Fifteen Years of Uttarakhand: The Slow Annihilation of a ‘Hill State’

With unmitigated ‘developmental’ policies in the last 15 years in Uttarakhand, the state is perpetually inching towards cultural, demographic and ecological annihilation.

A deserted village in Pithoragarh district

A lot of water has flown down the Ganga since Uttaranchal, later renamed Uttarakhand, became India’s 27th state on 9 November 2000.

In these 15 years, much of the snow on the sublime Himalayan peaks has melted, layers of rich soil have been washed away due to rapid erosion, and political instability has made sure that the state has seen eight Chief Ministers.

However, what has not changed is the people’s perception of nature. Married to the western notion of ‘conquering’ nature, they have nonchalantly witnessed disasters without learning a single lesson.

On its 15th anniversary, Uttarakhand is suspended between hope and despair. What exactly is leading to the cultural, demographic and ecological annihilation of this beautiful hill state?

The founding philosophy

 

As the Uttarakhand movement gained momentum in the 1990s, one of the key demands was to revisit the man-nature relationship.

Contrary to popular belief, the movement was less political and more an environmental movement. A primary concern was the cultural and ecological conservation of the Kumaon-Garhwal Himalayas. The people of the hills believed that the ‘development model’ that the parent state of Uttar Pradesh had for the hills would prove to be catastrophic. The catchword for development in the hills, in their perception, was ‘act locally’.

Between 2005-06 & 2013-14, Uttarakhand grew at 12.3%. It did well on other development criteria too

Hence, Uttarakhand was carved out with the intention that it will be a ‘hill state’ that would represent the grievances of the hill people. That it would protect the ideals of sustainable development and ecological protection, stop widespread corruption, usher in employment, education and equality, and provide new avenues for social, economic and political mobility.

This was especially true for the people on the margins, mostly located in deep, inaccessible interiors of the mountain state.

In its 15 years of existence, successive governments have not really lived up to their promises.

Discrimination in the guise of development

Uttarakhand has traveled a considerable distance on the path of development. Sectors like education, infrastructure, health and transport have improved in recent times.

The state has successfully maintained its impressive GDP, witnessed the growth of industrial belts and the number of tourists (both foreign and domestic) have increased.

District-wise investment since 2000
District-wise investment since 2000                       Illustration: Mukesh Rawat

The ‘Uttarakhand Annual Plan 2013-14’ points out that the state has attained an average growth rate of 12.3% between 2005-06 and 2013-14. The per capita net state domestic product has increased from Rs 16,232 in 2002-03 to Rs 90,843 in 2012-13.

The document, though, accepts that inter-district data shows a skewed picture, suggesting a concentration of wealth and development in certain pockets only.

In its 2011 report, the New Delhi-based PHD Chamber of Commerce and Industry rates Uttarakhand second in industrial investment, third in primary education, sixth in health services and 11th in agriculture. The National Productivity Council ranks Uttarakhand third in terms of economic strength and seventh in infrastructure among the 14 small states in the country.

Having said that, one also needs to scrutinise the price the state has paid for these achievements, as well as who the beneficiaries of this ‘robust’ growth were. In achieving these milestones, has the state been able to keep true to the reasons which led to its formation in the first place?

Figures available with the Directorate of Industries, Uttarakhand reveal a sorry state of affairs. Government reports suggest that in these 15 years, only the three terai (plains) districts of Dehradun, Haridwar and Udham Singh Nagar have been beneficiaries of ‘development’. The 10 hill districts have been systematically discriminated against.

The net industrial investment in these three plain districts is nearly 15 times than in the other 10 hill districts combined.

The three terai districts had an investment of Rs 33,420.452 crore, while the 10 hill districts had a combined investment of just Rs 2,147.488 crore.

District-wise employment generation from industrial investment since 2000
District-wise employment generation from industrial investment since 2000 Illustration: Mukesh Rawat

The contrast can be understood from the fact that while far-flung districts like Bageshwar and Champawat received meagre investments of Rs 20.534 crore and Rs 24.492 crore respectively in 15 years, districts like Haridwar and Udham Singh Nagar saw an investment of Rs 19,300.327 crore and Rs 13,041.283 crore respectively.

Similarly, the employment generated in these three plain districts (2,05,174) is more than four times the combined number in the 10 hill districts (48,071).

The hills form 86.07% of the state, but have received just 6% of the total industrial investment

This wide gulf in investment and employment between the hills and the plains is despite the fact that the state received a Special Industrial Package from the Centre from 2003 to 2010.

The hills, which form 86.07% of the geographical area, have received just 6% of the total industrial investment since 2000. These figures speak volumes of the divide between the hills and the plains. It’s clear that while Uttarakhand has achieved considerable ‘development’, the destiny of the hills has been steeped in darkness.

Massive migration from the hills

In a region where migration for jobs has been an economic reality since independence, the scenario in the neo-liberal era has not changed. In the absence of even rudimentary services in villages, like primary schools, people are still compelled to migrate in search of greener pastures.

It’s ironic that the state which is a source for scores of the country’s life-giving rivers is seen as a graveyard for farming.

Distribution of industrial investment since 2000
Distribution of industrial investment since 2000 Illustration: Mukesh Rawat

According to the ‘Uttarakhand Annual Plan 2013-14’: “Migration of population from the hill districts to plain districts due to non-availability of economic opportunities is resulting in demographic vacuum as well as demographic substitution in vulnerable and sensitive border areas. This, in turn, has led to a high population growth in the plain districts, resulting in shortage of land for agricultural and industrial expansion.

“The 2011 Census reveals migration from all hill districts of the state. Except two hill districts, all others hover around a population growth rate of 5%, with Almora and Pauri districts showing a negative population growth of -1.73% and -1.51% respectively against a national average of 17%.”

This negative growth rate is not a consequence of family planning or spreading awareness. It’s simply because of massive migration in the last decade. This reflects the absence of livelihood opportunities in the hills and the yearning for a better quality of life. Clearly, dissatisfaction of jobs and lack of opportunities is creating a demographic vacuum.

The Directorate of Economics and Statistics, in its report ‘Uttarakhand: at a Glance 2013-14’, states that according to the 2011 Census, there are as many as 1,048 villages which are ‘uninhabited’. With the present trend, this number is likely to increase.

Changing concepts in changing times

 

The hill community, for generations, has maintained a healthy and peaceful co-existence with the environment. This is reflected in the rites and rituals, the festivities and the folk songs. Unlike the western notion of ‘challenging’ nature, the hill people believed in establishing a synthesis and companionship.

The voluptuous rhododendron blooming in the forest, the sensuous Nanda Devi, the mesmerising monsoon drizzles, the return of migratory birds from their wintry beds in the plains, the alpine meadows and the ‘holy’ rivers jingling down the slopes – all had their indispensable relevance for a pahari.

Nature was our friend, with whom we played, sang, danced and celebrated. It was blasphemous to even imagine that nature could be annihilated or conquered.

However, with the construction binge that, of late, has ‘colonised’ the hills, these values and cultures are seeing a major paradigm shift. Consumerism and the commodification of nature and society have triggered an invisible cultural annihilation.

In this mad race to colonise the green, the original pahari has systematically been pushed aside. Take the example of towns like Nainital, Mussoorie, Bhimtal and Bhawali. The pahari, who once was the owner of the land, has today been kicked to the edge of the towns and forced to live in shabby-looking tin shelters, eking out a life on ragged road-side kiosks or working as domestic help or part-time labourer.

The hill people are by no means inimical of settlers from the plains. All they long for is participative development; development in which they too have a say; development that does not seek to corrupt the cultural heritage of the hills. They reason, why can’t we take an amorphous resolve to make the world a beautiful place for all to live in? Should not then the new settlers be sensitive towards these? The message is simple- come to the hills to explore and entertain and not to exploit and destroy

The questions that remain

So where does Uttarakhand go from here? Should it follow the Himachal Pradesh model of an agro-based economy, instead of following the Uttar Pradesh model of development?

Can a unique geographical landscape with a fragile Himalayan ecology tackle the big business neo-liberal onslaught?

Can tourism and industry acquire a different form and character? Can local ecology and culture survive the onslaught of opulent outsiders with deep pockets?

On its 15th anniversary, these are some of the questions haunting the simple folk of Uttarakhand. As another winter arrives, one wonders if a ray of sunshine and hope will follow.

-By Mukesh Rawat

  • (An edited version of this article was published in Catch News on November 12, 2015 and can be found here.)