Stones unto stones

  • 14/10/2000

Several years ago, when the demand for a separate hill state called Uttarakhand was first raised, I had asked an eminent environmentalist of the region, why was he not actively supporting the campaign. If there were a hill state he would be in a powerful position to influence its forest management policies and, thus, see his dreams turn into reality. But his answer was simple: If you break a stone, all that you get is two stones.

Today Uttarakhand or rather Uttaranchal is a reality together with Jharkhand and Chattisgarh. The question is: Will these states be any more than a few new stones?

If there is anything that marks all the three states it is that their landuse is dominated by forests and forest-dependent peoples and, of course, intense poverty. Jharkhand, for instance, literally means the land of the trees.

Any economic growth that aims to reach out to the people of these states will have to recognise these realities. Development plans will have to promote natural resource based enterprises in a way that poor communities benefit the most but resource exploitation is such that it is sustainable.

This will call for innovative thinking and institution building from the bottom-up. But it is the state leadership, from the top to the bottom, which will have to show intelligence and ingenuity in dealing with the development challenge faced by these new states.

Unfortunately, the likelihood of finding green and gentle leaders instead of hard and stony ones is quite low. As in the case of Gorkhaland, these states are more likely to see contractor lobbies taking hold of the political leadership arguing that as they are economically backward and lack infrastructure - an investment that easily allows a lot of pockets to get filled - infrastructure development should be the focus of future development.

Undoubtedly, investment in infrastructure is required but only as part of a larger economic design that addresses both the poverty and the ecology of the new states. Any further mismanagement of the forests could lead to greater alienation of the people and possibly even the domination of militant groups like Naxalites as in Bastar unlike the non-violent ones of the Chipko Movement.

Already the new Uttaranchal, a region that has given birth to India's environmental movement, is facing a serious environmental challenge. In the early 1970s, it was the Chipko Movement which had forced the Indian civil society to recognise that environmental management is a critical issue even in poor, developing countries because poor communities depend so heavily for their daily survival on their environment.

Over time, the message of the women of remote Reni village spread across the country and the entire developing world. In 1992, all governments, from rich to poor nations, accepted sustainable development as a goal at the Rio Conference. In the early 1980s, Dehradun-based social activist Avdhash Kaushal of the Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra filed a case in the Supreme Court to protect the fragile Doon valley from the ravages of limestone mining. The judgement of the Supreme Court in this case led to a new fundamental right being created for all Indians - the Right to a Clean Environment.

This judgement, delivered by the then Chief Justice P N Bhagwati, has since led to a spate of public interest litigation on environmental issues and put governments on the mat for poor environmental governance.

Having done all this for the nation in the past, will Uttaranchal now integrate environmental concerns in its own development projects? The immediate point of debate in the region is where should be the new state's capital? Three places are vying for the honour: Dehradun on the western corner, Nainital on the eastern corner, and Gairsain, somewhere in the middle. Dehradun and Nainital are well known Himalayan towns and are already straining under great pressure.

The famous Nainital lake is today a filthy waterbody which receives all the dirt of the city. Dehradun, too, is under pressure with constant traffic jams in its city centre, which was declared by the Central Pollution Control Board as the most polluted place in India - far from the town's image as a clean and green place fit for the retirement of the sahibs.

Choosing either of them as the new capital will mean less capital investment but heavy environmental and urban management investments if these towns are to get high quality of life. The Uttarakhand Kranti Dal, the originator of the demand for statehood, is arguing in favour of Gairsain, a place with still a clean environment but without any infrastructure. The issue is becoming a contentious one but the debate will consists more of political statements than of what kind of Capital and, therefore, urban development should the new state aspire for.

Unless the debate moves in that direction, given the fact that urban development is in a state of deep crisis across the entire country, all that we are likely get in the form of these new states is yet a few more new stones.