Uttarakhand: A totem of hope or a tomb of recklessness?

It is on a mission to tackle challenges of climate change and unplanned development

PTI6_21_2013_000102A Disaster strikes: Kedarnath shrine, after it was damaged in the 2013 floods | PTI

In the 10th year since the Kedarnath floods, in the year of massive rains and the ensuing disaster, this is not a story of either. This is a story of what will be, from a state which is both totem and tomb.

If Uttarakhand remains just a land of disasters and poor economic growth, its people will move to better-off states, giving rise to socio-cultural tensions, which vested interests could exploit.

Uttarakhand covers about 53,500sq.km, making it the 19th largest state in the country, yet it is usually in the news only when disaster strikes. We criticise the government, blaming it for being hungry for development at any cost. We pay no attention to our own role in it. Of how we drive in to the state during weekends, choke its roads, play music through the night, strew it with litter and plastic, and head right back home―having contributed, but only meagrely, to its tourism earnings.

Vir Singh, emeritus professor of environmental sciences at the G.B. Pant University of Agriculture and Technology, Pantnagar, said Uttarakhand was the “frontier soldier of the nation”. The Himalayas keep at bay the cold winds from central Asia and also act as a barrier to rain bearing winds from north India. More than 90 per cent of the state has mountains, most of which are covered by forests, which act as carbon sinks for the entire country. Thus, what happens in Uttarakhand should concern all of us.

Manoj Kumar Pant, additional chief executive officer at the Centre for Public Policy and Good Governance, Dehradun, said one of the major planning challenges facing Uttarakhand was budget allocation. “We have been teaching departments to come up with plans without consideration for budgetary constraints,” he said. The deadweight of the money challenge is not easy to shake off given that more than 60 per cent of the state’s budget goes into expenditure such as salaries and pensions.

Yet, there have been successes. Pant picks up the ‘One village, One Farm’ initiative to illustrate this. Small and scattered land holdings in the hills make agriculture strenuous, and provide little returns. So villagers, under a co-operative or self-help group, consolidate their lands into a bigger farm, with income distribution fixed according to land share. MGNREGA funds are used to develop plots; line departments, meanwhile, provide technical and financial assistance.

Anil Prakash Joshi, environmentalist, green activist, and founder of the Himalayan Environmental Studies and Conservation Organisation, said the government bore responsibility for minimising litter caused by tourists. “After a certain point, en route to Badrinath and Kedarnath, all pilgrims should be asked to deposit their belongings. After that, it should be the government’s responsibility to provide them with food, water and other essentials,” he said.

Yet this does not work well as there is a rush to set records for the number of tourists. Forget the Char Dhams, even other places such as the Kainchi Dham are choked during tourist season. On a single day, when this reporter was in Uttarakhand, 50,000 people visited Kainchi, where unplanned parking and chaos might someday contribute to a disaster. And why this sudden popularity of the dham? Well, cricketer Virat Kohli visited it during a dry spell in his career and returned to form after that. Small wonder then, taxi drivers refer to it as the ‘Virat-Anushka’ temple.

Durgesh Pant, director general of Uttarakhand’s Science and Technology Council, lists a number of steps taken by the government to promote science and technology in the remotest corners of the state. Among them is the fifth science city of the country coming up in Dehradun, science sub centres in outlying districts like Champawat, an astro park in Haldwani, labs on wheels for schoolchildren, the organisation of STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) days in all 95 blocks of the state, among other initiatives. “The whole idea is to bring science to people. To use a hub-and-spoke model to promote innovation, entrepreneurship and modern science infused with traditional wisdom,” he said.

But these are not the Uttarakhand stories we hear. We think of it only as a state upon which the gods unleash their wrath. However, remember that if Uttarakhand remains just a land of disasters and poor economic growth, its people will move to better off states, giving rise to socio-cultural tensions which vested interests could exploit.

A totem of hope or a tomb of reckless disasters―what story will Uttarakhand choose to tell the world next? It still has a choice, as do all of us.