RANIKHET (ALMORA): Uttarakhand’s top two politicians - BJP state president Ajay Bhatt and chief minister Harish Rawat - are associated with this high-profile assembly constituency. Bhatt, the Leader of Opposition, is the sitting MLA of Ranikhet. Chief minister Harish Rawat’s ancestral village Mohnari falls in this constituency.
Yet, development and employment opportunities continue to ‘elude’ Ranikhet. These problems exist because this constituency is not notified as a district, according to voters who are raising the demand for the last 60 years.
At a public meeting before filing his nomination papers recently, Bhatt had assured locals that, if voted to power, BJP would fulfil its promise to notify Ranikhet as a district. The BJP leader will face Karan Mahara of Congress in this election.
Such promises are not new to the residents of this constituency or those of Ranikhet town, the hill resort the Britishers had settled. A tehsil headquarters’ town, the civil area of Ranikhet is governed by the cantonment board. Besides, the Kumaon Regimental Centre has its headquarters in Ranikhet.
Its residents are long struggling to get rid of what they call the “high-handedness” of army authorities heading the cantonment board. From 1980, they are demanding that the civil area be declared a municipal area for facilitating its development.
“Had they (Bhatt and Rawat) genuinely worked to get our twin demands conceded, we would have also enjoyed the fruit of development like the people elsewhere,” says bank employee Pradeep Kumar, referring to the people’s demand for a district and a municipality. “Ironically, association of these leaders with us has turned out to be our misfortune.”
Kumar regrets that both the high-profile leaders failed to get Ranikhet notified as a municipality. “As a result, we’ve been struggling to get rid of this ‘fauji raj’ because its stringent rules deny us the ownership of even our own land,” trader Ramesh Tiwari, 45, rues.
A majority of the residents of the civil area in this town are land lessees, as per the provisions of the Cantonments Act 2006. “That means we aren’t allowed to even extend the built up area of our houses. We have to seek permission of the chief executive officer of the cantonment board,” says Tiwari. “But mostly, the CEO refuses to pass the related maps raising several objections. However, no objections are raised in case of a few influential people who are permitted to extend their houses.”
The brigadier of Kumaon Regimental Centre is the president of the cantonment board, which is headed by the chief executive officer.
Manish Chaudhary, a businessman, says the locals not being allowed to add space to their houses creates enormous problems for them. “Obviously, as families increase, their living space shrinks. In fact, we don’t get permission even to extend the area of our shops,” he says. “As a result, several families migrated from this once thriving hill resort.”
“We (the govt) have notified the civil area of Ranikhet as a municipality,” Surendra Aggrawal, a senior Congress leader and the chief minister’s media in-charge, says. But most local residents, including Manish Chaudhary, claim they are not aware of any such notification.
Rama Negi, the spokesperson for the chief executive officer of the cantonment board, denied all such allegations. “People are always allowed to extend the built up area of their residential and business premises, if that is legally permissible, as per the provisions stipulated under the law,” she says, referring to the Cantonments Act, 2006.
In 2006, the erstwhile UPA government had introduced the law replacing the Cantonments Act, which the Britishers had enacted way back in 1924. “But the new law is far more draconian than its earlier version as it gives defence estate officers carte blanche regarding governance of the entire civil area here,” Hem Chaudhary, a former vice-president of Cantonment Board, says.
The social activist is leading the fight of locals for getting this mountain resort notified as a municipal area for decades. “At the time of enacting the new law, the UPA government promised that the cantonment board, which would be controlled by its provisions, would be more democratic and people-friendly,” says Manish. “But the law turned out to be draconian impeding development of this tourist town, which has badly hit the local economy.”
‘NOTIFY RANIKHET AS DISTRICT TO DEVELOP RURAL AREAS’
Incidentally, no different is the situation in rural areas of this hill-locked constituency. Most areas are grappling with a lack of basic facilities including schools, hospitals and un-remunerative farming. “All these issues remain neglected because territorially Almora - of which we are a part - is a big district,” says Dhirendra Pant, a resident of nearby village Pant Kotuli. “Had Ranikhet been notified as a district there would be an inflow of dedicated funds, which would give a push to the area’s development,” adds Prakash Chand, 39, a teacher based at Deolikhet village.
The people blame both Congress and BJP for ignoring their demand. “Before each election, we are led up the garden path by both parties that Ranikhet will be notified as a district,” says Pant. “Each time the assurance turns out to be as elusive as a poll promise can be.”