Ancient Hindu scriptures refer to the region of Uttarakhand as Dev Bhoomi or the “Abode of Gods.” The people of Uttarakhand pride themselves on the sanctity of their homeland's high mountains and rivers where many important Hindu pilgrimages take place. On November 9, 2000, the government of India made the region the 27th state in the union but named it Uttaranchal, much to the dismay of the local population. Finally, seven years later in 2007, the people's wishes were granted and Uttaranchal became Uttarakhand. In many ways this seven-year struggle for a place name reflects the various problems faced by the state today.
Uttarakhand is a Sanskrit word meaning the “northern section” but refers specifically to the mountainous regions of Garhwal and Kumaon that form two divisions of the state of Uttarakhand. It is located in northwestern India with Tibet (China) and Nepal to the north and east, respectively, the Indian states of Himachal Pradesh and Haryana to the west, and Uttar Pradesh to south. Deciduous and coniferous forests and alpine meadows cover the mountains that make up approximately 93 percent of the 31,767 square miles of state territory fringed by a narrow belt of fertile lowlands. Nanda Devi, Badrinath, Kamet, and Trishul are among the highest peaks in the state, and nestled among these are glaciers such as Gangotri and Yamnotri—sources of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers—that provide sustenance to millions of people living in the north Indian plains. For hundreds of years, these mountains and glaciers have attracted pilgrims from all over India. Haridwar, a city located on the banks of the Ganges where it descends into the plains, is one of four places in India that hosts the three-month-long Kumbh Mela festival celebrated every 12 years by millions of people.
The indigenous people of Uttarakhand call themselves Paharis (hill people) and believe they are culturally distinct from the Maidanis (people of the plains). The folklore of Uttarakhand binds Paharis of Garhwal and Kumaon together, even though they speak different languages and share mutual animosity in their struggle to carve out their own state from India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, to which they were arbitrarily assigned after the country's independence from Britain in August 1947. Garhwal and Kumaon had comprised 16 percent of the land area of Uttar Pradesh but accounted for less than 5 percent of its population. For the Paharis the state capital of Uttar Pradesh, Lucknow, seemed disconnected not only because of its inaccessibility but also because the government could not empathize with the needs of the hill people since representatives were mostly from the plains. This disconnect led to their economic underdevelopment. Neglect by Uttar Pradesh was evident in the lack of transportation infrastructure, electricity, drinking water, and basic health services, as well as employment opportunities in the hills compared to the plains. Forest and water resources were used mainly to benefit people living in the plains.
The Mandal Commission's recommendations in 1994 whereby the government of India declared a 27 percent reservation (affirmative action) for other backward castes triggered a populist movement toward statehood. Although desire for a separate hill state first surfaced in the 1920s and 1930s, it was not until the 1990s that a group of people, mostly students and government workers of the region, actively demanded a separate state. Upper-caste people of the hills, which make up 95 percent of the population, feared they would lose what little they had in terms of government jobs and opportunities for higher education because backward castes from the plains of Uttar Pradesh would gain advantage in these institutions in the hills where backward castes were only 5 percent of the population. Nevertheless, the separatist movement always claimed economic backwardness in the hills and preservation of the environment as being the main reasons behind their demand for statehood.
The latter justification for demanding statehood was not just spin to put the movement into a more noble light. Uttarakhand is known around the world as the place that gave rise to the famous Chipko Movement of the 1970s. It was a spontaneous, nonviolent, grassroots action led by rural women who literally hugged trees to protect them from being cut down by logging companies. Another important environmental action was the Anti-Tehri Dam Movement led by the octogenarian Sunderlal Bahuguna (b. 1927) that aimed to halt the construction in the Himalayas of one of the largest hydroelectric projects in the world. Despite decades of protest by the people of Tehri, the dam was completed in 2003 at a cost of $1.2 billion. It is estimated that more than 40,000 people lost their homes to the reservoir. Many of those displaced by the dam have yet to be resettled by the state government. This massive investment has robbed the rural population in Tehri of drinking water and electricity that is diverted during many months of the year to Uttar Pradesh and Delhi.
With the formation of a new state comes a new capital. Ironically, the current “interim” capital of Uttarakhand, Dehradun, which is the most congested and polluted city in the region, is far away from the hills and controlled again by people from the plains. The location of the capital in Dehradun also displeases the people of Kumaon because it is located in Garhwal. Plans for a new capital in a remote part of the state on the border of Garhwal and Kumaon have been discussed for the last 10 years; a foundation stone was even placed with much pomp and circumstance by the leaders of the separatist movement, but to no avail.
Ten years after statehood, not much has changed for the hill people of Uttarakhand. The livelihood of the Paharis still depends on raising livestock, bartering homemade crafts, and the meager variety of crops that grow in the temperate climate and poor soil. Even though 65 percent of the state's population is still involved in agriculture, it accounts for less than a quarter of its gross domestic product (GDP). Jobs for the rural educated youth are still scarce in the hills even though literacy rates in the state are well above the national average. Almost half the men in the region have migrated to the plains or joined the military to support families who earn a living from their fragmented land holdings worked mostly by Garhwal and Kumaon women. The Garhwal Regiment and the Kumaon Regiment, both infantry regiments established by the British government in India, continue to be among the largest employers of men. The tourism sector does, however, employ a large number of people. Many come to enjoy the national parks and wildlife sanctuaries within a state 65 percent covered in forests, a remarkable figure considering that only 15 percent of India's total area is forested. The Corbett National Park, the Rajaji National Park, and the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve are Uttarakhand's important conservation areas. Yet, with only 217 miles of railroads operating in the plains, two semifunctional airports in the entire state, and the Delhi-Dehradun highway still not completed, it may take some time before tourism reaches an economy of scale in the region. However, much of the revenue gained from current tourism fills the pockets of Delhi-based developers of high-end hotels and resorts. Today, the annual per capita income in Uttarakhand has stagnated at $700.
Recently the government of India announced a multimillion dollar project to establish an Indian Institute of Management (IIM) in Kashipur, a city on the plains, while there has been no apparent drive to build any infrastructure for the proposed capital in the hills. And the state Legislative Assembly currently is housed in a small building with only one exit.
See also Mandal Commission
Uttarakhand Public Service Commission (UKPSC), Gurukul Kangri, Haridwar Accessed April 28, 2011. http://ukpsc.gov.in.
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