Dehradun: On a chilly morning in late December, I reached Dehradun after an eight-hour-long train journey from Delhi to the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand. I was there to meet Vimla Bahuguna, who, together with her husband Sundarlal Bahuguna, spearheaded the Chipko movement for conserving trees, which is now in its 50th year.
They are two of India’s most celebrated environmentalists.
Sundarlal Bahuguna was 94 years old when he died of Covid-19 in May 2021.
As I caught a bus to Vimla Bahuguna’s house in the city, I wondered what it would be like to interview the 91-year-old I had read about in school.
Following a recent discussion on the Chipko movement in my class on environmental storytelling in college, I realised it had been 50 years since the people of Uttarakhand launched the iconic campaign. A few days later, came the news that the scenic town of Joshimath in Uttarakhand was sinking because of environmental degradation and unsustainable development. I wondered what Vimla Bahuguna made of it.
As early as eight in the morning, the roads of Dehradun city were jam-packed with cars, buses and other vehicles and the air filled with dust made breathing difficult. I was left with burning eyes, constant sneezing and a migraine that lasted the whole day.
I found this strange because the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand is widely regarded as a place filled with refreshing mountain air and lush green trees, making it one of the most sought-after places by tourists.
When I met Bahuguna later that day and told her how sick I felt because of the pollution, she immediately understood and related.
“I am too old to take a stroll outside, but whenever I do, I always feel difficulty breathing,” she said.
Initially, in awe of her half a century of activism and mindful of her age,
I felt nervous about asking her the long list of questions I had prepared. But she put me at ease, answering each one with patience and a smile.
While the nonagenarian leader narrated many tales of the Chipko movement, I was struck by the pride and pleasure with which she shared interesting nuggets about people, places and events.
“Those were the days when people were struggling to make ends meet because of rampant poverty and unemployment, especially in villages,” she said. “Yet the poor people of the hills refused to cut down trees for money.”
Over tea and biscuits, Bahuguna and I spoke for two hours. As I was leaving, she told me to visit her again and to keep doing stories about the environment.
When I called her a few times with a few follow-up questions, Bahuguna responded with the same enthusiasm she had when I was with her. When I shared the published interview with her, Bahuguna said she did not read English well and would wait for someone to translate it for her.
Read Jyoti Thakur’s full story here.