By Rajiv Rawat
Garhwal Post, 9 November 2006
It is fortuitous that I begin my regular biweekly column for Garhwal Post on the sixth anniversary of the foundation of â€œUttaranchal.â€ As a resident of the US and Canada in the 1990s, I sought to do my small part for the Uttarakhand Andolan, but always felt disconnected from the main current of action taking place at home. As such, I am thankful for this opportunity to share some of my views as both a member of the overseas community and a fellow traveler of the movement over the next few months.
As it is â€œState Foundation Dayâ€ it is thus only fitting to begin this column with some observations about the condition of the state. Unfortunately, it seems that my own apprehensions about the manner in which the state was formed have been upheld by very sobering findings.
First of all, I can appreciate the governmentâ€™s difficulty in organizing for the common good amidst the kaleidoscope of particularist demands and interest groups. Just this past week, traders, bank and government employees (1) have been on the warpath, reaching riotous proportions in places like Delhi. These rumblings seem to peak right before election time to gain the maximum leverage from politicians. As a former union leader myself, I can certainly understand and appreciate such monumental mobilizations, but must also ask, where is the public interest? For the government, such angry demands for redress can either be pacified at the possible expense of sound public policy or the exchequer, weathered at the risk of losing votes, or crushed to set an example for the rest. Sadly, the â€œcommon goodâ€ only rarely figures into the assertion of these myriad sectoral interests, while forcing politicians to resort to short-term thinking due to the exigencies of electoral politics.
In the specific case of Uttarakhand, the scale at which this â€œcommon goodâ€ is measured has been and remains a central issue. Despite the highly publicized industrial policy that has seen Dehradun, Hardwar, and Udham Singh Nagar expand economically by leaps and bounds at least on paper, the interests of the highlands have been clearly subordinated to the nation. Symbolically, this subordination is born out in Jai Prakash Associates slogan, â€œWe Believe in India.â€ This belief in the nation certainly cannot extend to the region whose rivers and fields are being privatized and sacrificed for the â€œgreater common goodâ€ no matter how large the inherited debt nor how great the energy and water demands of urban India. Such a sell-off of the peopleâ€™s â€“ not the governmentâ€™s â€“ patrimony, is a price far too high to pay. Similarly, even the peopleâ€™s forest rights have not been restored with whatever fertile land left for tillage now threatened by inundation. Indeed, in a direct reversal of the Uttarakhand dream, the phenomena of depopulated hills and overcrowded townships has only accelerated, with Dehradun, my birthplace, ruined for good measure (that will be the topic of another column).
Thus, as we approach the next assembly elections in 2007, the prospects for real change look grim, especially as disillusionment with the political process grows. My own conversations with various individuals has left me pessimistic on whether a regional vision can reassert itself before being completely marginalized by the next round of seat delimitation that will permanently disenfranchise the hills. The political machinery of the big parties seem far too strong and entrenched, leaving voters with a familiar choice of the lesser of two evils (or â€œthe evil of two lessersâ€, as noted by Ralph Nader when confronted with the same paradox as a third party candidate in the US). This is perhaps why the recent efforts to rename the state seem hollow (although extremely welcome), as the prayer and dream of Uttarakhand has already been usurped by the â€œnakliâ€ creation of â€œUttaranchalâ€ as noted by Narender Singh Negi in â€œNauchami Narayanâ€ that has captured the zeitgeist of the times. (2)
One of the hallmarks of the Uttarakhand movement was to firmly reject party politics and through its very spontaneity and leaderlessness, promise a radical transformation of democracy. Can this sentiment and civic involvement be reawakened to make the Uttarakhand dream a reality? Americans are waiting for the same (3), as are Canadians whose own dominant parties have blurred their differences to confront voters with a similar Hobsonâ€™s choice of corruption vs. communalism, but with the same core corporatist policies.
Perhaps as average citizens, we can start with simple things to turn things around. How about getting together with your neighbours and cleaning your surrounding streetscape? Such simple acts of good neighbourliness and self-reliance are vital for restoring positive social relations so important for collective action and the actual day-to-day practice of democracy. Only from such a basis, a much more expansive struggle can be initiated to address the big questions bedeviling Uttarakhand. While higher level politics might seem bleak, our own personal efforts need not be, and judging from the sewers I have seen and what average people put into them, there is a lot of room for improvement right from the ground up.
(1) Class 4 employees ended their 27 day long walkout with an agreement with the state government to increase their wages.
(2) The Uttarakhand Kranti Dal has come to Negi’s defense, as his song lampoons both the BJP and Congress governments.
(3) The Americans, like Indians do use elections to punish their errant politicians as happened so spectacularly in the US congressional elections. Whether anything changes is up for debate, particularly as those who hold power have finessed the system so well as to reduced electoral politics to a game of symbols rather than substance. However, the Democrats’ victory does slow down America’s descent into theocratic fascism.