The Story of Uttarakhand: Bad Economics and Ignorant Politics

By Vatsal Khandelwal

In his book, ‘Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics as if people mattered’, E.F. Schumacher argues “The judgment of economics is an extremely fragmented judgment; out of the large number of aspects which in real life have to be seen and judged together before a decision is to be taken, economics supplies only one – whether a thing yields a money profit to those who undertake it or not.” Economic agents who model their decisions with respect to this profit making ideal have a restricted outlook towards the resource constraint, the social costs and the environmental damage resulting out of their decisions. These decisions and policy repercussions are so profit-oriented that they end up being unsustainable and unethical.

When the decision maker is not the profit-oriented entrepreneur but a welfare-oriented government (or perhaps a corrupt collusion of both) and the stakeholder is the entire tribal population of Uttarakhand (and everyone else in the due course), the situation calls for attention. The state which pompously boasted of its ecological beauty, pristine environment and an eco-sensitive, self sustaining tribal population which worships nature is stripped of its sacredness, sold to corrupt corporate giants and buried under the debris of over two hundred dams and the vexatious sound of dynamite blasts. It is this supercedence of the economic system over the social system, the market over the community, corporate profit over tribal welfare and hypocrisy over fair judgment that makes Uttarakhand susceptible to one of the most dreadful ecological disasters we have ever faced and maybe, one of the nastiest peasant revolutions the Indian State has ever seen. It is a two-fold negative- annoying nature, facing the repercussions and annoying those communities that have stood by nature since centuries, far before the world heard of Chipko and far before vegetables were brought and sold in the market.

It is not surprising that the government has overlooked its own constitutional ideals since believing that life and livelihood of the population is more important than displacement and disaster causing projects that help India ‘grow and progress’ is talking anti-development, anti state and anti modernity; like a proponent of full-blown communism. It is not surprising that the government has not even thought of the earthquake-sensitive terrain and the multitude of rivers while bombarding them with ‘growth inducing’ hydroelectric plants. We do not know where the electricity goes since the state literally borrows electricity from Himachal Pradesh or maybe we do know (cash in hand and contract in the other, we live in an age of corporate governance). The Tehri Dam, for instance, has a life of about eighty years after which it becomes defunct and at present, it produces electricity with such a high force that the step up-step down process cannot be completed before reaching the grid-lines in Meerut. The Tehri dam does not fulfill the electricity requirements of the state and people it partially devastated. In fact, the displaced population was subject to a use and throws policy, compelled to be forced riders of an unfair economic decision. But we cannot complain, we are told to worship the just, fair, modernity inducing, equitable- temples of modern India. Over two hundred such temples are being constructed over the state and basic mathematics can help us analyze the amount of destruction, livelihood-usurpation and economic development done.

A visit to Lata (one of the Bhotiya tribe villages in the Niti Valley which actively participated in the Chipko and Jhapto Cheeno Movements) would be enough to convince the visitor of the ghastly nature of ‘conservation’ policies framed by the state. The relationship between the tribals and the forest is symbiotic and the two have co-existed peacefully, taking care of each other since centuries, even before the UNESCO was formed. In 1982, the state formed the Nanda Devi Biosphere Reserve encompassing the forests of the region and the communities are not given access to it. Not only have they been stripped of a majority of their sources of income, forced to migrate, look for alternative sources of employment and faced health problems but their time-immemorial relationship with their mother and the sacred goddess they worship has been broken and affected. The Indian government wishes to boast of its conservation policies and gain support from various world forums using this as a merit-point and stamping on the economic, social and cultural rights of one ignored and neglected region of the country. It is this government which then builds dams near the same area, blasts dynamites for terrain reconstruction and sells off the lives of people in MoUs in the name of using a renewable source of energy. Being hypocritical is one thing and being tacit is another.

We now have an Uttarakhand devastated by floods and dams, inhabited by a population, which has got lost somewhere in history. These villages, the tribes, their ancient knowledge about nature, medicines, herbs is going extinct and we are witnessing the end of a culture and civilization (certainly not a pleasant thing in a society which boasts of minority rights and protection). Understanding the complexities and problems that encompass their lives and the magnitude of devastation that lies ahead is not something which can be done through a highly restricted thousand word narrative. It is high time that we broaden the scope of economics and let it inter-mingle with ethics, for if the two remain separated there will be another set of people and another pristine environment that will be harmed, and social-political-economic revolution would then become inevitable. However, the problem of Uttarakhand is not just a problem of economics. It is a fight between the political superstructure and the social base, skewed ideals and balanced principles, degradation and conservation, the government and its people.

An excerpt from The Communist Manifesto seems appropriate here “The bourgeoisie has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, callous ‘cash payment.’ It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom—Free Trade”

Replace bourgeoisie with government and nexus between man and man with nexus between man and environment, and then you will realize that a specter is haunting India today and this time we have a lot in store if things remain unchecked.