Uttaranchal, with hopes and fears

Published : Aug 19, 2000 00:00 IST

Even as the people of the hill districts that are to be included in Uttaranchal hail the new State, protest movements build up in two plains districts.


ON August 1, the Lok Sabha passed the Uttar Pradesh Reorganisation Bill, 2000, signifying a concrete legislative measure towards the formation of a separate State of Uttaranchal, in fulfilment of the demand voiced by the nearly 70 lakh inhabitants of the Kumaon and Garhwal hills for over three decades.

The response in the hills to the Union government's move was on predicted lines. There were scenes of jubilation all around. Processions, bursting of crackers and distribution of sweets went on for several days. Major-General (retired) Bhuvan Chandra Kha ndhuri, the Bharatiya Janata Party member of Parliament from Garhwal, told Frontline that the passage of the Bill marked the fulfilment of "the long-cherished aspirations of the people of the region". He said: "This is also the culmination of a su stained struggle waged by the hill people for the last 10 years."

While this mood permeated all the 11 hill districts - Pauri Garhwal, Tehri Garhwal, Uttar Kashi, Chamoli, Dehra Dun, Nainital, Almora, Pithoragarh, Bageshwar, Champawat and Rudra Prayag - that are to be included in the new State, the popular sentiment in the two plains districts - Udham Singh Nagar and Hardwar - that are also to form part of Uttaranchal was indeed different. "Under no circumstances will we succumb to this evil machination to remove us from mainstream Uttar Pradesh," said Yashwant Kumar Mishra, a social activist of Udham Singh Nagar. "We belong to Uttar Pradesh and will remain so." According to him the people of the district, mainly comprising Punjabis and Bengalis, will launch an agitation against the passage of the Bill and "physicall y stop the transfer of the district to Uttaranchal".

Similar expressions of resentment were reported in different parts of Hardwar district. The common refrain was that the plains district was added to the "hill State" just to promote the political and personal aspirations of some Sangh Parivar leaders, in cluding a few sants and mahants.

Although the Uttaranchal Bill was passed as a package along with the Bills that sought the creation of Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand States, the expression of protest against the inclusion of Udham Singh Nagar and Hardwar districts in Uttaranchal has impart ed an extra dimension to the Bill. None of the proposed constituents of Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand opposes its inclusion in the new States.

Significantly, the people of Udham Singh Nagar who have been agitating against the inclusion of the district in the new State since early 1998 under the banner of the Udham Singh Nagar Raksha Samiti (USNRS), have the support of several political parties, including the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), which is a constituent of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the Centre. In fact, the SAD has alleged that the passage of the Uttaranchal Bill was the result of political skulduggery by Defence Minister and Samata Party leader George Fernandes in collaboration with the BJP.

The Political Affairs Committee of the Akali Dal met in Chandigarh on August 6, five days after the passage of the Bill in the Lok Sabha, and accused Fernandes and the BJP of playing a trick on the Sikh-majority Udham Singh Nagar. The trickery came, the meeting felt, in the form of a "unilateral" announcement by Fernandes that the people of Udham Singh Nagar were not opposed to their district's inclusion in the new State.

Fernandes had claimed that this was the finding of the three-member committee of the NDA - comprising U.P. Chief Minister Ram Prakash Gupta and Punjab Chief Minister and SAD president Prakash Singh Badal, besides Fernandes himself - which, he said, had u ndertaken a study tour of the district three days before the passage of the Bill.

According to many SAD leaders, this was not true. Harbhajan Singh Cheema, the president of the Akali Dal's U.P. unit, said that what the committee had actually seen at Udham Singh Nagar was an overwhelming response from the people against inclusion in Ut taranchal. He said they had come in hordes to express their resentment, braving a heavy downpour. "Fernandes has succumbed to BJP's pressure and betrayed the Akalis," Cheema alleged.

The SAD has decided to vote against the Bill when it comes up in the Rajya Sabha. This will mark only a token opposition, since the party has only three members in the House. The Congress(I), the principal Opposition party, supports the Bill. In fact, it is the Congress(I)'s support that has enabled the government to push the Bill through despite opposition from parties such as the Samajwadi Party (S.P.), the Rashtritya Janata Dal (RJD), the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the All India Anna Drav ida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK).

Former Union Minister Balwant Singh Ramoowalia has moved in the Rajya Sabha two amendments to the Bill, seeking the exclusion of Udham Singh Nagar from the new State and the constitution of a select committee to look into the economic, political and soci al viability of the proposed State. He has highlighted the anomalies in the manner in which the government has gone about the exercise of creating Uttaranchal. He said that although the three-member committee of the NDA had been set up as early as Octobe r 1998, it had not held a single meeting until a week before the passage of the Bill. "The committee has not even considered the resolution opposing the inclusion in Uttaranchal, signed by 305 of a total of 327 panchayat committees in Udham Singh Nagar," he said. Clearly, he added, it seemed that the government had been motivated by a desire to parade yet another achievement during the Independence Day celebrations on August 15.

The BJP leadership brushes aside these arguments. According to BJP leaders there is no reason for anxiety and agitation among the people of Udham Singh Nagar. "All their concerns have been satisfactorily addressed by the government," says Dr. Ramesh Pokh riyal, a member of the Ram Prakash Gupta Ministry, who is widely tipped to become the Chief Minister of the new State. One of the apprehensions of the big farmers of Udham Singh Nagar is that Uttaranchal would have land ceiling laws that would be differe nt from the one that exists in U.P. and thus their holdings will be taken over by the government. "But Clause 86 of the Bill provides for the continuance of the present level of ceilings on land holdings," said B.C. Khanduri, MP.

Another fear, which has repeatedly manifested itself during the two-year-long agitation of the USNRS, concerns the demographic advantage that the hill people would have in the Assembly. Many USNRS leaders said that more than two-thirds of the seats would be from the hills and this would give the hill people some political weightage over the plains people. "We are not ready to accept this, especially because it is we who produce the riches of the new State," said a member of the USNRS executive committee .

However, BJP leaders contend that this problem has been taken care of by including another plains district, Hardwar, in Uttaranchal. The number of seats in the Assembly has been increased to 70 and Home Minister L.K. Advani, who piloted the Bill in the L ok Sabha, asserted that a couple of tehsils of Rampur and Bareilly districts could also be included in the new State. Advani assured the House that the government would examine if one or two sugarcane-growing tehsils around Udham Singh Nagar could be lin ked to the new State in order to ensure the economic viability of the sugar mills in the area.

Naturally, if more regions of the plains became part of the State, the number of Assembly seats from the plains would also go up. It is quite probable that when this happens the people of the hill districts, who have agitated for nearly a decade for the new State, would get upset and start complaining of preferential treatment to the plains districts. But, for the time being, the dissatisfied lot are the people of Udham Singh Nagar and Hardwar districts. Sections of the USNRS are even threatening to lau nch an armed struggle.

These sections have circulated photocopies of the 1994 statements of Khanduri and Satya Pal Maharaj, former Congress(I) MP, in which they had threatened armed struggle if the creation of Uttaranchal was stalled. "We too can follow the same tactics," argu ed an USNRS member. At some places in Udham Singh Nagar district, slogans such as "Dilli door, Peking nazdeek" ("Delhi is far away, Beijing is closer") have been spotted (The proposed State borders China). Rajesh Shukla, general secretary of the U SNRS, said that everything was related to "political clout". "The Parvatias (hill people) want a State where they have a majority but could be sustained on the economy of a fertile district such as Udham Singh Nagar. This is what we are opposed to," Shuk la said. "What we need is a proper set-up which will enable us to participate in administration and policy-making. But the government has not done anything with that end in view."

For the time being, the higher echelons of the BJP seem to believe that the SAD and the USNRS will ultimately come around. "All that is required is to convince them of the real benefits for them in the new State. In fact, as an advanced district Udham Si ngh Nagar will have even greater potential to grow because it can make use of help in a positive manner," says Khanduri. Once the agitation in Udham Singh Nagar is under control, BJP strategists on Uttaranchal claim, there would be no demur from Hardwar.

In fact, Pokhriyal says, with the inclusion of Udham Singh Nagar and Hardwar Uttaranchal will be a "blessed State", with Hindu dhams, temples and sacred rivers. Leaders of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), such as Acharya Giriraj Kishore, go one step furt her and say that this would be the first real Hindu Rashtra - because the new State would have several important Hindu temples, the river Ganga and the Himalayas, considered to be the abode of several Hindu gods.

All this talk notwithstanding, the political leadership is not clear whether the new State will be economically viable. One of the major factors that motivated the movement for statehood itself was lack of development in the hill districts. After five de cades of Independence, this region has no infrastructure worth the name. Barring Udham Singh Nagar, in no other district has agriculture or industry developed to facilitate large-scale employment and socio-economic advancement. Even in Udham Singh Nagar, the industrial units are essentially agro-based.

Although in government records nearly 50 per cent of the population has been categorised as cultivators, the extent of cultivable land is hardly 9 per cent of the total area of approximately 45,000 sq km. Subsistence farming is the norm in all the hill d istricts and approximately 70 per cent of the population is unemployed. There are only 23 km of roads for every 100 sq km.

Government records reveal that 50 per cent of the approximately 17,000 villages of Uttaranchal have primary schools at a maximum distance of over 3 km. The situation is similar in the case of higher secondary schools too. For over 90 per cent of the vill ages, the nearest allopathic dispensary is at a distance of 3 km, and in the majority of the dispensaries half the posts, including those of doctors, are vacant.

Although the government claims that more than 75 per cent of the villages are electrified, there are persistent complaints that the figures are inflated. The power situation is anything but satisfactory on the ground.

This is the legacy that Uttaranchal will inherit. The State can progress into a vibrant socio-political-economic entity, as visualised by the leaders of the statehood movement such as Ratnamani Bhatt, only if available resources are carefully and scienti fically exploited.

Political analyst Hariraj Singh Tyagi said that unless the aspirations of the Uttaranchal people were positively canalised through governance that could help tap the resources fruitfully and carefully, there was every danger of the region throwing up mor e divisive movements. "What form it would take cannot be predicted," he said. "But the failure to achieve economic goals could even lead to the demand for a greater hill State combining Darjeeling, Uttaranchal and Himachal Pradesh." He said that external forces inimical to the country could exploit such a movement and slogans such as "Dilli door, Peking nazdeek" would have to be perceived in this context.

It is a moot point whether statehood by itself will throw up a leadership capable of handling such daunting challenges. As the debate on these questions gains ground in the hills, the immediate priority for the leaders at the Centre is to solve the Udham Singh Nagar imbroglio.

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