Left, right, up, down...bump, bump, bump! That was me… being thrown about on all sides of the jeep that I was in. No, I wasn’t off-roading! I was on an investigative mission to Pinrow, a village in Nainital district, Uttarakhand from my home. I was investigating the impact of the state government's push for 100% of child births to happen in the hospitals. Queasy and battered from the bumpy ride, I wondered how a very pregnant woman would handle the ride up the winding mountain roads to the hospital. The chances of her going into early labour due to the jerky movements seemed incredibly high. Yes, hospitals are better-equipped than traditional mid-wives, which is why city-dwellers usually go that route. But wouldn’t it make more sense for mid-wives to be trained in better hygiene measures and emergency care in such hilly terrain where the ride to the hospital could turn out to be more of a danger?
This is what happens when centralized plans are made out of Delhi offices for regions they aren’t familiar with.
Need for a common platform
The 11 mountain states and 2 hill districts of India that make up our north and north-eastern border face common issues and challenges, and share similar concerns for meeting their developmental needs. In 2010, a task force was set up by the Planning Commission, Government of India, to identify institutional gaps in mountain states and create solutions to meet mountain issues. One of the chief recommendations of this task force was the creation of a forum of the Indian mountain states, involving broad representation that will bring up innovative ideas.
The Indian Mountain Initiative
The Initiative is the forum recommended by the Planning Commisson. It also is an effort to look at the mountains from several perspectives including strategic, environmental, human, cultural and topographical. It organises two events every year with one event hosted in one of the 11 Himalayan states and the other in Delhi. The second Meet was organised in Delhi in March 2013.
It was initiated by the Central Himalayan Environment Association, an NGO that focuses on water management and improving livelihoods of people in the mountain states. The initiative has now been embraced by all the Himalayan States as a necessary means of being heard. Nagaland's hosting the next summit is a sign of its acceptance by the mountain peoples.
It discussed various subjects including climate change, education and natural resources with regards to the mountain states. Most identity politics tend to be destructive - their emphasis on a certain group of people tends to foster a fear of the unknown rather than a feeling of togetherness. The Initiative, on the other hand, is creating an ecological identity. The most exciting bit about it is that it will bring about a constructive idea of what ecological identity is, which will serve to undo the other deadlocks that we see today.
The topics that the Initiative needs to focus on are:
- understanding local conditions as a result of climate change
- considering the regulatory challenge that the environment is going to pose in the future
- exploring what is it that state capacity requires to support the various strategies, including health, environment etc.
India's Mountain states - crown jewels or distant cousins?
During this panel discussion, the panelists agreed that the mountains are crown jewels in terms of ecology and gods; the people are still considered to be distant cousins. Most Indians, other than those who actually live in the Himalayas, venerate the mountains themselves as both a resource and a source of spiritual fulfilment but tend to either exoticise or ignore the people who live in the mountain areas
This is a challenge for the country, its planners and the government. For the mountain people however, it is a challenge as well as is an opportunity. Planners and policy makers were earlier not focused on the people of the mountains but now that climate change is a reality, the Himalayas have gained more importance as an issue.
Human Development Index
This index, a statistical method of using life expectancy, education, and income data to rank regions in terms of human welfare rather than national income, has not really improved despite planning and policy interventions. Working on it is now urgent. People are leaving the mountains and villages are being abandoned.
The level of education in the Himalayan states is on a decline as it does not focus on future livelihood needs. For better livelihoods, both local traditional skills and industrial education must be emphasised equally. There is a lack of quality polytechnic and other colleges in the state post-partition. Tremendous energy is visible in students and youth. This needs to be harnessed for development of the mountain region. We are at an interesting moment where there is a dynamic bubbling up. This needs to be capitalised upon rather than throttled.
The rivers are not just a source of hydropower but help keep the forests, river ecosystems, and rural communities alive. Hydropower need not be politicised, but should be debated vigorously from all points of view.
The environment will pose regulatory challenges for the states. With all the resources available today, the states have not been able to save a single river in its free-flowing state. All sizeable rivers are dammed at several points in their course and the future seems bleak.
Alienating the communities
This inherited 'distant frontiers' view must go. We cannot think of a future for the mountains while the Armed Forces Special Powers Act is applied to the mountain peoples. The Act gives sweeping powers to the army to empower non-commissioned officers to search without warrant, arrest without warrant and eve shoot causing death. To top it off, it provides them immunity against any civilian prosecution. Currently enforced in 8 of the 11 Himalayan states, this Act is widely condemned as abusive , draconian and illegal. The fact that all attempts to redress this are coming from the people and not from the state is a matter of concern.
These are primarily the border security issues and challenges with governance with respect to the central government. Development of the mountain regions will not happen unless the capacity of the states to administer these regions is developed.
Restructuring the Ministry of Development of North East Region
The only organisation in India that looks at atleast a part of the Himalayan region on the basis of its geographic identity is the Ministry of Development of North East region. However, it is not regarded as sustainable, since it works on the basis of externally developed vision and externally imposed help. At the same time, the three Central Himalayan states (Jammu Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand) share the challenges faced by the North Eastern states. This argues for a radical rethinking of the role and purview of the Ministry combining the inclusion of these remaining 3 Himalayan states into its purview along with greater decentralization of its objectives and programmes.
Converting the Initiative into a formal institution is in progress. This will 'establish the DNA' of the forum and ensure its longevity. It was agreed that the Initiative should be an organisation to catalyse actions rather than lead the action.
3rd Sustainable Mountain Development Summit
This has been planned for September 2013 at Kohima, Nagaland. The themes for this summit are forest, water, and agriculture. It has also been decided that before the Mountain summit, a youth summit will be organised for students.
As of now, the Initiative is a relatively young movement brimming with energy. It is essential that this energy be sustained well into the future. Institutionalisation is an important step to ensuring that the Initiative has a longetivity greater than its current members. Ultimately however, what will sustain this is the energy obtained from successful interventions. We hope that the 3rd summit in Kohima furthers this goal.