Uttarakhand ceases to be a hill state
This is a headline from the future – a future not so far away because it is highly likely that by 2027 Uttarakhand will cease to be ‘devbhoomi’ – a hill state carved out to meet the unique socio-political & socio-economic needs of the mountain people. However insane this may sound, we seem to be heading towards this unavoidable reality.
Let us begin with the state elections of 2022. The Chief Ministerial candidates of both the major political party contested the elections from the plains of Uttarakhand and not the hills. The choice seems to be strategic, rather than personal. They know it very well that the political muscle of those residing in the plains of Uttarakhand is on the rise and will soon be more than that of people dwelling in the hills. In all likelihood, the next elections will see a government which will majorly represent the ‘plains’ of Uttarakhand.
Elections in India are seldom fought of the basis of local issues. Local issues, at best, are merely a mention in the political discourse. But that is not true for Uttarakhand. Even if for namesake, the hills do find a voice. The moment elections are announced, people talk about regional entities like Uttarakhand Kranti Dal, Lok Vahini, etc. and their dreams for the hills. Opinion leaders, writers, poets, social activists, people in general, and even the political leaders often talk about how Uttarakhand has failed to realise the promises made while attaining statehood. There are ample discussions around rivers, valleys, migration, environment, development, etc. but these debates rarely lead anywhere. These rather emotive issues rarely translate into votes. Sadly the story does not end here.
The reason why mountain people demanded a separate state was that the needs and aspirations of mountain people were very different from those dwelling in the plains of Uttar Pradesh. Remoteness of locations, low density of population, low political muscle, and higher per capita expenditures on citizen services ensured that the region was largely left ignored. After years of social, political and economic neglect, people started to feel that mountains can only be understood by the mountain people. They realized that in order to come out of this neglect, they needed to wield political power, which was not possible within the framework of the densely populated and largest state of India. A widespread people’s struggle eventually fructified into statehood.
Because it is largely believed that mountains cannot fend for themselves, a significant area of the plains also became a part of the hill state. It seems that a similar proposition was made to Himachal Pradesh when it attained statehood but its leaders turned down the proposition. The decision worked in their favour. In spite of such an example, the political leadership of the newly constituted Uttarakhand failed to take a stand. Instead of rejecting the offer, they took the bait. While proclaiming the birth of a hill state, they willingly diluted the idea of a mountain state.
The newly constituted state of Uttarakhand got 70 Vidhan Sabha (state assembly) constituencies. Out of these, 30 constituencies belonged to the districts of the plains while 40 represented the hill districts. Not a happy situation for a so-called hill state but it was still acceptable. With time, the population of the plains increased rapidly but the mountains evolved rather slowly. As the promises were not kept, the migration continued and some districts saw a negative growth in population. Due to this imbalance, the delimitation prior to 2012 elections led to transfer of 6 constituencies to the districts of the plain leaving only 34 constituencies for the hill districts. Out of the 36 constituencies of the plains districts, 4 constituencies have mixed terrain while 32 of them are purely plains.
A next delimitation exercise is highly likely prior to the elections of 2027. As delimitation exercise is conducted on the basis of population, the densely populated plains of Uttarakhand will gain more constituencies. The decreasing population of some hill districts will make the situation worse. No wonder, the Chief Minister and most of his ministers will end up representing the plains of a hill state! Mountains, once again, would become geographical formations which are to be adored but not inhabited.
The delimitation prior to 2027 elections will not only change these equations but also derail the entire political discourse. Even an emotional mention of mountains will no longer be a political necessity. It is not very hard to imagine that the voices of the densely populated plains will get much higher preference. Their socio-political and economic needs will be acknowledged and addressed. The larger chunk of resources will get allotted in their favour. Even today, most new institutions and industrial activities happen in the plains. Post 2027, the plains may literally corner everything. As the hills need higher per unit expenditure on resources, the ground realities may become worse than the statistical reality. The plains may keep fondly talking about the mountains and mountain people but will refuse to let go of resources in favour of the hills. Socio-economic needs will overpower the discourses of brotherhood and equity. How this will play out is evident in the way two densely populated non-performing states of the northern plains are carving the political destiny of India, since ages. Without contributing much to the India growth story, these states are playing the role of king makers. As a nation, we seem to feel helpless!
So, is there a way out?
I think we do have a few options. Three – to be precise!
The first and the toughest is to mark out the plains of Uttrakhand and gift them back to the parent state so that we can exist purely as a mountain state. The second option, which may not be possible, is to propose that delimitation happens on the basis of geographic area and not the population. And the third one, tough but doable, is that we change our politics. Instead of identity and rhetoric based politics, we move towards a truly issue based polity – the original basis on which the idea of democracy emerged.
As the first two options seem almost impossible, changing the way in which we deal with politics is perhaps the only option left.