Sustainable Development Forum for Uttarakhand

R.S. ToliaSDF UK1 Comment

Dehradun.  Soon after constitution of its founding-body, a Council consisting of eleven Uttarakhandis, a few news items announcing its arrival have already appeared in local newspapers. This article makes an attempt at explaining its genesis and general background.

Sustainable Development in Mountain Areas

For its immediate precipitation and causal explanation readers would be advised to refer back to this writer’s latest piece in Garhwal Post i.e. Small State Syndrome, and for its regional ramification a lead article that appeared in Himal by Kanak Mani Dixit (  Vol  26, No 1 : Are  We Sure About India ? ), way back in 2013. More on this connect later, let us re-visit briefly the first ever comprehensive audit of ( i )  what is going wrong and ( ii ) where ? It was in a book, The State of the World Mountains – a Global Report, produced by a group of people ( collectively known as Mountain Agenda ), each of whom had provided one or more of a number of crucial elements. The aim of this joint effort was to appeal to governments to put mountains on the world’s environment agenda, both at the First Earth Summit at Rio, in 1992. As we are aware Rio+20 has also happened in 2012 and now we have its Final Document : The World We Want, that substitutes as well as complements Chapter 13 of Agenda 21, as far as the mountain areas of the world are concerned.

It is in this Global Report that major themes were set out that helped interested stakeholders to navigate through the great diversity that characterizes mountain areas, from the equator to the poles. Essentially in this seminal report answers were explored to three Key Questions, and these three were:

  1. What is the role of the mountains in the global environment and development ?
  2. What are the present threats to the Highlands of the world ? and
  3. What needs to be done for the world’s mountains and their inhabitants ?

Imagining a Global Village

To sensitize the world at large, as also to negate the feeling that the problems that are going to be discussed are ‘all too big for us to cope with’,  this Report used a familiar metaphor of the “global village”. This had the merit of not only reducing the apparent size of the task but, also, of suggesting that ‘most of the remedies will have to be applied by villagers themselves’. This metaphorical village comprised 1,000 units of land, say hectares. This land consists of arable and non-arable, forest, pasture, wasteland of homestead. Of this, one fifth, or 200 hectares, lies over 1,000 meters above sea level and is mostly rugged and steep.

  • Only about one in tenth of the people live in the mountainous wards of the village, but, five times as many, i.e. half of the village population, depend in some way on this upper land. They call it their weather corner, for it is there that most of its clouds seem to gather and where much of the rain and snow seems to fall. From there major village streams flow down and there is a small hydroelectric plant. Most of the community’s timber and fuel-wood is brought down from the upper wards. On festival days, many families go there to visit religious sites.
  • In many ways, the customs and the experiences of these 100 villagers living uphill are different from what the other 900 inhabitants are used to. The highlanders even differ from each other in many respects, depending on their altitude of their homestead and whether they face North or South. Their agricultural and festival calendars, too, are not identical with those in the lower parts of the village. But the inhabitants of the upper wards do admirably well in constantly adapting their agriculture, horticulture, forestry and animal husbandry to the specific conditions of their environment. They also have great experience in managing pastures and forests for the good of the community as a whole.
  • To complete the picture, it has to be mentioned that the variety of wild animals and plants found on the village uplands is much bigger today than in the lower areas. This used to be different century ago, i.e. before the lowlands were “human altered” so thoroughly. Nowadays when illness spreads in the village, people will ask the uplanders for various medicines they produce from their plants. During the summer season, the cattle of the lower village move up to the upland grazing areas, where better fodder is available and where the climate is healthier than below.

It was forcefully averred that ‘the upper wards of our metaphorical village are indeed pillars of the economy and culture of the community. And what ( could ) be shown at the village level ( was ) equally true at a global scale.’

Backbones of Civilizations

More than two decades later, the world at large, now seems more than convinced that the mountains are the backbones of civilizations’. This could be summarized through the following simple home-truths, becoming more self-evident as crises loom large and potentialities appear more real now. Closer home, in Uttarakhand, past fifteen years of development has tasted and tested, several of these threats and possibilities, respectively (  The State of the World’s Mountains: A Global Report : Ed  Peter B. Stone; p  4-5 ).

  1. Mountains are water towers for human consumption, for expansion of land use and for rising energy needs;
  2. Mountains are weather markers for large parts of the world;
  3. Biological diversity in the mountains is one of mankind’s most valuable natural resources; and
  4. Mountains are privileged places for spiritual and physical recreation.

Each of these self-evident home-truths deserve a closer and deeper reflection and examination by the policy-makers of the mountain states and regions and its a duty of every set of stake-holders to mobilize social and political resource for sustainable development of mountain areas and translate the same into tangible results.

Present Threats : Combinations of Natural and Human Forces

The Global Village metaphor which had been used earlier equally serves our purpose when we wish to understand the complex nature of various problems affecting the world’s mountains today, and we could complete the picture in the following way.

  • On average, the families living up the hill are poorer than those on the level lands down below. Their production conditions and access to central services are more limited. Often, especially during bad weather, their children show up at the school which is near the centre. The people from the upper wards pay higher prices for good transported from the road or railway below. At the same time, they find it more difficult their own produce. They do not have very frequent contact with their fellow villagers, and they are not well informed about what is going on among the majority of the villages’ inhabitants.
  • Notwithstanding their many achievements and cultural diversity, the upland people are usually not represented in the village council. Major decisions affecting the overall economy and other aspects of village life are taken without their participation. And some lowlanders patronize them and look down their noses at them as liabilities.
  • One reason for this is that many inhabitants of the lower wards are not well informed about the role and life situation of the families higher up. They take it for granted that fields and forests and footpaths in the mountains are maintained. In the eyes of the majority, the upper village and its surroundings are to serve as a quarry, to provide timber, to generate electricity and to be used as recreation ground. No thought is given to the potential consequences of this limited view.
  • It is only when floods or avalanches and landslides threaten the homesteads below, or when the families from the upper wards move down in search of better economic opportunities, that the majority in the village centre start to think and ask questions. All too often, however, the current answers are extremely simple. They normally put the blame for any problems in the mountains on the people who live there. Have not the up-Landers mis-managed their own environment and created all the problems the rest of the community now have to suffer ?

Through the metaphor of a Global Village an attempt was made some twenty years ago to understand the complex nature of the various problems affecting the world’s mountain today.

The Indian Context :  1992 – 2012

Even as the above mentioned complex nature of the difficulties of the mountain regions vis a vis the lowlands of the peninsular India ( made more comprehensible through the illustration of a metaphorical village ) the Indian response to it has not been either very visible or effective. Even today there is no administrative mechanism which squarely owns any responsibility to look after exclusively to the various concerns that have been globally identified. The eighties did see creation of ‘regional entities’ like ICIMOD, and closer home, GBPIHED, two institutions which did have ‘mountains’ as their central agenda. While the ‘environment’ along with ‘forests’, after a Constitutional amendment that brought these subjects into the ‘residual’ and ‘concurrent’ lists, respectively, in 1970s, did underscore some attention paid to each of these. However, it remains a fact, that ‘mountains’ still remains begging an acknowledgement as a subject important enough to be acknowledged, as a subject, to be enlisted under any of the Constitutional Lists !

Even though ‘mountains’ as a subject still await a formal recognition under the Indian Constitution, the number of ‘mountain states’ continued to increase, exponentially after the behemoth states like Assam-giving rise to as many as five more successor-states in the Northeast, and UP in 2000, increasing the tally of ‘mountain states’ to a sizeable 11 States, out of 28 states in year 2000. It was erstwhile Planning Commission that officially recognized not only the so called Hilly States ( as per their documents ), but provided for the less understood complex nature of their financial requirements via the famous Gadgil-Mukherjee formula, earmarking 30 of the allocable resources, exclusively to be distributed among the Special Category States. Indeed, these Special Category States, were only the other names of the mountain states of India. Planning Commission, an Indian innovation, which accommodated the unique diversity that is India, arguably was the first mechanism in any modern -day planning instruments, that provided space of the newly emerging what may be called a unique sub-national phenomenon, namely the small mountain states of the Indian Union. If we leave aside Jammu & Kashmir, to some extent Nagaland and Tripura, and Sikkim, each of which has its unique trajectory and history of joining the Indian Union, all the remaining eight mountain states, are all Small and Successor States, created out of Assam and Uttar Pradesh.

Small Scale Syndrome

We have been witness to continued political instability of majority of the states that constitute our North-eastern India, which has been critically analyzed for its political instability (Durable Disorder: Sanjib Baruah) and the recent political developments in Arunachal Pradesh and now, closer home, Uttarakhand, only go on to add more illustrations to a political Theorem, which is unique only to this part of South Asia. It is this aspect of political economy, what this writer has called Small Scale Syndrome that attention needs to be paid immediately. This is where one needs to reflect on an article that appeared in Himal ( The Reformatting of India : Kanak Mani Dixit, January 2013 ).

Dixit, in his seminal article, avers that it was ‘the experience of Partition ( that ) made the country New Delhi centric to the detriment of the regions ( and ) 65 years later it is time to consider a redesign of the sperstructure’( Himal, ibid, p 14 ). It is a fact that the Cabinet Mission Plan of 1946 and even the Constituent Assembly in its early meetings had favoured a central government whose powers were just confined to foreign affairs, defence and communications, in the aftermath of Partition the Constituent Assembly adopted a more unitary vision. Nehru had conceded that ‘while free India may be a federation…in any event there must be a great deal of unitary control.’ Very early scholar K.V.Rao had observed the Centre as usurping the rights of the states, while constitutional scholar Ivor Jennings saw India as a ‘federation with strong centralising tendencies.’

State of Mountain States

The very Idea of India, says Dixit, is defined by diversity. It is not just that India is the second largest country in the world by population, and home of a fifth of the world’s population of 7 billion, unlike the People Republic of China, where there is a relative homogeneity among the Han population vis a vis the small minority ‘nationalities’, the very idea of India is defined by its diversity. This plurality is distributed across tens of thousands of identities and sub-identities. It is being increasingly realized that the centralised nation-state of India is not able to do justice to the size and diversity of its population, and straight-jacketing this staggering multitude into the unitary state format has created contradictions. It has been pointed out that the States Reorganization Commission, tasked with dividing the country into states after the Constitution was promulgated, went as far as to state baldly that ‘it is the Union of India that is the basis of our nationality’. According to Dixit, it sounded like an attempt to force an exclusivist unitary identity upon a varied people of multi-layered identities. In essence, it mandated as if it was the state establishment that would define what it meant to be an ‘Indian.’( Himal, ibid, p. 15 ).

Debate thus continues about weather India was delivered as a federal country or a unitary state, and given the ambivalence in the constitutional text, adjectives like ‘mythical federalism’, ‘quasi federalism’ and ‘cooperative federalism’ get used, to justify various initiatives in political formatting. Nehru’s 16 years at helm saw India achieve political stability but the Union showed signs of fraying at the edges and since his departure in 1964, there has been a drift towards ‘regionalism’. It is this drift, that Dixit sees as unplanned and unguided by academics or opinion makers, who should have taken a lead. The rise in the relative power of the states is seen by many made possible by Congress party’s weakening hold on power, since late 1960s. Undoubtedly the states like Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and lately Bihar and Odisha have helped regionalism gain traction. This piece is no place to fully reflect o various dimensions of this hugely significant debate on restoring the balance of power, in favour of the constituent states of the Union of India. In March 2012, Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal, even had gone to the extent of demanding a new Constituent Assembly to shift the balance of power in favour of the states. Even though this may be considered a bit too farfetched there certainly exists a case to seriously examine the very Idea of Devolution. If the experience of Partition had made the country Delhi –centric to the detriment of many states, as also the entire South Asia region, it certainly is time to consider a re-design to the superstructure.

Closer home, with the Nehruvian planning having been given a go-bye, adieu to the Five Year Plans, de-recognition of the Special Category Status recognizing the special historical status of so many mountain states e.g. Jammu & Kashmir, Nagaland, Manipur, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh, and a promise of ushering in an era of ‘Cooperative Federalism’, which in real terms appears to drive a tangible sense of further centralization, has brought in a huge amount of scepticism.

The mountain states of India, from their current situation, wonder via their civil society members, whether those who were expected to trigger, lead and back –  stop  very energetic and informed debate on the Sustainable Development Goals ( SDGs ), have time for such discussions at all ? Having foreseen such contingencies a small movement was commenced, by some civil society members, to put in place a Forum, in every mountain state, where regardless of the contemporary political turbulences informed debates would continue uninterrupted, in a collaborative, cooperative and non-partisan way. The Integrated Mountain Initiative ( IMI ) is such a pan-Indian mountain forum that has been formally constituted, in 2014, after four years of intense consultative process and regional consultations, and now its state counterparts are being positioned, to back-stop a pan-Indian innovation, exclusively for the 12 Indian mountain states. The Uttarakhand chapter of the Sustainable Development Forum, is but a manifestation of addressing a major gap that has been perceived at the national level. With major changes that are taking place in our neighbouring Nepal, a major stake-holder in South Asia regionalism, such development forums in each of the Indian mountain states, is a topical measure that needs support and participation from all informed quarters, including the mountain states themselves –even as the latter battle with their contemporary political restructuring.

  • R. S. Tolia steers the pan Indian Mountain Initiatives collaboratively with other colleagues in other mountain states, while steering the Centre for Public Policy in Doon University, which has backstopped policy-related work in mountain development. His other essays can be accessed at rstolia.in, his website.

One Comment on ““Sustainable Development Forum for Uttarakhand”

  1. Dr. Mridula Sharma

    such a productive and helpful article ……but i wanna know more about the population drift in Himalayan states, with data.

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