A road washed away by heavy rainfall in Kullu district, Himachal Pradesh, July 11, 2023 (Photo: AP)
SHIMLA TODAY IS a landscape littered with destroyed buildings and broken roads. The city that was once the summer capital of the Raj and the queen of hill stations is now pockmarked with rubble. The last three-odd days have been particularly bad in this respect for Himachal Pradesh. 72 persons have lost their lives, more than 800 roads in the state have been destroyed and Mandi, Kangra, Shimla, Sirmour and other districts of the state are in need of urgent help. Chief Minister Sukhvinder Singh Sukhu estimates the losses at more than `10,000 crore. This is an unbearable bill of damages for a Special Category State. Uttarakhand, another ecologically sensitive state, too, has witnessed extensive destruction of infrastructure this rainy season.
Reckless building of infrastructure has been blamed for the mess in both states. To an extent, this is true. The cracks in Joshimath last winter were the proverbial canary in the mine about the unfolding ecological disaster in these hill states. But what can one say beyond that? If environmental activists had their say, probably all construction activity would have to be halted in these states.
That is not just tough but hands out a set of unenviable choices to Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Consider the choices. Both states want a part of the tourism pie and that requires a greater number of hotels, highways, higher availability of electricity, and an ever-rising level of automobile traffic. At some point, the environment gives in. Widened roads—in zones where building roads are risky—are unable to withstand flash floods and landslides from bare mountains. The power projects—pushed to upper reaches of rivers to ensure higher generation of electricity—are often not properly designed to withstand environmental shocks.
Unsurprisingly, the choices have veered towards risky options. The two states are not “economic superstars” and need to get every rupee of revenue they can lay their hands on. In the case of Himachal Pradesh, there have been some particularly poor policy choices that have exacerbated the situation. The state has witnessed not just runaway highway construction, something that can be rationalised to an extent but has seen rampant ignoring of town planning. Construction of homes and commercial establishments is now rampant in river beds and risky slopes of bare mountains with virtually zero checks from the state government. This is not just about one government qua another government but the very construction of the state, to begin with. Himachal Pradesh was a state of questionable viability to start with and when one adds poor policy choices and lax administrative standards that have emerged there over time, one can better understand its unfolding disaster.
Chief Minister Sukhu in a statement said that engineers of the National Highway Authority of India (NHAI) need to “cut” roads better. He suggested the use of tunnels to build these roads instead of openly carving them on mountain surfaces. It is interesting that he did not say who would bear the cost of tunnel roads, something that is an order of magnitude higher than surface roads. Sure, you can have high-quality tunnel roads but then get ready to pay hefty tolls on using them. It is unlikely that Himachal Pradesh, a state built on shaky financial and administrative grounds, would even think about this reality. The chief minister also blamed “Bihari masons” for the poor design of homes and buildings, though he later denied that he had made such remarks.
One can blame Bihari masons, incompetent road engineers, and natural calamity for all that has befallen Himachal Pradesh. But the reality is considerably more complex. If one is to understand the predicament faced by Himachal Pradesh, the history of the state’s creation, its inability to build a modern economy, and its continuing administrative weaknesses have to be considered together. The original demand for a separate hill state was based on the distinct cultural identity of the state from Punjab. At one time, when the Kangra district of the state was part of Punjab, there were allegations of its “stepmotherly” treatment by the state government. These demands continued and reached a crescendo in the early-1950s. The demand for a separate state was presented to the States Reorganisation Commission and it rejected it. The commission went into these demands systematically and rejected them on grounds of financial and administrative viability.
The cracks in Joshimath last winter were the proverbial canary in the mine about the unfolding ecological disaster in these hill states. But what can one say beyond that? If environmental activists had their say, probably all construction activity would have to be halted in these states
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The commission noted, “Himachal is relatively poor largely because of the poverty of its resources. The lack of trained personnel is also at present a serious impediment. It is not, therefore, a unit which can stand by itself.” (Paragraph 558 of the commission’s report.) No sooner had the report been presented that a volley of protests emerged from Himachal Pradesh. Its political elite—being incubated behind the shelter provided by the Centre—would have none of it.
At that time, Himachal was a “Part C” state—a group of entities that were governed by chief commissioners appointed directly by the president. Himachal did have a chief minister at that time, YS Parmar, but it was an entity dependent on a large dose of help from the Centre.
On November 5, 1955, Parmar shot off a 10-page letter to Gobind Ballabh Pant, then home minister of the country, protesting against the commission’s recommendations. He, in particular, took umbrage at Paragraph 558 of the commission’s report and went on to say that, “…Para 558 of the report is not only without force but contrary to the commitment of the Government of India which has taken the responsibility of developing the resources, training of personnel and enabling the area to attain the position of an autonomous province of India…” This series of letters continued as late as February 20, 1956, when in a letter Parmar went on to make the outlandish suggestion for the merger of Himachal Pradesh with Jammu and Kashmir! All to escape the alleged clutches of Punjab. In all these letters, there was no effort to assess the economic situation and potential of Himachal Pradesh.
Nearly 70 years after the commission had pointed out the weaknesses inherent in carving Himachal Pradesh as a full state; the Government of India continues to handhold it. In 2003, a New Industrial Policy and other concessions were launched for Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. This policy was extended again in 2013 for four years. This was over and above the benefits that Himachal Pradesh continues to receive as a Special Category State. The comparison with Uttarakhand—another state created keeping in mind its distinct hill identity—is apt. Created 29 years after Himachal Pradesh became a full state, Uttarakhand has a bigger economy. Both states have made mistakes in selecting and executing projects in ecologically sensitive zones but it does not take much to see that Uttarakhand has a stronger economic and administrative hand.
It is too late now to turn the clock back. Historically, once a state is created, it is not dismantled in India. (Jammu and Kashmir is an exception.) Given the scale of the disaster there, the Centre is sure to help the state government. But it is high time that Himachal Pradesh’s leaders, its political elite and its well-wishers think hard about its economy and—more importantly—its ecological future. Short of a tough reconsideration of its administrative practices and sound economic choices, Himachal Pradesh will continue to lurch from one problem to another.