The state of Uttarakhand came into being on November 8, 2000. Later that month, I was in Mussoorie for a meeting. Cell phones then were rare, and I did not yet own one. I walked down the Mall, and found an STD booth, from where I called the historian Shekhar Pathak, who lives in Nainital, a hundred miles to the east as the crow flies. When he picked up the phone I yelled, ‘Apné rajya sé bol raha hoon’ (I am speaking from our state).
Although an ethnic Tamil, I was born and raised in Dehradun. Later, I did my doctoral dissertation on the social history of Uttarakhand, in the course of which I travelled widely across the region. This was in the 1980s, when the movement for a separate hill state was gathering momentum. I met many activists of the Uttarakhand Andolan, and got to know, and empathise with, their aspirations.
The western part of Uttarakhand is known as Garhwal; the eastern part as Kumaon. Although Kumaon and Garhwal were separate kingdoms, through the 20th century they developed a shared identity. These were the hill districts of Uttar Pradesh, separated from the plains districts by ecology, culture, and language.
The activists I knew hoped that when it became a separate state, Uttarakhand would go the way of Himachal Pradesh, which had built a strong economy based on tourism and horticulture. Himachal also has an excellent record in education and health, and in the empowerment of women.
Uttarakhand was finally formed in 2000, after an arduous struggle. Since the state was established, its performance has been depressingly below par. The zest and idealism of those who fought for the hill state have been markedly absent in those who now rule it. The MLAs and ministers of Uttarakhand, and by and large its civil servants too, are indifferent to the welfare of its people. Their principal aim has been to consolidate their own prestige and power.
Those who led the Uttarakhand Andolan wanted the state’s capital to be Gairsain, which is in eastern Garhwal, very close to where Kumaon begins. A hill state demanded a capital in the hills, and Gairsain met that criteria, while being accessible to both of Uttarakhand’s main regions.
Gairsain remains in theory a prospective future capital, but in practice the role is played by Dehradun. This was deemed expedient by bureaucrats and ministers, for the town had many buildings that could be commandeered for government offices. It was also well connected by rail and road to the national capital, Delhi.
Once the babus and netas moved into Dehradun, they have been reluctant to move out. The town has good schools for their children, and restaurants and bars and even golf courses for their entertainment. So the file relating to the building of a new capital remains buried under a mass of other files in the Uttarakhand secretariat.
Dehradun is inappropriate as a capital for three reasons. First, it is a town in and of the foothills, not of the hills proper. Second, it is at the very edge of the state, bordering Himachal and Uttar Pradesh. Third, the town has a large population of people from outside Uttarakhand, who h ave no emotional connection to the state. Dehradun is, in a geographical and psychological sense, thus far removed from the citizens of a state whose fates it determines.
The choice of Dehradun as the state’s capital has been disastrous for Uttarakhand. And it has been bad for Dehradun too. In my boyhood, it was a quite beautiful place, a small town surrounded by acres and acres of tea gardens, rice fields, litchi orchards, and sal forests, with clear water from the hills flowing in its rivers and canals. Now the fields and forests have mostly gone, giving way to malls, car showrooms, schools for the children of the Indian elite, and holiday homes for rich businessmen.
Himachal Pradesh wisely chose a hill town in the middle of the state as its capital. And it had the good fortune of having a visionary chief minister, YS Parmar, who, in a long tenure (1963 to 1977), inspired his civil servants to nurture excellent schools and hospitals. (Himachal’s human development record is almost as good as Kerala’s.) On the other hand, of the seven chief ministers Uttarakhand has had, some have been malevolent, others merely mediocre.
Meanwhile, having Dehradun as the capital has promoted corruption and criminality among its politicians. There is an active land mafia, in whose working MLAs and ministers play a part. Deals are struck with private companies to sell the state’s precious forest and water resources. Many large dams are coming up in Uttarakhand, displacing tens of thousands of people and devastating its ecology.
In recent years I have travelled often to both Himachal and Uttarakhand. Although there remain honourable exceptions, by and large the bureaucrats of the former state are focused and hard-working; of the latter, complacent and time-serving. The legacy of Parmar continues to have a salutary effect in Himachal. In Uttarakhand, on the other hand, the incompetence (and worse) of the political leadership has negatively influenced bureaucratic capabilities as well.
It was hoped that Uttarakhand would become another Himachal Pradesh. Instead, it is in danger of becoming another Jharkhand, a state whose political economy is based on the loot of natural resources.
Few of my fellow Uttarakhandis are unhappy about the fact that the state exists. It was just, and necessary, that the hill districts of Uttar Pradesh make their own separate way in the world. That said, the 15th anniversary of the state’s founding must be a moment not of celebration, but of introspection and self-criticism.
(Ramachandra Guha’s most recent book is Gandhi Before India. You can follow him on Twitter at @Ram_Guha. The views expressed are personal)