Based on an Interview with Vimala Bahuguna: Life-long Activist against Tehri Dam
Bija Vidyapeeth, Dehradun, Uttarkhand 3, December 2010
When the contractors shut the gates of the dam to flood Tehri Valley, the water arrived at her door. Police came and told her to leave. Eventually, as the water flooded her home, she left by boat.
“The action satyagraha, sitting at the river bank, changed perceptions – now people see the cost of building the dam,” Vimala Bahuguna says of her and her husband’s struggle protesting the Tehri Dam. She says a “new awareness” emerged. For nearly five years the protest prevented the dam from being built. Over the course of the protests, 16 activists were killed in an allegedly arranged bus accident.
Vimalaji recalls the river culture, “where a woman could safely walk at night in the jungle with all her jewels, they had total confidence.” After the dam, she says, “they are a terrified people.” Shiva remembers that there were hundreds of temples in Tehri, it was an agricultural valley with broad fields, she remarks that the “Ganga basin was the most fertile in the world because the water carried the silt. Now the silt is held back by dams.”
After India’s independence, Vimalaji yearned for higher education. She joined the Lakshmi Ashram, started by a follower of Gandhi. At the time, the burning question for all, was: “How could Swaraj (self-rule) be shared by all?”
Long before she protested Tehri Dam, Vimalaji, coming from a middle class family was used to having people work for her. She was unaccustomed to cleaning and difficult labor in the ashram she joined. With her teacher as a role model, she says, “bit by bit we started to grow – love of labor (shraamdaan) became a central part.”
When her family wanted her to marry, instead she went to Vinoba Bhaves ashram. She eventually returned to the mountains to assist with a campaign to end alcoholism, where she met Sunderlal Bahuguna. Before marrying, she wanted to think and was not yet ready, her father was angry and told her: “The doors of my house are closed to you. How will you ever find such a good match?”
She wanted to work for civil society and he was a congressman. She asked for one year of contemplation time. Adhering to Gandhian philosophy, she believed that anything of value had to happen at the village level and that she needed to work there.
Her future husband, Bahuganaji did not object, he was willing to be patient because his wife to be was independent, he was even willing to abandon the Congress party. He went to work in the villages and eventually 24 rupees from each side were spent on their wedding.
With Bahugunaji’s work as a journalist, they were able to support themselves. He reported from the villages to newspapers and she worked to end alcoholism and teach girls in exchange for food and grain. His articles brought in about 15 rupees per month.
With the women, Vimalaji fought to close down liquor shops, “Women began to see their powers.” At one point, all three generations were put in jail, her mother, her and her 6 year-old son. “female shakti (power) is not just for farmwork,” she says.
When they realized the strength they had if they all worked together, they moved out to the forests. They tied sacred thread around trees, and “For eight years they committed themselves… The contractors got clever, got men from Nepal to cut at night. The women started to protect day and night for 8 years – all based on the strength of community,” Vimalaji recalls of what became known as the Chipko movement.
“Chipko could never have happened without women…” they had not yet realized their power beyond the household, “but they faced jail without fear. They faced the burning of their huts in the forest by the contractors.”
Vandana Shiva and Vimala Bahuguna met during their work with the Chipko movement. “We walked to spread awareness” Vandana Shiva adds, the Chipko movement spread in India under different names.
Vimalaji and Shiva explain together, “The women knew then, as they still know now that the forest is what would protect water, soil and air.”
Vimalaji believes that if India is to be protected, that nature must be protected. As Vimalaji says, “Nature will dismantle the dam.” In response to the question of, “What is today’s salt?” Vimalaji responded that it is: “Whatever challenge is in front of you.”
Based on an interview and excerpts from talk given at Bija Vidyapeeth, December 2010 and The Road to Survival, by Sunderlal Bahuguna. Compiled and edited by PK Uthaman. Mathrubhumi Books, 2009.