A confrontation in the Terai

Print edition : July 18, 1998

"Udham Singh Nagar hamara aangan hai. Aangan ke bina ghar bana ke kya faida? Udham Singh Nagar nahi hai to Uttarakhand banana hi nahi chahiye" (Udham Singh Nagar is our courtyard. What is the use of building a house without a courtyard? There is no point in creating the new State of Uttarakhand without Udham Singh Nagar). - Sheela Badauni, leader of the Uttarakhand Samyukth Sangharsh Samiti.

"When the Terai region was part of Nainital district, none of the benefits given to the hill people came to the other residents. These were denied under the pretext that the Terai was not at a sufficient altitude to be called a hill region. Now, when the Terai is no longer part of Nainital but is in the new district of Udham Singh Nagar, it is being argued that we have to be part of the hills. We are not ready to accept this strange argument. Becoming a part of the new State is detrimental to our social, political and economic interests." - Rajesh Shukla, general secretary of the Udham Singh Nagar Raksha Samiti (USNRS).

CONFLICTING views such as these have made the 12 districts in and around the Kumaon and Garhwal hills in Uttar Pradesh the arena for an intense political battle after the Central Government announced that it would carve out from U.P a new State, Uttaranchal. The developments in these districts point to a period of turbulence, similar to the one that was created by the movement for a separate State of Uttarakhand in the mid-1990s.

The USNRS has launched an agitation demanding the exclusion of the Terai region from Uttaranchal. Significantly, the agitation has had its echo in New Delhi and even Chandigarh. Apart from the support it has received from the U.P.-based Samajwadi Party (S.P.), the movement has drawn sustenance from the Shiromani Akali Dal, which is a coalition partner of the Bharatiya Janata Party at the Centre and in Punjab. Punjab Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal has intervened on behalf of the USNRS.

The Akali Dal's interest derives essentially from the large Sikh population in Udham Singh Nagar district - approximately 3.7 lakhs out of a total population of 10.5 lakhs, according to informal estimates. The Akali leadership took up the issue with the Centre on behalf of the USNRS but failed to bring about a settlement.

The USNRS appears to be ready to go all out in its fight to get the district excluded from the new State. It called a two-day bandh in the district from July 9. Its leaders told Frontline that if the Centre still refused to concede its demand, the agitation would grow into indefinite bandhs, hartals and blockade of roads. This is bound to cripple the economy of the Kumaon hills as the territory is dependent on Udham Singh Nagar district even for basic needs such as food. The road that passes through the district connects Kumaon hills with the rest of U.P.

Economic factors are central to the dispute. Leaders of the Uttarakhand movement say that the economic viability of the new State will depend largely on Udham Singh Nagar district. Sheela Badauni told Frontline that if the district was taken away, Uttarakhand would lose the bulk of its agricultural production. She said that rich landlords who controlled agriculture to a large extent feared that they would lose their big holdings once Uttaranchal was formed. In a hill State the ceiling on agricultural land would be 1.6 hectares (four acres) compared to 7.29 ha (18 acres) and 5.062 ha (12 acres) elsewhere in U.P.

Many landlords are said to own more than 40 ha of land in benami names in violation of the land ceiling Act. Badauni alleged that they had encroached forest areas and government land. Their hold on land would end once the region became part of the new State, Badauni pointed out.

By all indications, the fear of loss of the large holdings seems to be a major concern with many USNRS leaders. Significantly, it is not just farmers who have a stake in the region's agriculture; among those who have had holdings here are politicians, bureaucrats and retired Army officers. Politicians who have assets here include Badal and Haryana Congress(I) leader Bhupinder Singh Hooda. A 40-ha farm owned by Badal's family on the Nainital-Bhajpur road has been up for sale since the beginning of the year.

The Badal family had sold half of its property in the region by the first week of July. Rajinder Singh, a farmer who bought 8.1 ha with three others, said that the signatories to the sale deed included the Chief Minister's son, Sukhbir Singh Badal, who is the Union Minister of State for Industry, and six others. The family's eagerness to sell the property has raised doubts whether the Chief Minister and his relatives had prior knowledge about the formation of the new State. Interestingly, other big farmers are fighting hard to retain their holdings.

Leaders of the USNRS, however, deny that the agitation has anything to do with the large holdings. Rajesh Shukla said that as many as 274 of the 312 gram pramukhs in the district had conducted a referendum in their villages and that, based on the results, submitted in writing that they did not want their village to be part of Uttaranchal. They include people belonging to various communities, such as Bengalis, Sikhs and people from eastern U.P. He asks: "Are all the villagers and their pramukhs big landlords? Are all of them trying to retain large holdings? "

Gyanendrajit Singh, who belongs to one of the families that settled in the Terai in the 1950s, said that immediately after Independence the Government had offered land to the hill people but the majority of them did not want to take up the challenge posed by the harsh physical conditions in the region. "Our forefathers faced the rough weather and wild animals and cleared the jungle to make the Terai the fertile place it is today. Now, when the region has become a granary of Uttar Pradesh, they want to take it all away from us, on the strength of the political power they will acquire in the new State," he said.

There is no denying that the Terai has developed phenomenally since the arrival of the first settlers from Punjab and the plains of eastern U.P. in 1949. The region has not only advanced in terms of agricultural produce, but attracted agro-based industries, including private conglomerates such as Hindustan Lever Limited and the Pepsi group. There are 10 sugar mills and 250 rice mills in and around Udham Singh Nagar district.

Ramesh Chandra Agarwal is the owner of Vijaya Rice Mill, a group of rice mills, which generates a revenue of Rs.4 crores for the Government. He said that his group accounted for almost 25 per cent of the total levy that the Government collected from rice mills. He runs his business not only from Udham Singh Nagar but from 10 districts within a radius of 250 km. He said, "All this will end once we become part of Uttaranchal; the farmers have to pay double tax to bring paddy to our mills, which will be in a different State."

Rajesh Shukla said that the prosperity of Udham Singh Nagar would be a thing of the past. "It is not good, either for Uttar Pradesh or for Uttarakhand." He said that Udham Singh Nagar district was created in 1995 by the Mayawati-led Bahujan Samaj Party-BJP Government to prevent the inclusion of the region in Uttarakhand.

It is difficult to determine the accuracy of this statement but it is true that the USNRS has received support from several quarters, one of them being former Chief Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav, during whose tenure the Rama Shankar Kaushik Committee recommended the creation of Uttarakhand. Former Union Minister Balwant Singh Ramoowalia and Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Harkishan Singh Surjeet have addressed meetings held in support of the USNRS cause.

Among USNRS activists, there is a stream of opinion that Udham Singh Nagar can be part of Uttaranchal if more areas from the plains, such as portions of Hardwar, Bareilly and Bijnore, are included in the new State. Yashwant Kumar Mishra, a member of the USNRS central committee, said that they should have enough demographic strength to counter the hill people. Clearly, this fight between the people of the hills and the plains in the Terai is all set to take an ugly turn.

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