10 insights on the political ecology of Himachal today
Manshi Asher and Prakash Bhandari
The morning ritual of eagerly scanning the Himachal edition of The Tribune (the only English paper in print that has meaty coverage from the region) has never been so rewarding, offering in one glance, deep clarity on what is going on in the Himalayan State. Today’s edition was particularly enlightening with news that covered a wide range of issues that if we put together quickly reveals both contradictions and connections between the glaring issues facing the society and polity of the state at the moment.
Here are ten insights that need deeper contemplation:
1. The state is in a serious fiscal crisis: When Jai Ram Thakur took over as the Chief Minister of the State earlier this year he had remarked that it was shameful that the party which “ruled the state for decades had pushed it to a financial crisis with a Rs 46,500 crore debt”. Notwithstanding that the BJP has had an equal opportunity to lead the State, it is important to note that in its tenure hence far, there seem to be no signs of things changing course for the better.
2. Land related conflicts are on the rise: The diverse contestations over land are becoming increasingly visible in the State where the ‘area of operation’ for purposes of farming, habitation, urban expansion, commercial and infrastructure purposes is limited. Nearly 70% of the state’s geographical area is under the category of ‘forest’, which too is a landscape of a separate set of conflicts – of being maintained as inviolate space for conservation on one hand, as a community resources supporting forest-based livelihoods, on the other and being diverted to private interests for ‘development’, as the third more dominant demand.
3. The idea of ‘development’ continues to be extractive: Interestingly, the idea of development being dictated by the current political economy of neoliberal private investment is extractive and demands not just massive land but also water resources, both of which are scarce and also essential for day to day survival of the residents. Despite this, the new government is narrow in its objective, continuing on the path of attracting investments in hydropower, cement industry, tourism and road expansion, and notching up its ‘ease of doing business’ rankings by diluting lease rules, NOC requirements from local communities
4. ‘Environment’ is not a real or serious concern: It then is more than apparent that the discourse on ‘environment’ is restricted to ‘climate change seminars’ in AC conference halls of academic institutions. It’s a domain of experts and scientists who sing paens to models of climate adaptation or climate change literacy among people to ‘solve the problem’. Where as it is amply clear to every expert that the current model of ‘development’ if its means more dams, hotels, highways in the hills, is unsustainable and that a solution to climate change necessarily requires a radical systemic shift in policy, choosing between ‘environment’ and ‘development’
5. Local livelihood opportunities are shrinking: Closely linked with the issue of ecological crises, and the shrinking natural resource base is the crisis of local livelihoods. The three pillars of natural resource based livelihood in the mountain economy, farm, forest and livestock, and their interlinks, have been steadily dismantled in the state. The government, which is merely doling out social security measures, has no plan to work on creating new livelihoods or strengthening this triology for that requires a change in approach to development. Infact, the recent spate of eviction drives, in the name of removing illegal ‘encroachments’, razed to the ground years of local people’s investments in raising apple orchards.
6. The sheen of the ‘good governance’ is wearing off: And it was very much with state bureaucracy’s awareness that these occupations were made. Be it the illegal constructions by hoteliers in Kasauli (leading to a shootout earlier in the month) and Mcloedganj or the gradual expansion into forest lands by orchardists, horticulturists to raise their farm income – both were a result of a combination of factors which include the government pushing a certain policy intervention (apples and tourism), the market forces at play and the failure of regulatory bodies and mechanisms to keep tab. While the nature of ‘illegal occupation’ requires to be segregated and assessed case by case – the entire lot of ‘illegalities’ that have come to light are now suddenly being dealt with an iron fist by the concerned departments in an arbitrary manner, bringing into the fold many cases which are not of impunity but of genuine lack of awareness of the law and the norms, because the enforcement authorities were either asleep or in connivance with the violators.
7. Court action is running the executive: The bureaucracy’s sudden ‘staunch approach’, something that is being perceived as a change of face by the ‘faulting’ parties (Pehle to kisi department wale ne kuchh nahin bola), is inturn being driven by the outrage of courts. Now the outrage of the High Court for instance in the ‘removal of encroachment’ case, is expected when a legislation is violated. But what if the violation is rampant, infact it is a norm, because people had no choice or because a piece of legislation is anti-people? In this case the 1980 Forest Conservation Act, or for that matter most forest laws that have made forest land ‘State property’ without recognising the people’s dependence on these ‘Forest’ lands. Despite the presence of a remedy like the ‘Forest Rights Act’ 2006, to address the issue of forest land occupations issue, there is judicial as well as bureaucratic oversight in this matter.
8. There are no political alternatives and civil society is absent: In a democratic set up, such a scenario can be addressed by the legislative, the political representatives chosen by the people. But the fact that neither the party in power, nor the opposing Congress who was once in power, have been able to make any real promises, forget deliver, to the people of the state is evident in the emerging crisis. When the interests of the parties is to maintain status quo, then there can be little they can contribute to bringing change. At such a time, it is society which has to get into action and mobilise itself to exert pressure on the State and its machinery. However, state benevolence and people’s faith in the system has ensured that no one is out on the streets. Which is why you have no water in Shimla for 5 days and not a single protest or agitation.
9. Women are no longer safe in the state: The last time we saw a mass outrage in Himachal was in response to the Kothkai rape case last year. After Kotkhai, there have been several cases of minor girls being raped in Palampur, Baijnath and Mandi… but it has not provoked people into action. The cohesiveness of the mountain society, the fairly better status of women, especially compared to their counter parts in the plains has been characteristic of Himachal but this scenario seems to be fast changing, as recent reports indicate.
10. Reimagination is the only way: Himachal has the status of a special state and therefore access to development funds which are propping up the economy. The ‘Himachal’ development model is oft cited as one worth replicating in states like Uttarakhand for instance which are facing a huge challenge of out migration. Himachal, unlike its neighbouring hill state, has not seen that problem yet. Policy and governance – these are two areas which need serious and immediate re-imagining to prevent Himachal from caving, politically, financially and economically. If the situation worsens though, the two most probable ‘choices’ in front of the Himachali people might be – mass exodus or mass agitation. Which one will they pick?
Himdhara Collective, Palampur