A strong demand from the people for a hill-centric development triggered an agitation for a separate hill state in the mid-1990s. It led to police firings that resulted in several deaths and maiming of statehood activists before Uttarakhand was carved out of Uttar Pradesh in 2000.
Eighteen years on, the hill-centric development for which the highlanders carried out the long-drawn agitation continues to elude them, feel many. “The growth in the region all these years remained confined to infrastructure like roads, etc. The political class failed to reorient even that growth to benefit the highlanders,” said SS Pangtey, social activist and a former civil servant, referring to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress that have been alternately ruling the state since its formation.
Activist Sushila Baluni, who was on the forefront of the long-drawn statehood agitation, said: “Pahar ekdam khali ho rahe hain (The hills are emptying out fast),”referring to forced migration from the hills to the plains. “What will the people do, if not migrate from the hills?” Baluni said and added: “Agriculture, their only source of livelihood, has turned unremunerative, their children are forced to go to schools without teachers and their pregnant women die for want of healthcare facilities.” Lack of hill centric development, she pointed out, is the main reason behind forced migration.
Prof MC Joshi of Kumaon University blamed the political class for completely ignoring the hill model of development, which was the main battle cry of the statehood movement. “The hills continue to remain untouched by growth as was the case before the state’s formation,” he said. Joshi added that the state did witness some growth during Congress veteran ND Tiwari’s chief ministership but that too remained limited to just three plain districts.
“We have schools and colleges in the hills but not enough teachers to run them,” said Joshi. “Similarly, state-run hospitals lack required equipment. Acute paucity of doctors is also a problem that remains to be solved.”
No infra benefits
People admit that there has been progress in some spheres but dubbed it as insignificant as it “hardly benefited” the people. “There had been some progress, of course. For instance, they have built the road network right up to the China border,” said Pangety. “But what use is such a road network if it fails to add to the state’s economy or generate employment,” he asked.
Referring to Trivendra Singh Rawat government’s initiatives to propagate organic farming in the hills, Pangety said: “Those initiatives are worth appreciating but they are being taken up only in some pockets and are not backed by marketing avenues. For hill farmers, organic farming continues to be as unremunerative as normal farming.” Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a year ago that Uttarakhand would be developed as an organic state.
Prof Joshi said the growth initiatives “that are being taken up now should have been taken” immediately after the state’s inception 18 years ago. Prof M C Sati of HNB Garhwal (Central) University appreciated centrally-funded projects such as the Chardham all-weather road project and the Rishikesh-Karnprayag rail line project coming up in the state. “Those schemes are no doubt very crucial but they came a tad too late as their benefits will reach the people in the future only,” Sati said and added that 18 years since the state’s formation were wasted years in terms of growth.
Analysts say the problem started with the political class not pushing for development based on the hill model of growth. “They continued to try the growth model suitable for plains like Uttar Pradesh in the mountain state,” Sati said. This mismatch, together with lack of vision on part of politicians, left no scope for hill-centric development in the mountain state despite the latter being rich in natural resources. “Consequently, the hill agriculture turned unremunerative while basic facilities like health care, schools and connecting roads eluded the highlanders forcing them to relocate.”
Sati said the activists’ long-pending demand that Gairsain, the hill state’s centrally located hill area be made its permanent capital, too, was closely linked to their mountain perspective of development. “They felt that a permanent capital at Gairsain would boost development in the hills,” said Joshi said and added that the then BJP government instead chose Dehradun, a plain area, as the state’s capital. “Consequently, development remained confined to three plain districts, leaving the rest 10 hill districts economically backward grappling with migration,” Joshi added.
Power to panchayats
Rawat government’s move to set up a Village Development and Migration Commission a year ago to address the problem of forced migration evoked mixed reactions from analysts. Some called it a move in the right direction, while others termed it a “belated step”.
Pangety said the initiative that aims to facilitate a hill-centric growth would fail to serve its purpose if power is not devolved to panchayats in compliance with the 73rd Constitutional Amendment Act. “Till then, it will not be possible to boost development in rural areas or check related corruption or exploitation of natural resources like land, water and forests that sustain the essentially, agri-pastoral economy of the mountain state,” he said.
Hari Chandra Semwal , additional secretary, Panchayati Raj, said the state government enacted the Panchayati Raj Act in 2016 but admitted that all the 29 departments were yet to be brought under the jurisdiction of the panchayat bodies.
Strong land laws
Statehood activist Prof Shekhar Pathak said failure of successive governments to introduce strict land laws contributed to forced migration. “Land sharks took advantage of the weak laws and the cash crunch faced by small-scale farmers who sold their already shrinking agricultural land for non-farm purposes and migrated,” he said.
Pathak said the rest of the Himalayan states, including the northeastern region, have strict land protection laws. “In Himachal Pradesh, let alone non-native, even those from urban areas of the same state are not legally permitted to buy land in rural areas,” he said. “In sharp contrast, we have neither strict land laws nor any records to show how much prime agricultural land we have lost to non-farm purposes like industries as no land surveys have been carried out in the state for about 57 years.”