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Blueprints for Change: Charting the Course for Policy & Political Transformation in Uttarakhand

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By Dr Prem Bahukhandi

In the rainy season of 1994, some of my college friends and I experienced our first encounter with the Uttar Pradesh Police, being arrested while protesting the brutal lathi charge on students and demonstrators in Pauri. This marked the beginning of a recurring pattern, with almost daily instances of the police resorting to lathi charges, firing tear gas, and arresting and mistreating protestors advocating for a separate Uttarakhand state. During the three to four years before the establishment of the new state, thousands of individuals, ranging from students to older people, were subjected to detention and oppressive measures.

The question arises: why were they protesting and facing such brutal behaviour from the then-state government? What was the reason behind it? Were people asking for a share in the government system, or were they seeking a political transformation to develop an organic development model that could suit the unique geographical conditions of the hilly part of the state? Unfortunately, many leading agitators were not clear on these questions. They dreamed of becoming ministers or chief ministers in the new and small state, so the fundamental question still needs to be answered today.

Even then, and persisting today, most Himalayan residents have minimal influence in shaping policies that significantly impact their lives. In the past 25 years, particularly after the formation of the separate state in 2000, those who were inactive in the statehood movement or other social, political, or environmental causes have assumed leadership positions in the state’s political arena. Unfortunately, they do not understand the reasons, philosophy, and ideology behind creating the new state.

In 1994, people were seeking a new state with distinct and unique characteristics of the bureaucracy, a vibrant and functional legislative assembly, a pro-people government, and an organic development model with the potential for inclusive development in the environmentally fragile region. Ironically, nothing changed; the so-called new state became a carbon copy of the former one. Most community members, including statehood movement activists, have little or no voice in policy-related affairs, let alone the day-to-day functions of the government. Unfortunately, people with vested interests and members of the policy elite—those with disproportionate wealth to their legal income and privileged access to the media and political officials- control and manage the political and policy affairs.

The state needs to undergo a significant political transformation and substantial policy reforms to tackle the current challenges and foster social harmony. However, several key questions need to be addressed:

  1. What fundamental changes are crucial to revitalise the political system?
  2. What strategies are necessary to encourage the active participation of ordinary citizens in policy formulation?
  3. How can ordinary citizens, especially those from remote hill regions, leverage their inherent skills and traditional knowledge to bring about meaningful political change?
  4. Who will take the lead in empowering these individuals?
  5. What experiences and attitudes must be nurtured to transform an apolitical individual into an engaged and politically active citizen?

Unfortunately, politically active individuals, particularly the Rajya Andolankaris (Statehood Movement activists), have focused on seeking reservations in government jobs or pensions but have yet to significantly contribute to the discourse shaping the state’s policies and politics. They remain supporters rather than leaders, indifferent to micropolitics and failing to utilise their social and political capital to influence fellow activists. In this context, there is a pressing need to challenge the established political system, fostering human conversation and engagement to unite people with similar backgrounds for a shared belief in the state’s political transformation. This can be achieved through a participatory process to create an organic political and development model aligning with the state’s geography, culture, and geology.

Now is the time to develop a system that challenges the established political system, fostering human conversation and engagement with the potential to bring people with similar ideological, social, and economic backgrounds, sharing beliefs in the political transformation of state politics and developmental discourse, to come together and discover their mutuality. However, this is only possible with leadership from the front. Developing a participatory process to converse, plan, act, and reflect on the central goal of creating an organic political and development model that suits the state’s geography, culture, and geology is crucial.

The first report of the Palayan Ayog (The State Migration Commission) reveals that 734 villages were entirely vacated (termed Bhutiya Villages or Ghost Villages). The population in another 565 villages fell by 50 percent between 2011 and 2017. A total of 3.83 lakh people from 3,946 gram panchayats have never returned to their native villages after migrating, presenting a challenge and urgent requirement for strategic security concerns. This report underscores that a significant percentage of the new state’s population remains disenfranchised and disempowered in classical political and economic terms.

This report is an endorsement that efforts to reform the system in the newly crafted state have had little impact on the life and livelihood of people in remote areas. The bureaucracy of the newly crafted state, having little knowledge, skills, or exposure to the state’s geography, geology and culture, becomes ineffective in making pragmatic changes to the life and livelihood of the Himalayan denizens.

Unfortunately, the first chief minister, not a native of the hills, remained indifferent to the separate statehood movement, leading to an inability to establish a strong foundation for the organic development model or giving him the benefit of the doubt; we can say that he would have needed more time to initiate actions that could lead to political and economic transformation. Bhagat Singh Koshiyari, another RSS veteran, replaced him in six months. Unlike Nityanand Swami, the first CM of the state, Bhagat Singh Koshiyari, was from the remote part of the hilly terrain. Unfortunately, neither of them was familiar with or engaged in the ideological discourse and perspective of the new state. They played into the hands of the bureaucracy.

The third Chief Minister of the state, a staunch Congress leader at the national level, the late Narayan Dutt Tiwari, came next. Although his statement that Uttarakhand would be formed on his dead body during the separate statehood movement is enough to reveal his ideological stand for the hilly state, he did a lot to lay the strong foundation for infrastructure and institutional development. Unlike the previous two chief ministers, ND Tiwari was ideologically sound with lots of administrative knowledge and a staunch Nehruvian, believing in the ‘Big is Best’ theory and supporting a centralised economy. He was a member of parliament from the Terai region. However, he had never worked in the hills or been active in hill areas. Therefore, he tried to replicate the same development model against which the separate statehood movement was created. He developed an industrial belt in the Terai region, acting as a pull factor and a catalyst to increase intrastate migration.

After ND Tiwari, no other chief minister has significantly impacted the state’s policy and politics. During his tenure as chief minister, Harish Rawat attempted to place the organic model at the centre of the political discourse. However, he lost a crucial election in 2017, derailing the policy and political transformation process.

After 23 years since the state’s formation, it is crucial to implement radical changes to transform the political system and development discourse, seeking an organic model based on the demands of the Andolankaris and respecting their expectations. It is time to construct policy changes, considering the distressed migration situation in search of basic facilities and livelihood. The distressed migration has posed a challenge to the civic infrastructure of the cities like Dehradun and Haldwani. Moreover, this migration is not only due to distress but also involves environmental displacement resulting from environmental and forest policies, which need to be revisited in the best interest of the state’s people.

After the tragic murder of a young girl, Ankita Bhandari, in 2022, the youth are agitated and have created a debate on domicile certificates vs permanent residency. The demand for Himachal-type land laws debarring outsiders from buying land has created a division between natives and those who recently migrated from other states. This unrest has the potential to create significant challenges for peaceful co-existence, as we have examples from many northeastern states, especially Tripura, where indigenous/aboriginal people have engaged in armed struggles for decades with people who migrated from Bengal. We also have examples of how people who migrated from West Punjab have displaced the Tharu and Buxa communities in the Udham Singh Nagar area. This should not be allowed to repeat here, as it is not in the best interest of the state’s people and national security.

It is relatively easy to create such arrangements to satisfy the needs of the people and reverse the migration process. However, knowledge, exposure and political will are needed to initiate such radical change. It is worth mentioning that the Prof MS Swaminathan’s Committee (1982) (of which the late Sunder Lal Bahuguna was a member) had banned tree felling in areas above 1000 metres MSL; this ban is still in existence. So, can’t the state government adopt this formula and ban land purchase by outsiders or non-hilly people in these areas? The distressed migration can be reversed if the government reserves class 4 level employment for the people of that particular block and class 3 level jobs for district natives. This system has the potential to create a vibrant agro-based local economy.

Similarly, we can reserve some small tenders for natives of the block or districts. Small townships for government employees and especially teachers in the block could be laid to transform the local economy. Many more such initiatives could be taken for the benefit of the local community, leading to the transformation of politics, policy, and the economy.

The peace and development of a strategically critical state like Uttarakhand are in the best interest of National Security. However, the state needs radical political and economic transformation with its challenging geography and fragile environment and ecology to develop the organic development model, as Big Is Best’s national development model has failed in this state.

(Dr Prem Bahukhandi is Trustee, Friends of Himalaya, and a Rajya Andolankari)