THERE ARE THREE things I have in London that together are of special significance: a coloured cotton bolster, a half bottle of water and a graceful tree. The cushion is a gift from Sunderlal Bahuguna, the bottle he carried from the Himalayas and contains water from the sacred Bhagirathi River, beside which he fasted for seventy-four days in 1996 against the construction of the Tehri dam, and the tree is a towering ash under which he recited the prayers of the Chipko (hug the trees) movement. Less romantic is a filing cabinet of news clippings which tells many stories of his self-sacrifice as a satyagrahi fighting against some of the most destructive development projects, such as the Tehri dam, in India today.

Sunderlal's life has been one of unremitting devotion as one of India's foremost Gandhian workers, a torchbearer of peaceful non-co-operation or Satyagraha against unjust order. Also, as a Chipko activist, he encapsulates the natural spirit of the mountain people healthy, courageous and sturdy. His ancestors sought spiritual solace in the Himalayas, leading a life of austerity and committing them- selves as fighters "guarding the frontiers".

It is hardly ironic then that in the dusk of his life Sunderlal's principles would be cruelly tested at his doorstep. A mere birdsong from his ashram (a spiritual community) and at the heart of India's spiritual inspiration, the headwaters of the Ganges and the Bhagirathi, the construction of the massive Tehri dam has focused all of Sunderlal's skills as a satyagrahi. "It appears that God is subjecting us to the toughest and most difficult challenge of our life," says his fellow fighter and wife, Vimla.

He married his wife Vimla, also a devoted and determined social activist. Vimla's condition on marriage was that they were to work in remote villages, and together they established their ashram. They taught in the villages, mobilized people against colonial rule, worked for the welfare of the harijans (the untouchables), lobbied against deforestation and encouraged forest-based small-scale industry. They protested tree auctions, thus commemorating the Chipko movement and got a moratorium on cutting forest trees on heights above 1,000 m.

Following the Gandhian tradition of spreading the message through folk songs, spiritual discourse and foot marches, Sunderlal set off to walk 4,870 kms across the Himalayas where he saw the relentless pace of deforestation, erosion and devastation brought about by development projects on the fragile mountain ecosystems and the subsequent social impoverishment of the villagers. He submitted his findings in reports to the UN. Sunderlal's message rattled local forestry officials and spread the Chipko message to other parts of India.

SUNDERLAL WAS BORN by the sacred Ganges and has been inspired by the holy Himalayas. The pledge he made nearly forty years ago to devote his life to serving people and saving the environment has culminated in a decade-long struggle against the construction of the controversial Tehri dam, planned as the sixth highest in the world, ousting 25,000 people and devastating one of the most sacred and beautiful Himalayan landscapes.

Following in the footsteps of Mahatma Gandhi, Sunderlal has conducted long fasts on the banks of the Bhagirathi river, demanding a full and independent review of the dam. In 1995, he called off a fast of forty-five days when the then Prime Minister, Mr Rao, promised him that work would halt and they would appoint an independent committee to review the social, environmental and economic aspects of the dam. The success was short- lived. The Prime Minister reneged. As the promise was made to him and then broken, Sunderlal embarked upon a physically shattering second fast or vrata, as a voluntary penance for having failed the people who were looking upon his previous fast to secure them justice. Despite pleadings from his friends not to undertake such a course, Sunderlal felt that it was a necessary penance for being taken in by the Prime Minister's deception.

To worried friends who feared for his life, Sunderlal wrote a letter which explained the true meaning of this action. "Himalaya is a land of penance. Nothing in the world can be achieved without penance. I am doing this on behalf of all who are striving to save our dying planet. Why should a river, a mountain and forest or the ocean be killed,while we cling to life?"

On the seventy-fourth day of his vrata Sunderlal broke his fast because the new Prime Minister, Mr. Deve Gowda, intervened, stating that he would appoint two committees to review the dam, one of which was to be drawn up by Sunderlal.

Sunderlal has now appointed people of his choice for one of such review committees. And in the meantime he continues his campaign against the dam and for the well-being of Himalayan people and their culture.


Katherine Goldsmith has been working to support the anti- Tehri dam movement in Britain.