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A Dream Reclaimed?

By Rajiv Rawat
Garhwal Post, December 31, 2006

And so as the New Year dawns, Uttarakhand has finally come to be. Perhaps not in the way most expected or even would have wanted, but alas, nothing is predictable in politics.

With the President’s assent to the State Alteration of Name Bill, the five-year-old promise of the Congress government has come into effect with only a month to spare in their first term in office. What is not certain is whether this belated fulfillment of the first item in their 2002 election platform will carry them even to partial victory this year. Most supporters of the change also seem to agree that the change should have obviously happened within the first six months of their administration as promised and not left to be used as a trump card to be played at election time.

However, as noted by most of the genuine social and cultural activists of the region, this move does at last rectify the grave injustice of “Uttaranchal” where political opportunism robbed the state of its traditional identity in the penultimate stage of its formation. More than just a name, Uttarakhand had come to embody the collective will and affirmation of the Uttarakhandi people who had forged a broad and inclusive identity for their common uplift. Uttaranchal gutted that identity for something artificial and haphazard as if the region’s cultural distinctiveness and heritage were of little consequence.

More importantly, the original shift to Uttaranchal represented the tip of a very large iceberg whereas the vision of hill development and employment were filtered through an ideological sieve that by its very nature could not address out migration and under development in the short term, nor guarantee a sustainable and livable future in the hills in the long run. Indeed, what subsequently transpired was a full-scale reversal of the original Uttarakhand dream. Where “anchal” as an apparently gentle suffix was supposed to reinforce national bonds of loyalty and integration, it instead came to represent all that had gone wrong in the pre-planning for the state. Its worst impact reinforced the notion that the state belonged to the politicians and bureaucrats and not the people who sacrificed so much for its formation.

Likewise, the UP Reorganisation Bill 2000 basically created a substate of Uttar Pradesh, with its land and water mortgaged for the benefit of UP, the centre, and the private sector. The Tehri Dam remains a case in point, whereas the state’s miniscule share of revenue and power was eclipsed by the enormous social and ecological damage exacted from the district. And who could forget the rampant land speculation ahead of 9 November 2000 that saw the best land in the state sold off to wealthy outsiders as well as powerful insiders? Moreover, with Dehradun made provisional capital, the possibility of radically reorganizing the geographical flow of capital in the state was further foreclosed. Thus the illegitimate “namkaran” of Uttaranchal was all the more fitting as the dream of Uttarakhand was displaced, “cuckoo-style” from its very inception with a stillborn state. And sadly, none of the tall tales of rebirth and rejuvenation from various quarters could revive this poor child.

While the first unelected government struggled with this awkward legacy of its own making, the elected Congress government did move forward with its all-around development mantra, banking on N.D. Tiwari’s much hyped ability to “get the goods.” However, the remarkable feat of achieving double the national economic growth rate further exacerbated uneven development by literally bifurcating the state in two, with full-scale industrialization taking place along the “courtyard” districts of Dehradun, Haridwar, and Udham Singh Nagar, and massive dam building and social neglect occurring in the interior. Gairsain itself remains a distant dream, as more and more people vote with their feet and leave their villages for new opportunities in the plains.

Whether such an economic model will leave room for a viable rural population or give up completely on the idea of a habitable Himalayas should thus represent the main issue in the upcoming elections. Quaint VCD-fueled nostalgia and slick publications from the tourism department can no longer conceal the massive changes taking place in the physical and social landscape of the highlands. Sadly, such a sober assessment of the fast evolving situation is nowhere to be seen especially in the platform of the major parties. For the most part, the opposition promises only to alternate with the current government, rather than gain power on the strength of any alternative. The smaller parties are again being outmuscled, outspent, and outorganized, despite having the most regionally-responsive programs. Eventually what will result is yet another tawdry contest between corruption on one hand and communalism in bloom on the other where the people always lose.

Hopefully, the return back to Uttarakhand will rejuvenate and revive thinking around the vital political and economic issues facing the state, hill, city, and plain. It can at the very least hand the state’s authentic identity back to its people so that they can break new ground, work in earnest, and imagine anew for its common good. If such a spirit can be translated into greater cohesion and commitment to the enormous tasks ahead, then the North Country may yet stand a fighting chance. Let’s see it happen this year, when the 9th of November falls on Deepawali.