The Dharma Sansad organised in December last year in Haridwar made national headlines for its hate speeches against a particular community. A few days ago, a morphed image portraying Congress CM hopeful Harish Rawat as Muslim cleric was shared on social media platform Twitter.
While the BJP accused Mr. Harish Rawat of “appeasement politics”, the Congress has accused the saffron party of playing the “polarization” card in this election. In the meantime, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi performed Ganga Aarti in Haridwar during his recent visit to the State in what people have dubbed “soft Hindutva”.
As a result, a week ahead of polling, the Uttarakhand battle has taken on religious colour and the real issues like man-animal conflict, migration from the hills and environmental degradation have been sidelined.
Of the State’s 70 seats, around 34 constituencies are located in the hills where human-animal conflicts are a serious concern, leading to loss of life on both sides. With 70% of Uttarakhand under forest cover, communities living in the hills are prone to animal attacks, particularly during the monsoons.
As per the data till December 2021 with the State’s Forest Department, the total number of deaths due to animal attacks was around 900 and those injured was close to 5,000 in the last two decades. The toll on wildlife too has been high as 1,500 leopards have been killed in thensame period along with 471 elephants and 166 tigers. Although the Forest Department claims to have attempted to check the incidents of man-animal conflicts, there is no satisfactory result.
Interestingly, officials in the Forest Department link the conflict to widepsread migration of people from the hills. “The number of dogs and goats are decreasing in the villages,” said a source in the Department. According to the source, hill districts like Pauri, Almora, Pithoragarh, Champwat and Rudraprayag, which are witnessing migration, are also facing the brunt of conflict with wildlife in the State.
“Issues like polarization and appeasement will automatically disappear after the elections are over. The State’s local issues have much to do with the governance. So, we have to see how much work is done by the next government to address these issues,” said Anoop Nautiyal, founder of an NGO Social Development for Communities (SDC) Foundation.
Also missing from the election discourse is the impact of increasing number of natural calamities in the State. Most of the State lies in eco-sensitive zones. The flash floods in Raini Village in Chamoli district last February had washed away many people and a hydroelectric project (Tapovan Vishnugad project). In October, the State witnessed heavy rainfall causing landslides and road blocks and the death over 70 persons in rain-related incidents.
Even as the ruling BJP highlights the ongoing all weather road projects connecting the Char Dham — Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri and Yamunotri — the poor condition of roads connecting villages in the hill areas has so far not become a major political issue in this election. There are also issues like largescale hill cutting, dumping of debris into streams and rivers, and felling of trees posing a serious threat to the environment and local people. And this is all happening in the eco-sensitive zones of the Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary, the Rajaji National Park, the fragile Valley of Flowers among other sensitive locations. The unchecked work on multiple projects has resulted in increasing incidents of landslides and flash floods in the Himalayan State with accompanying tremendous loss of lives and property.
The National Statistical Office (NSO) survey for October-December 2020 quarter found that 27% of the people in Uttarakhand are unemployed, higher than the national average of 25%. Lack of basic facilities like education, healthcare and employment are forcing young people from Uttarakhand to move to the plains.
According to the report of the State Migration Commission, around 60% of the population from the hills has migrated to the plains. Almost 1,700 villages have been declared Ghost Villages (abandoned villages) as development has remained confined to the plains. While the contribution of industries to SGDP has increased to 49%, it has not stopped migration from hills.
Political analyst S.M.A. Kazmi says, “The basic issues have always been ignored in this State whenever elections are there. Emotional issues take over. Medical facilities are so poor that some of the district hospitals don’t even have Cesarean facilities. The BJP is trying to implement the “Hindutva” formula everywhere but Congress is also promoting soft Hindutva.”