Uttarakhand at crossroads after its formation 23 years ago

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By Umakant Lakhera

NEW DELHI–The hill State of Uttarakhand is celebrating its 24th foundation day this week. The State was formed 23 years ago on November 9, 2009. Out of five consecutive terms BJP here formed government for three terms while the Congress was able to run the government for two terms, starting with the first elected government led by ND Tiwari, Congress heavy weight and former Chief Minister of UP, who served many important portfolios as union minister.

Though the state government began planning for development of the state soon after its creation, the development of villages in remote hill areas were totally ignored. No effective steps were taken for all-round development including the establishment of skill development units to encourage and generate local employment opportunities to the youths and quality education, empowerment of women and to strengthen the basic health care facilities. No serious efforts were undertaken to follow the concept of the other Himalayan state and the state was left at the mercy of the national political parties like Congress and the BJP.

Ironically, right from the seventies, people’s resentment started against the hegemony of the national political parties specially Congress which mostly ruled Uttar Pradesh, of which Uttarakhand was a part. Now for all practical purposes Uttrakhand has been converted like other states in plains without any specific concept of development.

The last BJP state government led by CM Trivendra Singh Rawat in 2018 vertically altered the land laws at the instance of prime minister office, opening the windows to promote the sale and purchase of the forest and farm land of hill district. Such a controversial land law was vehemently opposed by local social and political organisations but in vain. The controversial land law is known as Uttarakhand Land Amendment Act 2018. Through this Act, BJP government diluted the land sealing limit on agriculture land and lifted the restrictions on non-domicile outsiders looking for land for commercial purposes. The controversial amendment was a big jolt for the aims and objectives of separate hill state.

People felt that the fundamental objective of the creation of the new state has been defeated. The absence of a well-defined developmental vision, shortcomings in governance, dearth of employment opportunities, inadequate provisions for quality education and healthcare in remote areas, and a lack of consistent political will have collectively hindered progress and dashed the aspirations of the people over the prolonged journey of more than two decades.

The emphasis of the separate hill state movement took shape in seventies by local political outfit Uttarakhand Kranti Dal was centered on the formation of eight districts, including five from Garhwal and three from the Kumaun division. Haridwar district was incorporated later due to its geographical and demographic distinctions, being previously part of the Saharanpur district in western Uttar Pradesh and having a very low population of hill residents.

Reflecting upon the nearly two decades of governance by various state governments, it paints a concerning picture. The absence of a concrete developmental roadmap, especially for the youth and women, has been ironic as time progressed.

Initially, the formation of the hill state was premised on the idea of preserving natural resources such as water, land, and forests. During the post-independence era when states were being formed and restructured, a collective demand emerged to create a separate hill state to bring all-round development in the region. Experts and planners deliberated extensively on the future developmental needs of the hilly terrains. The predicament began to intensify when migration surged from remote hill districts of Pauri Garhwal, Chamoli, Uttarkashi, Tehri, Dehradun in the Garhwal region, and Pithoragarh, Almora, and Nainital districts in the Kumaun division.

The magnitude of unrest amplified when educated youth encountered dwindling employment opportunities. For a considerable period, the armed forces provided the primary job prospects for the youth from the hills. Unfortunately, even this option has waned in recent years due to controversial employment schemes.

Tragic incidents, such as the exploitation and killing of a 19-year-old girl named Ankita Bhandari in September 2022, serve as a somber example of the plight of young girls and women. The lack of an independent inquiry or any semblance of justice has made it nearly impossible for the family and bereaved parents to seek closure.

The concept of grassroots development veered off track when Haridwar, a district not initially part of the hill state movement, was subsequently included. This shift occurred due to opposition from the Akali Dal leadership within the Vajpayee government in 1999 to 2000 resisting the inclusion of Udhamsingh Nagar, a district of significant Sikh population with an agricultural background from Punjab. As a result, Haridwar, dominated by a non-hill population, became a part of the hill state, steering the focus away from uplifting the hill populace towards vote-based politics and populist schemes.

The journey of Uttarakhand, though envisioned to be a beacon of development, has faced multiple obstacles, shifting its trajectory away from its initial aspirations. The subsequent sections will delve into the myriad challenges faced by the state, the critical areas demanding immediate attention, and the potential solutions essential to rejuvenate the region’s growth and prosperity.

The evolution of human development in the hilly regions of Uttarakhand has taken a significant turn, shifting from its initial focus on the welfare of remote areas to a concentration on plans for urban centers. This shift has resulted in a significant disparity between the developed plain areas and the marginalized hill districts. The state’s budget allocation and developmental projects seem to favour the plains, neglecting the very population for which the state was established, triggering social unrest and economic tension among the hill communities.

One crucial aspect of this shift in development is the failure to establish a permanent capital for Uttarakhand. Despite the intent to have Gairsain as a summer capital, the state has not been able to determine a fixed administrative center. Dehradun, initially designated as a temporary capital, has now become the de facto administrative hub. However, its location is not centrally positioned and is inconveniently placed, excluding many western Uttarakhand districts, such as Pithoragarh, Champawat, Nainital, and Almora, from its administrative accessibility.

Ironically, Dehradun, once celebrated for its natural beauty and pleasant climate, has transformed into a densely populated urban area grappling with issues like pandemics, traffic congestion, urban poverty, and encroachments. The indiscriminate construction of high-rise buildings and apartments, especially in seismic Zone IV, has raised concerns about the region’s vulnerability to earthquakes, historically prone to seismic activities resulting in significant loss of life and property.

Notably, the negligence of vital reports such as the Ramshankar Kaushik committee recommendations has hindered the formulation of a cohesive development plan for Uttarakhand. The lack of a model hill state strategy has exacerbated migration from the hills to urban areas, driven by the pursuit of better opportunities in education, employment, and healthcare.

One of the critical repercussions of this development strategy is the inadequate road connectivity to remote villages, which significantly hampers healthcare access. The absence of proper transportation infrastructure forces critical patients, pregnant women, and the elderly to endure arduous journeys to reach healthcare facilities, resulting in tragic losses en route.

Note Environmentalists and Magsagasy award winner Chandi Prasad Bhatt pointed out ” various development activities in Uttarakhand, including road construction and urbanization, have led to man-made disasters. The 2013 Kedarnath cloudburst and subsequent tragedies underline the catastrophic consequences of such human interference, causing significant loss of life and property.”

Moreover, the government’s negligence toward the fragile ecosystem, including the melting glaciers and escalating urban pollution in the Himalayan range, is alarming. The excessive influx of tourists and pilgrims, especially during events like the Chardham Yatra, poses a severe threat to the region’s ecological balance. The idea of a ‘slower Chardham Yatra’ with controlled tourist numbers and designated halts along the way, proposed by activists like PC Joshi, aims to ensure the safety of both the pilgrims and the local populace.

In conclusion, the current trajectory of development in Uttarakhand prioritizes urban areas at the expense of the marginalized hill regions.

The lack of a comprehensive developmental model and the negligence of environmental concerns pose significant threats to the region’s future. It is crucial to reorient the development approach towards sustainable and balanced growth, focusing on the needs of hill communities and preserving the fragile Himalayan ecosystem.
Implementing policies that prioritize the development of remote villages, preserving the environment, and adopting controlled tourism strategies can foster a more inclusive and sustainable development model for Uttarakhand. These measures can address the socio-economic disparities and ensure the long-term welfare of the entire state, bringing equity and progress to both the hill and plain regions of Uttarakhand.

(The writer is a Delhi-based journalist.)

1 COMMENT

  1. Hey The Shooting Star India Tomorrow
    Thanks For Giving Information About Uttarakhand
    Congratulations on Uttarakhand’s 24th Foundation Day. The phrase at crossroads implies significant decisions lie ahead. What do you see as the key factors influencing the state’s path forward and how can these be addressed for a more promising future.
    Waiting For Such More Content On Himalayas.
    Love To Read On Himalayas.

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