Builders hold Uttarakhand to ransom

Plain definition of politics is ‘who gets what, when, and how much?’ and which is why Himalayan ecology is not on politicians’ agenda

Construction activities in Nainital, one of U'Khand's most densely populated hill stations.
Construction activities in Nainital, one of U'Khand's most densely populated hill stations.

Prof Pushpesh Pant

While Uttarakhand is in the news for BJP foisting the third chief minister in four months, despondent environmentalists in the state see no change in the state government’s approach and attitude to the ecological crisis. Although ecology is critical to the state’s development, it has never been an electoral issue. Politicians simply have not taken the issue seriously, they assert. Excerpts from a conversation National Herald had with professor Pant.

Rapid urbanisation and frenetic development activities in the state nestling in the ecologically sensitive Himalayas have sent alarm bells ringing. Pollution in the Ganga and other rivers, drying up of Himalayan lakes, climate change, disappearing species of birds and butterflies and ever-increasing landslides and forest fires are some of them.

Yet, in the two decades of its existence as a state, the relationship between politics and ecology has remained broken. Protests by local people in the Kumaon region against the government’s developmental plans are endemic, he points out. In Sattal, local residents are trying to prevent proposed construction of children’s park, bird’s museum, viewers point etc. In Chatola village residents are planning protests after a series of cases where JCBs required for real estate development destroyed traditional flora and fauna in the area.

Local residents used to a traditional lifestyle with their lives intertwined with the forests find it discomforting that real estate developers are building gated communities with high walls and electric fences to cater to clients from Delhi who buy properties in Uttarakhand not because they love or respect the frugal life of the hills but because they want to escape the city’s pollution.

In the 20 years of the state’s history, development agendas have always subverted ecology. Harold Laswell, American political scientist had famously said that the plain definition of politics is “who gets what, when, and how much?” Wherever there is a developmental project, there is money to be made by all parties.

Both BJP and Congress leaders have unitedly argued with the Centre for more development projects in the Gangotri region. Uttarakhand Kranti Dal (UKD) was the only regional party which was focused on local issues including ecology, but they were subverted by the big parties.

Today, only a few NGOs and activists such as Padma Bhushan Anil Joshi are trying to bring the focus back on ecology but political leaders are not interested in listening to reason. Former chief secretary R.S. Tolia, a tribal from Munsiyari, used to talk of environment but after his retirement, bureaucratic support for environmental conservation has also dissipated.

Political leaders avoid the responsibility to address the ecological problem by giving three excuses: religious sentiments, strategic security bogey and the development myth, point out environmentalists.

Garhwal region’s fragile ecology is being put at risk to make four-lane highways for so-called strategic reasons. Who thinks China is going to attack us in these regions? Char Dham Yatra is being marketed as religious tourism which is nothing but exploitation of a sacred sentiment.

The Yatra also does not contribute much to the local economy. All it does is it allows illegal unplanned construction along the Yatra route. Two disasters in two successive years have exposed how illegal constructions on riverbeds are dangerous.

Uttarakhand has been hooked on to the real estate developers and business and no other forms of employment generation have even been thought of. Nainital is a concrete jungle today and it is important to protect whatever remains but the political leadership will never speak on these issues.

(As told to Sanjukta Basu. Professor Pushpesh Pant taught International Relations at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He is a noted academic, historian and food critic. Views are personal)

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