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In the hills, out in the cold

The women who helped birth the new state of Uttaranchal have been relegated to the backrooms of power. Santwana Bhattacharya reports

S. Bhattacharya
Indian Express. February 15, 2002

EVERYTHING seems idyllic in the hamlets — little chocolate-box affairs from this distance, sometimes a mere three or four of them set into the side of a giant hill — till the dust of the chopper settles down, the buzz quietens, and you find time to wander off from the crowd and catch that age-old sight: women bent under the weight of firewood and other everyday necessities. Bypassed by the election hubbub, offered token gestures by the political parties, still carrying their load uphill.

One day, it was Union HRD minister Murli Manohar Joshi who, at a rally in Champawat, promised a women’s polytechnic for the state. The other day, it was Congress president Sonia Gandhi offering 25 per cent budgetary allocation for women.

This is the first Assembly election in Uttaranchal — which voted on Thursday — and parties cannot do without such overtures in a state, the very formation of which was the result of a movement with a high-visibility, active participation of women. And though it may not be a quality evenly spread across its rugged terrain, political awareness and mobilisation here goes back to the days of Chipko.

But even now, in the times of New Tehri, their needs remain pretty basic: water, cooking gas connections, hospitals, roads and electricity, in that order. Even their ‘‘majority status’’ in 16 constituencies, including Chief Minister Bhagat Singh Koshiyari’s Kabkot, does not help attract attention to these issues. Kashmir, terrorism and, of course, the rewriting of history are the topics of heated discussion at rallies fronted by Joshi.

Twenty-eight-year-old Sushma Joata, who looks far older than her age, wryly says after an election rally in Didihaat, Pithoragarh: ‘‘What did they say? The leaders come and go, but the water pipe never get extended to our village. Nor are they boring the tubewells. Everyday, I have to walk so much (for water).’’

Shailarani, an old woman in Bageshwar, offers this cryptic remark: ‘‘We have the Ganga and Yamuna. We are supplying water to all of northern India. But we ourselves are worse off than the desert people.’’

Uttaranchal is perhaps unique in that women predominate numerically in major districts like Pithoragarh, Bageshwar and Almora — a ratio that obtains in 16 out of its 70 assembly constituencies. This demographic oddity is a function of pure economics in a largely rural, inaccessible hill population that is still struggling to find a viable means of existence in the new order.

One favoured escape route has been the armed forces — most of the men are away in far-flung army posts of the country (a reason why Coffingate finds such high resonance in these parts), with no mention yet on the voters’ list. They leave behind a warped sex ratio that goes against the national trend.

Take Almora, one of the largest and most prosperous districts of Kumaon: the total number of female voters is 2,26,679 as compared to 1,93,920 male voters. The ratio of male:female voters is loaded in favour of the latter in six out of seven constituencies of the district, with the gap being more than 10,000 to 15,000 in three of them. The only exception is the main town of Almora, where male voters (35,063) dominate, with the women trailing at 34,053.

‘‘Almora town offers jobs to its menfolk. They do not necessarily have to go downhill to the plains looking for employment. Besides, enrolment in the army is lesser from the towns, compared to the villages and the backward areas where they have no option,’’ an official in Haldwani argues.

But in none of these six women-dominated constituencies in Almora is this demographic factor reflected even in the choice of candidates.

Neither the BJP nor the Congress nor any other major party cared to put up a woman. Numerical strength, similarly, has not meant a commensurate increase in representation in the other 10 woman-majority constituencies (like Koshiyari’s Kabkot in Bageshwar district where women stand at 26,334 against 23,785 men).

‘‘The BJP had promised 33 per cent reservation for women in their manifesto. The Congress leaders had said they will give the women what they rightfully deserve. But when the candidate list came out, the BJP had only seven women candidates (three from Kumaon, four from Garhwal) and the Congress has a mere six (two Kumaon, four Garhwal),’’ said Mina Negi, a woman panchayat pradhan.

The Samajwadi Party and BSP, both relatively minor players here because of the state’s social/caste profile, haven’t bothered to put up a single woman. Two have been put up by the Uttarakhand Kranti Dal (UKD), the original regional party that stood up for statehood in the initial days and then faded out as the movement was appropriated by the BJP, which successfully channelised the local anger against the then ruling SP’s reservation policy.

Scoffs a senior state BJP leader: ‘‘When the BJP and the Congress fight it out so desperately, issues like the status of women do not matter. Especially when you cannot provide enough employment for the men!’’ Be it officials or local party workers, they all readily agree that the condition of the women in the hill state is appaling — for the lack of water, electricity and roads hits no one as badly as the women, who have to shoulder much of the consequent labour.

It is ironic that such a basic issue still awaits acknowledgement at the political level in a region that saw much grassroots mobilisation in the last three decades. The new political establishment prefers a macro view of development, emphasising on exploiting the natural resources of the Himalayan whether in terms of hydel projects, tourism or channelling its biodiversity for the pharmaceutical industry.

This view takes privilege over locally-centred development initiatives—a field that has been left open to the proliferating voluntary sector (there are over 3,000 registered NGOs in Uttaranchal alone, one of the highest points of concentration in northern India).

Women, therefore, are largely outside the political mainstream, their collective spirit limited to areas like the anti-arrack agitation.

Nonetheless, as local media analysts say, this is itself a vital factor in the response generated by the Congress in its focus on the slow development of the region under BJP rule.

This could even weigh over the BJP’s considerable organisational strength, which it has nurtured through whatever small-scale thekedari projects that it has doled out. On February 14, then, the women’s vote could prove to be the crucial decisive factor.