Uttarakhand Polls: Concerns of Hill Areas Find No Mention in Parties' Development Agendas

Successive governments in the state have favoured the development of plains over hills despite the fact Uttarakhand was formed to give thrust to hill-centric development.

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As Uttarakhand votes in its fifth assembly election on Monday, February 14, the state continues to be plagued by the same issues that drove people in the hills to demand their own state.

Although it has been more than two decades since the carving of Uttarakhand in 2000 out of Uttar Pradesh to give thrust to hill-centric development the issues of mountain dwellers (Paharis) have failed to find a place in the electoral agendas of political parties. Successive governments in Uttarakhand have favoured the development of plains over hills.

Sadly, this election is no different, offering little to no hope for the mountain dwellers.

The people in the hill areas could not call the new state their “own” as two large districts of plains Haridwar and Udham Singh Nagar – despite opposition – were made part of the state. The seeds of division between plains and Pahar (hilly areas) were thus sown during the state formation itself. Consequently, the favouring of plains over hills in the distribution of resources and the neglect of the hill areas due to geographical remoteness – the main complaint of Paharis  still prevail.

For Paharis, the capital Lucknow was far away when they were part of Uttar Pradesh. Even before Uttarakhand came into being, Gairsain, a hill area central to its Garhwal and Kumaun divisions, was visualised as the capital. However, the ruling parties refused to move beyond the comforts of the already developed Dehradun city. Thus, Uttarakhand remains perhaps the only state which does not have permanent capital. Instead, it has a temporary capital in Dehradun and a summer capital in Gairsain.

Also read: Governance Report Card: Uttarakhand and Its People Have Paid a Heavy Price Under BJP

The continuing focus on plains instead of mountain districts even after more than 20 years of the state formation is also evident in both chief ministerial candidates Pushkar Singh Dhami of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Harish Rawat of the Congress preferring to battle it out from plains constituencies of Khatima and Lalkuan respectively.

‘Ghost villages’

Given the pitiful state of education, health, employment and connectivity in the mountain villages, most Paharis move to the plains for opportunities. Many villages are reported to have been totally depopulated due to out-migration, prompting the coinage of the term ‘ghost villages’. Such a state of hill villages compelled the government to constitute a Migration Commission in 2017, which found that between the Censuses of 2011 and 2017, 734 villages were completely deserted, and in 565 more villages, the population decreased by 50%.

In the delimitation exercise carried out for assembly constituencies, solely based on population density in the past, the seats in hills decreased from 42 to 36. The two plains district of Haridwar and Udham Singh Nagar alone account for 20 seats now (out of the total 70 seats), whereas geographically larger hill districts like Pithoragarh has only four, and Rudraprayag and Champawat have two seats each.

With the population density in plains increasing, there have been fears that in the next delimitation exercise, due in 2026, the number of assembly seats in hills areas would further decrease if geography is not factored in but only population density. This would only further the political clout of plains at the cost of hills, depriving the hill districts of much-needed political attention, power and development funds.

Due to the increasing influence of plains districts, any institutions of quality and employment generation initiatives remain limited to the plains. Both the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) (Kashipur) and the State Infrastructure Industrial Development (SIDCUL) have been set up in the Udham Singh Nagar district. Similarly, AIIMS (All India Institute of Medical Sciences) has been set up in Rishikesh which falls under the Dehradun district, which forms part of the plains region.

However, on the other hand, the hill districts virtually do not have any quality healthcare facilities. It is no wonder one often sees news items such as these in local dailies:

“Woman gives birth in Dholcchina jungle (Almora district) in rain in the peak of January winter.”

“Newborn baby dies in Bhawali (Nainital district) as the mother was forced to give birth on a road as ambulance never arrived.”

“A mother warms milk over a candle to feed a newborn child in Pithoragarh’s hospital.”

A CAG (Comptroller and Auditor General of India) Report of 2021 provides details of the deplorable state of district hospitals in Uttarakhand which ranks 17th among 21 large states on the health index with only Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh behind. The only function of hill district health services seems to be referring the patients to either Haldwani in Kumaun or to Dehradun-Rishikesh in Garhwal. Never mind the costs involved and the fact that many succumb before even reaching these places, travelling at times for even more than 10 hours from remote hill areas.

Due to a lack of ambulances, a sick woman is being carried to a local government dispensary in Kaljikhal in the northern state of Uttarakhand on May 23, 2021. Photo: Reuters.

Most hill families remain fragmented as they somehow arrange to send their children to cities for education in absence of quality educational institutions in their vicinity. The few universities in the state remain marred with corruption and irregularities in the recruitment of faculty.

Quality education institutions may not have come up in Pahari areas, but liquor shops have opened in every nook and corner. In a state that is known for the movement nasha nahi rojgar do (give us employment instead of addictives), the unemployed youth are either migrating for petty work or getting addicted to drugs and liquor. The few men left behind in the villages are addicted to liquor, creating trouble and increasing the burden of livelihood and household work on the women.

Lack of hill-specific agricultural policies

Agriculture on which the Paharis depend for sustenance has been badly impacted by a range of issues that remain unaddressed. Climate change impacts are quite visible on agriculture and have led to a substantial reduction in yields. Various climate change impacts also get highlighted by repeated disasters in the hills, but climate change considerations remain missing from the state’s development planning.

The state also does not have hill-specific agriculture policies. Over the years, crop damage by wild animals (monkeys, wild boars, langurs, bears) has intensified so much that the farmers are leaving their fields barren across hill districts. Water is becoming scarcer for household and agricultural use. The demands for consolidation of scattered agricultural fields (chakbandi) to enable sustainable farming have borne no results in the state.

Also read: People in Indian Himalaya’s Middle Ranges Most Vulnerable To Climate Change Impact

A crucial concern behind the demand for a hill state was to have development that is suited for the region’s particular geography and ecology. Due to a violative development path that ruling parties have chosen to take, disasters have become more common, and more calamitous in Uttarakhand.

After the formation of the state, it is either the BJP or Congress which have alternated power and both have favoured and nurtured the growth of a development mafia that has hollowed out the state. Instead of the development of hills, the formation of a smaller state has materialised in more efficient exploitation of its resources for corporate and political gains.

Distorted development 

What Uttarakhand hill areas have received in the name of development is numerous hydropower projects, promotion of a misconstrued form of tourism and large-scale illegal mining. In addition to being forced to languish in a state of deprivation in absence of education, health and road facilities, a destructive development is shoved down the throats of Paharis.

A look at the case of Reini, a tribal village of the Chipko movement fame in the Chamoli district, is enough to show the condition meted to hill villages in the name of development. Rattled by the February 7, 2021 flood, the village has been seeking rehabilitation from the hydropower companies operational in their area, but in vain. These companies were allowed to carry out heavy blasting for the construction of tunnels and underground powerhouses, muck dumping in the rivers and large-scale deforestation in an extremely sensitive area.

Aerial view shows washed away Tapovan hydel power project plant after Sundays glacier burst, in Chamoli district of Uttarakhand, Friday, Feb. 12, 2021. Photo: PTI.

This has led to fractured fields, destabilised slopes, drying up of water springs and crumbling homes in the villages in the vicinity, effectively forcing people to move out with no one held responsible for their plight.

In addition to hydropower projects, mining has been equally damaging for the rivers, aggravating the impact of disasters on mountain dwellers. Rivers across Uttarakhand have been dying due to heavy mining. The state has further carved a space for illegal mining using heavy equipment in the name of channelising river flows by framing a River Training Policy, 2020.

Another construction project that is projected as development through promoting tourism is the Char Dham road widening project. Even though the Tanakpur Pithoragarh highway along with the highways connecting the Char Dhams remain blocked most often than not, as rocks have loosened – and many active and fatal landslide zones have developed along these roads due to heavy blasting and muck dumping by the riverside – the government has twisted its way out to continue widening work in the name of national security.

Also read: The Aftermath of the Chamoli Disaster in February Is Still Playing Out

While so much is being done to help tourists by widening the roads, the hill villages have been waiting for long for small stretches of roads and transportation facilities to connect them to towns, for education and health services. For tourists, including in the guise of pilgrims, reaching the peaks at the same speed as they travel in the plains is projected as desired through all-weather roads. Never mind that the Char Dham roads are themselves not all-weather, as they stay closed for about six months covered in snow. And it does not rankle the conscience of the pilgrims that the crumbling mountains have taken the lives of so many on these roads.

Whereas Paharis are forced to flee from their homes, the prime hill lands have been acquired by those with resources from Delhi and Mumbai for building their luxury homes, abusing and taking over the available resources like water.

For instance, most of the land in Nainital has been bought by outsiders in absence of enforcement of laws to prevent such sales or to impose a land ceiling. This has also led to anger among the natives, especially youth agitating through social media for strong land legislation to prevent outsiders from buying land like in another hill state of Himachal Pradesh.

Nainital is also a prime example of a misplaced pursuit of urbanisation and heavy concretisation in the name of development and promoting tourism. Weekend tourists come here looking for the same brands, concrete structures and luxurious stays from which they are supposedly taking a break and seem to have no interest in hills sanctity, carrying capacity and culture.

That the mountain dwellers’ concerns and aspirations have not been addressed even after more than two decades of state formation is clear from the fact that most of them either wish to flee from the hills or are forced to migrate in search of livelihoods and safe places to stay. Any party that comes to power, if it continues to neglect the hill areas, will only deepen the angst, fears and erode the sense of identity and belonging among the Paharis in what was to be their “own” state.

Shruti Jain is a postdoctoral fellow with the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi. This position is part of FutureDams consortium, an initiative led by the University of Manchester and the International Institute for Environment & Development, London.