As Uttarakhand Votes, Here's Why It's Important to Rethink the State's 'Development'

Large-scale hydropower and other projects are destroying both the livelihoods and culture of local people.

Tehri dam in Uttarakhand. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Tehri dam in Uttarakhand. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Uttarakhand goes to polls again on Wednesday, February 15. The prime minister, campaigning for his party, called on the people of this ‘backward’ state to vote in the name of ‘development’. To bring development, he promised to build the 6,000 MW Pancheshwar dam. According to activists, this dam will significantly impact the Pithoragarh and Champavat districts of the state, submerging vast areas of land. He had also promised earlier to build highways and bridges connecting the chaar dhaam yatra route across the difficult high mountains. Despite heavy snow at such altitudes and the resultant closure of temples, the plan is to keep the highways open throughout all seasons, attracting tourists and invigorating the economy.

Such announcements overlook the demands for responsible tourism and construction in the mountains. In addition, it is difficult to think of this state with the mighty Himalayas and its life-giving rivers, the temples, its big-hearted people and their cultural-intellectual heritage, as ‘backward’. However, a one-sided notion of development has wounded the self-reliance and pride of the people of Uttarakhand. It remains incompatible with the geographical and socio-cultural realities of the state.

Uttarakhand saw a sustained movement for autonomy that resulted in its statehood in the year 2000. This movement was a demand for cultural and social proximity to those who govern, and the accountability of the bureaucracy and politicians towards the local people. There was a call for region-specific development that would address the needs of people on the ground. This was an assertion of the regional, community consciousness that was lost in all the talk off ‘national’ interests that demanded a greater ‘sacrifice’ from natural-resource-rich regions like Uttarakhand.

However, the two national parties that have come to power alternatively over these years in the region have failed to address local aspirations and concerns. As the reputed poet Manglesh Dabral from Uttarakhand says, “It appears that the state has come in existence only for MoUs, and not for governance”. Now that the bureaucracy and politicians have become more accessible, people also feel that the plunder of resources and corruption has become more rampant. Trepan Singh Chauhan, an activist, feels that “After statehood, petty politicians and illegal mafia have not only prospered but have assumed leadership roles”.

No wonder there are hill people who feel deceived and helpless. Even after attaining autonomy, they are struggling to draw the attention of political leaders. The hills of Gairsain remind the elusive leaders of the promise of establishing the capital there, so that they have a binding reason to visit the hills at least during the assembly sessions. The hill districts of Pauri Garhwal and Almora have recorded negative population growth in the last few years. More than 1,100 villages in hills have been declared as ghost villages, where no one lives. In most villages, social networks have broken as many families have migrated away. The sense of belonging and cultural affinity with the region is struggling, with people still lacking enough food, roadways, educational institutions, health facilities and so on.

It appears as if only those who do not have the means to migrate remain in the village – and even for them, the aspiration to have a home in plains is very much present. Families are separated, if not for livelihood opportunities then to avail of the education facilities of kasbas and towns. Young people mostly find jobs in the security forces or at hotels and dhabas, as their education qualifications do not allow for entry into better jobs. The state has more than 20 lakh unemployed, educated youth. More than 40 lakh people have shifted out of the state in search of a better life.

Corporate-driven ‘development’

The main step that political parties have taken to address this situation is introducing corporate entities to the state in the name of providing jobs, education and harnessing natural resources. There are close to 558 hydropower projects that are in different phases of construction and planning in the state. These companies have promised employment, road, schools, temples and other facilities to the villagers. But what people have got from them over the years is cracks in their homes due to the blasting that tunnelling and road construction for these projects requires. The jobs remain petty and only during the construction phase of the project, and are given only to a few. In addition, affected people are facing large-scale water scarcity and dried agricultural land, as the rivers have been diverted into tunnels. Hundreds of kilometres of the Ganga (250 km of the Alaknanda and 112 km of the Bhagirathi) will not flow on their usual paths but in tunnels after the commencement of the many projects. More than 5,000 hectares of forest land has been diverted for hydropower project construction.

People have limited amounts of land to themselves. Due to the construction of projects like the Tehri dam, the state has lost a lot of its most fertile land and continues to lose more for the upcoming hydropower projects. Of the state’s forest land, 21% has been declared as ‘conserved’, limiting the access of local people to natural resources in these areas. The declaration of forests like the Nanda Devi National Park as a world heritage site and the Gangotri area as an eco-sensitive zone only keep out the people who have traditionally conserved these areas. Poaching, environmental exploitation and the construction of hydropower projects continue unhindered, while the locals are sidelined.

Changing culture

In addition to development projects, land is also going to weekend tourists from nearby cities who have built their holiday houses there. Horticulture-rich regions like Ramgarh in Nainital have now converted into concrete jungles. There has been no attempt to enforce laws that prevent the sale of land to those from elsewhere or to impose a land ceiling. The widely scattered agricultural land has not been consolidated to enable sustainable farming. Farmers who still sow against all adversity get little yield, as the fields are attacked by increased populations of monkeys and wild pigs. Leopard attacks are becoming more and more common. The monsoons have become a threat for people, especially due to the increased fragility of the mountains after the irresponsible construction of infrastructural projects.

It seems that political parties have already forgotten the 2013 disaster. But in the minds of the Uttarakhandi people, development of the kind promised by hydropower projects is only associated with disaster. The fragility of the geography of Uttarakhand and its proneness to natural disasters should ideally lead to more responsible infrastructural construction here. But what the companies are doing is attributing the disasters induced by their practices to natural or environmental causes, compensating affected people meagrely using this excuse. Further, the entry of companies has affected the socio-cultural fabric of the villages. It is not unusual for companies to keep a few villagers on their payrolls to act as informers, keeping an eye on any possible resistance. The nexus of contractors, real-estate agents, the tourism industry, the mafia involved in illegal mining of sand and stones and construction companies has left the local people with little hope. Many who have written and and talked about this plunder and corruption have been labelled as anti-development and, in a few cases of social action, also subjected to police intimidation.

What has happened in the name of development over the years has led to a decline in the sense of pahari pride and the decline of local culture and lifestyles such as languages, architecture, food, folk tales and songs. Providing respectable and geographically, culturally and ecologically suitable work opportunities is an immediate need for the region. People in the region have a range of questions and it’s time parties started trying to answer them. Why has there been no sustained or successful initiative to support local enterprises in the region or to provide facilities for the sale of fruits and other products? Why should the people of Tons valley be forced to send their rice and apples to Himachal Pradesh, from where it reaches the rest of the country as Himachali products? Why, asks a teacher, Kailash Maityani in Gopeshwar, when Pepsi and Lays products reach the highest altitudes of the mountains, can Uttarakhand’s maltas not go beyond Devprayag?

A joint political platform of leaders, including Gandhians, environmentalists, Marxists and cultural activists, can provide a viable alternative beyond the Congress-BJP binary. Passing the buck from one to another, both parties have neglected people’s concerns. It is time for people to renew the debates on the kind of development the region really needs.

Shruti Jain is a research scholar at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Her PhD thesis is titled ‘Practices and Ideologies of Development: People’s Responses to Hydropower Projects in Uttarakhand’.