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HomeChandigarhHimachal man who once marched shoulder-to-shoulder with Sunderlal Bahuguna is on a...

Himachal man who once marched shoulder-to-shoulder with Sunderlal Bahuguna is on a mission again

Kulbhushan Upmanyu, an agriculturist in Himachal Pradesh’s Chamba district, was in his late thirties when he marched shoulder-to-shoulder with renowned environmentalist Sunderlal Bahuguna back in the 1980s as part of the latter’s Kashmir-Kohima Chipko padayatra to save the Himalayan region. Now 74, Upmanyu says Himachal needs another mass movement if people want to see their homeland safe from the fury of nature.

Upmanyu is one of the founders of Himalaya Niti Abhiyan, an association working to protect the diversity and ecology of Himachal Pradesh. “Himalaya Niti Abhiyan was formed in 2004…the recent devastation in Himachal has made it more relevant. I would like to clarify that we are not against development but we are against unplanned, unscientific development which caused the destruction in Himachal Pradesh in the last three months,” he says.

Heavy and unprecedented rainfall in Himachal Pradesh between July and September resulted in widespread damage to public and private properties, overflowing of major rivers, road blocks, landslides, flash floods, destruction of bridges, and disruption of electrical and communication systems. More than 404 people died in rain-related incidents in the three months and as per the government, the state suffered a loss exceeding Rs 12,000 crore.

sunderlal bahuguna Kulbhushan Upmanyu (second from right in standing row) with Sunderlal Bahuguna (third from left standing row) in 1981 during the Kashmir-Kohima Chipko padayatra at Chamba.

“The recent devastation shook me. If the innocent people of Himachal Pradesh were killed, people from other states also bore the brunt of it. It is not the time to sit idle. Himalayan states need a mass movement to convince the authorities that the development of these areas should be according to ‘Himalaya Niti’ (planning according to Himalayas),” Upmanyu told The Indian Express over the phone from his house.

Upmanyu, who hails from Kamla village, has now ramped up the activities of his association, which he says is an open platform for like-minded people who want to do something for the mountains.

Upmanyu’s Himalaya Niti Abhiyan is not registered but enjoys the growing support of thousands of people across Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and some parts of the northeast. It has been demanding the appointment of a task force comprising technical experts and environmentalists and an inquiry commission to be headed by a sitting high court judge to assess and verify the causes of the recent devastation and fix accountability, and a geological and tectonic survey of Himachal Pradesh. The association has also sought the strict implementation of the 2009 Avay Shukla Committee’s recommendations prohibiting the construction of any dam on mountains more than 7,000 metres from mean sea level.

“We were against the four-laning of the Kalka-Shimla highway and Manali-Kiratpur highway and also opposed many mega- and micro-hydro projects over Satluj, Beas and Ravi rivers. We want development with conservation not development with destruction,” said Guman Singh, a long-time associate of Upmanyu and co-ordinator of the Himalaya Niti Abhiyan.

“Himachal is sitting on a disaster. Hydroelectric projects are being planned on fragile landscapes in the mountains where mere strong winds trigger massive erosion. We are now working on a mission mode inspired by the model of Sunderlal Bahuguna, who was present when Himalaya Niti Abhiyan was formed,” Singh added.

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Upmanyu says it is time “to take forward the torch of Sunderlal Bahuguna”. “Though Bahuguna is not among us physically, his spirit is still alive. If we want to see our state become prosperous amidst the growing unscientific development, we have to take forward the torch of Sunderlal Bahuguna,” he said.

Upmanyu joined Bahuguna in 1981. “The Kashmir-Kohima Chipko padayatra was for saving the Himalayan regions, including Jammu and Kashmir, which was then a state, Himachal Pradesh and many areas in the northeast. We went with Bahuguna and our collective efforts bore fruits,” he recalled. “Our agenda was to make the state government agree to our demand to stop the plantation of pine and eucalyptus trees. Then, the government agreed and passed orders not to allow further plantation of pine on pastureland and in the forest areas where villages were situated. Orders banning the plantation of eucalyptus trees on government lands were also passed. Later, we protested the setting up of a ski village in Manali in 2018,” he added.

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Upmanyu says he was so inspired by Bahuguna’s white patka (headscarf) that he chose to wear it throughout his life. For him, the white patka is a symbol of peaceful resistance – a form of protest that he hopes will bear fruit yet again.

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