representatives at COP26. Chipko had an impact because the environmental home truths overwhelmed political differences. Progress in the fight against climate change needs the same spirit.