The 1st of August 2010. I was in Rishikesh, living at Parmarth Ashram. I had made that choice to be away from the touristy humdrum. I didn’t know ashrams in Rishikesh attracted more tourists than the hotels. Yet, there’s something nice about having to follow a discipline regarding your meals and the closing time of ashram gates, for Mumbai never imposes such routine on you. It imposes other things, though.
Another thing about Parmarth Ashram that I did settle comfortably into was the evening Ganga aarti, the daily ritual of worship of river Ganges, at the ghat that belongs to the ashram itself. I never missed a chance to attend the aarti while I was there. It’s not something religious that drew me there evening after evening. It was the energy – the music, the water, the evening sky and people moving in unison as a homogeneous mass just as in a rock concert. Whether most of them get the words of aarti or not, they definitely get the mood and the mood gets them.
That evening I had rushed to the ghat. The afternoon rain had delayed me. As I entered the ghat, I located an isolated corner amidst the crowd of devotees and tourists and leaned against one of the pillars to catch my breath. My breath still louder than the sound of bhajan reaching my ears. Slowly, as my breath started to match the slow pace of the music coming from harmonium and tabla, I noticed a lone figure standing tall while others were sitting or were in the process of finding a seat. He was wearing a white bandanna on his head that matched his long white beard that hung below his chin, like glacial ice from a mountain. His kurta-pajama was white too. He was standing absolutely still and I think it was this fact that made me recognize him more than anything else for in past I had seen him only in some photographs in newspapers or magazines.
Sunderlal Bahuguna (born 1927 in Tehri region, Garhwal ) is a noted environmentalist of India, had participated in Chipko movement and had fought the Gandhian way against the construction of Tehri Dam.
I get a jolt of excitement on seeing Sunderlal Bahuguna in person. I pull myself closer to one of the managerial staff members of Parmarth Ashram.
‘Is this Sunderlalji Bahunguna?’ I asked to be sure.
‘That’s him. He’s staying at the ashram. Have you had a chance to meet him?’ He asked me with a smile. I shook my head in negative. He ushered me forward. Closer to the steps of the ghat. Close to Ganga. I found some space close to the river. To my left, not very far from where I was sitting, Sunderlal Bahuguna took his seat too.
The monsoon sky that evening exploded into beautiful purple and pink as opposed to the grey of previous day that was caused by the incessant rain. Mesmerized by so much colour I let my eyes roam and they soak in the visual of sky like two pieces of foam. My ears sink deeper into the music of aarti. I lose myself. The mood gets me.
After the aarti I looked for the same staff member hoping that he would introduce me to Sunderlal Bahuguna. But he was nowhere to be seen. I collected my chappals from joota-ghar and walked back into the Ashram. I did not find the man I was looking for. But I found Sunderlal Bahuguna sitting on one of the benches in the courtyard of Parmarth Ashram with his wife Vimla Bahuguna.
I stopped. Then I stepped up hesitantly and asked, ‘Are you Sunderlalji Bahuguna?’
‘What’s your introduction?’ He asked politely.
‘I’m a filmmaker and writer from Mumbai.’ I replied softly, afraid that my vocations might sound heavyweight and pompous.
He offers me a seat. I sit next to him, shrinking into myself. He asks me the purpose of my visit to the ‘region.’ I tell him that I have just returned from Joshimath after a trekking trip that had taken me to mountains and jungles above Joshimath.
‘Did you see the dams on your way?’
‘All throughout.’ I replied, for I had seen a few under-construction dams, the largest of which is the one coming up between Srinagar and Rudraprayag on Alaknanda river. At Devprayag, river Alaknanda joins river Bhagirathi and together they become Ganga.
‘Ganga has a natural way of purifying itself in the mountains. The dams are killing that process.’ Sunderlal Bahuguna told me the reason behind his question. His lament reminded of me of a similar occurrence that I had experienced myself few days prior to that. I share that with him.
While I was trekking in jungles above village of Lata at somewhere between 1500 to 4000 meters above sea-level, which on paper is a protected forest zone, I was feeling happy to be visiting such a haven. Then a sudden piercing burst shattered the peace around. I asked my guide if that was lightning or a distant cloud burst as we were trekking during the season when monsoon peaks and heavy rains had been forecast. It was dynamite blast, my guide told me.
The road that we had left below at Lata is known as ‘border-road’ and if one travels for another couple of hours on that road, instead of getting off at Lata, one would reach Niti Pass, India’s border with Tibet. Now China, for all practical purposes.
The road on the Indian side of the border is not much of a road. But across Niti Pass exists a fantastic road that Chinese have built. Once the Indians saw the ‘Made in China’ road, they panicked. They were reminded of 1962 when Chinese attack had caught India unaware and unprepared.
In their panic over the new Chinese road the Indian authorities somehow hauled a Maruti Gypsy all the way to Niti Pass and parked it there so as to bluff Chinese that even India has a motorable road right up to Niti Pass. But before that bluff is called off, India needs a real road. Hence the dynamite blasts blow the mountains out that stand in the way of the road. Not one blast but several of them a day.
Sunderlal Bahuguna gave a sad nod to my story. He must have heard it already. And then he said to me what he must have been saying for years because that is the very thing that he has been fighting against.
‘In the name of development we are destroying Himalayas.’
Sunderlal Bahunguna happened to be in Rishikesh on that evening because he was traveling to Dehradun to attend a meeting on the following day. The agenda of the meeting is protest against the dam that is being proposed at Gangotri, close to Gaumukh glacier, the source of Bhagirthi river.
Somewhere deep within Bahuguna knows that he probably will lose this battle too to the winds of development, just like he lost the battle of dam construction at Tehri. A battle that he had fought for fourteen years from 1980 to 2004 through repeated hunger strikes. He had to be evacuated forcefully when the reservoir had started filling. This time his plan is to urge the authorities not to build the dam close to glacier but move it further south of Gangotri. Instead of fighting for outright preservation of Himalayas he is willing to settle for dam of least destruction, the one that postpones the doom by a few years.
Himalayas span from Pakistan to India, up into Tibet and China and further westward into Nepal and Bhutan. Bhutan of all these nations is said to be the one that respects its mountains the most. The mountaineers are not allowed to summit peaks that lie in Bhutan as Bhutanese think of it as akin to setting your foot atop god. When you set your foot on mountain peak in Bhutan you commit a sacrilege.
Religion aside, mountains are sacred, because they are the generators of such ecosystems that breed and preserve life down in the plains.
I am sure activists like Bahuguna exist in all these Himalayan nations. And there must have been protests too when China tested its first nuclear bomb at Lop Nor Lake in 1964. After 45 or more such tests, climate change and exploitation for water the lake has disappeared and has become a desert. The lake was one its kind – first discovered by Marco Polo, it had earned the title of ‘The Wandering Lake’ as it shifted its position every year depending on the inflow of Tarim River that emptied into it – an inland basin.
But there was applause too. The first nuclear test that was done at Lop Nor gave China a proud status of nuclear-state and that too in the time of Cold War when nations used to get bullied by the thought that either US or USSR would bomb them back into stoneage. Peoples Republic of China became a proud nation.
The dilemma that lies in front of generation-now of these Himalayan nations is whether to allow these mountains to be blasted to rubble and let its lakes and rivers perish in name of national security and development or to stand-up in defense of these natural and ecological wonders that are so far largely looked upon only as tourist or pilgrim spots or mountaineering destinations.
As my conversation prolongs with Sunderlal Bahuguna his wife urges that I should excuse them now. She wants her husband to have some rest before the long meeting that awaits them in Dehradun next morning.
I stood from the bench and asked Sunderlal Bahuguna, ‘Is there anything you would like to suggest that I or people like me should do, not that we can do as much as you have done, but still whatever little we can do in our limited capacity?’
He replied ‘I have done nothing. I have just blown the bugle and announced that danger lies on this path. Now its up to you people to save yourselves from peril.’