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`It's a question of survival'

Sundarlal Bahuguna's disarming laughter and simple logic would mellow even a diehard sceptic


A CHILDLIKE laughter that suddenly lights up the furrowed face and one refrain stays in your mind long after you meet Sundarlal Bahuguna. The pioneer green of India — who made history back in the Seventies by hugging trees in the Himalayan range and challenging tree contractors to fell him too — punctuates every second sentence with "it's a question of survival."

"It's like the cartoon I saw in the Seventies," he says. "It was of a pigmy running with a huge tree tucked under his arm. Someone asks him what he is running away from, and the frightened man says: `Don't you see? The road is following me!'" This, for Bahuguna, is a metaphor for the lopsided logic that guides all our developmental efforts.

"Man has become a butcher of nature," says Bahuguna. The results are already beginning to show. The Gangotri glacier is receding and scientists have warned that the Ganga might just begin to dry up soon. "The era of the water crisis has begun." He adds, a thoughtful pause later: "If there is a III World War, it will be over the issue of water. So, it really is a question of survival."

If we do want to survive, we better buck up and do something about it quick enough. For starters, Bahuguna offers a 3-A formula: austerity, alternatives, and afforestation. Gandhi, his greatest inspiration and ideal, spoke about it long ago. Nehru once saw Gandhi washing his face with just a glass of water in Allahabad and asked: "Why such miserliness in the land of the Ganga and Jamuna, Bapu?" Gandhi said: "But they are not flowing for me, are they?" Bahuguna himself gave up eating rice 23 years ago because it's a crop that requires large quantities of water, something not sustainable in the long run.

We are running out of not only water but also place to grow, says Bahuguna. "So what do we do?" he asks, and answers it himself, accompanied by his characteristic laughter: "We look upwards!" So, we plant trees and start eating more tree-based produce. "Fruits and nuts. They are good for your body too... Tree farming, that's what we now need... Trees for survival."

But given the modes of consumption we are already addicted to and the complex point our politico-economic structure has reached, is there really any chance of moving back to Gandhian ideals of austerity, you wonder. Bahuguna laughs again: "Who says it's moving backward? I am talking of moving forward. Gandhi was a practical, far-sighted man... Tell me, where does the question of moving forward or backward even arise when you are running towards survival?" Like the pigmy in the cartoon.



Bahuguna offers a 3-A formula to protect nature: austerity, alternatives, and afforestation. -- Photos: K. Gopinathan

But are all the alarming statistics and all the danger signs making us any wiser? In fact, isn't the environmental movement itself now far more complicated than it used to be in the early days of Chipko Movement, with a range of political affiliations and interest groups being involved in it? The complex, fragmented picture doesn't fit into Bahuguna's worldview. "BJP, Marxist or whatever... You can't go into all that when it's a question of survival, can you?" He strongly feels that there should be a national consensus on fundamental issues of survival and people should raise them during elections.

But if you are the kind to look upon all simple arguments with suspicion, you might still want to ask Bahuguna if the trajectory of Narmada valley struggle isn't itself proof of how complex environmental issues have become. Isn't the scene depressing for a man who went on a 74-day fast in support of the environmentalists' demands, finally to no avail? Can questions of political economy ever be divorced from those of survival?

Again the disarming laughter surfaces. "Politics is temporary, but spirituality is permanent," he says. And it is this inner core of spirituality that keeps his conviction and spirit alive, despite all the dismal signs. He points out that while you are angry when you go on a hunger strike, you surrender yourself to the Almighty when you fast. As his other mentor, Vinobha Bhave, once put it, what takes world towards Sarvodaya are Vijnan, Vishwas, and Vedant.

Scepticism, the hallmark of our fragmented, post-modern world, doesn't die easy. But when you watch the laugher on a wizened face — against the backdrop of a jackfruit tree in the garden of an old house that hasn't made way for an apartment block in Malleswaram — you are less inclined to be cynical.

BAGESHREE S.

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