`My fight is to save the Himalayas'

Print edition : August 27, 2004

Sunderlal Bahuguna with wife Vimla at his new house at Koti in Tehri. -

Interview with Sunderlal Bahuguna.

Environmentalist Sunderlal Bahuguna, 77, whose name has become synonymous with the anti-Tehri dam movement, is a dejected man today as he watches Old Tehri town go down under water. He is saddened by the turn of events. However, sitting in his new two-storeyed house at Koti, a little hillock overlooking the Bhagirathi river Bahuguna is as resolute as ever to continue his struggle. He says: "Those who swim against the current, those who fight for truth, have only four things in store for them: ridicule, neglect, isolation and insult." But people like him gain strength from truth as ultimately "truth prevails." "My struggle is for a comprehensive Himalayan policy and that struggle will continue irrespective of the fact whether there are any companions or not," he says.

Bahuguna was evacuated from Old Tehri to his new home on July 31 along with his wife. His personal belongings, still unpacked, are lying around in bundles and boxes. The Chipko leader, who carried a 19-year-long struggle against the dam from his hut on the bank of the Bhagirathi, spoke to Purnima S. Tripathi about his determination to save the Himalayas. Excerpts from the interview:

You spent most of your life opposing the construction of the Tehri dam, but the dam is now finally nearing completion.

The dam is going to prove disastrous for the country. There are two reasons why I say this. First, the Himalayas are fragile. I am afraid the dam will cause scouring of the hills, which will cause landslides. If ever the dam bursts Rishikesh will be under 263 metres of water in one hour, in the next 23 minutes Haridwar will be drowned, and within the next 12 hours Meerut, Bulandshahar and Muzaffarnagar will go under water. Building the dam amidst such fragile hills is dangerous. Another reason why I'm still opposing the dam is my fear that it will never be filled and all the money and effort that is now going into it will one day go waste. This is because the Gaumukh glacier, which will be feeding the dam, is receding very fast. The reason for this is that forests are being cut and hot air from the plains, since it is not being trapped in the trees, is directly going up to the glacier, increasing its recession. By 2025 the glacier will be gone completely. After that kya baltiyon se paani bharenge?(will they fill the dam with buckets of water?")

What about the Tehri people? They are yet to be rehabilitated and compensated.

The people have got a raw deal. Especially the villagers. Even if they have got land elsewhere, they have been deprived of their open spaces, which the mountains provided them. These open spaces used to meet their fodder, firewood and other requirements. Those spaces are no longer available to them. Besides, the sense of security, which used to be here, is not present in the areas to which they have been shifted. Men can no longer go out to work because they have to guard their houses. The spirit of freedom that a highlander enjoys has been taken away from us. There can be no financial compensation for that.

How big is the loss for you personally?

Why talk about it now? I owned land in two villages, now I have only half an acre of land. But more important than that is the fact that our history, geography, culture, everything is drowning. Our memories of childhood, youth, the freedom struggle, everything is going under water forever.

Do you feel defeated? Do you ever feel that your long struggle to stop the dam has gone waste?

No, I don't feel defeated. My fight is to save the Himalayas, and it will continue. My movement has not gone waste because it will give strength and direction to the fight ahead. Sooner or later my voice will be heard. Truth never dies, it ultimately prevails, no matter what. Our goal is to have a comprehensive Himalaya policy to save the hills. The Himalayas are a mountain of emotions, not rocks and boulders, and we must preserve and nurture it to save our culture, to save our souls.

But where are the people to take your fight forward?

Those who swim against the current are always alone. For people like me there are only four things in store: ridicule, neglect, isolation and insult. But there will be people associating themselves with us.

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