SHIMLA: Over the last several years a cushy nexus between government, bureaucracy and the media has successfully brought forth an image of Himachal Pradesh as ‘Devbhoomi’, the land of gods, where everything proceeds in carefree peace and follows established norms.

This image stood torn apart at a day-long convention of social activists from remote corners of this hill state, who had gathered at Kalibari Hall in Shimla on Tuesday. Their accounts exposed the dark underbelly of a state which, though relatively well off, has been making tall claims of good performance in improving several social indicators.

The event was timed to coincide with the arrival of the ‘Samvidhan Samman Yatra’ (Respect the Constitution Campaign) that set out from Dandi in Gujarat on October 2 and will conclude on December 10 in New Delhi.

More than 100 activists from 21 civil society organisations across Himachal Pradesh participated in the deliberations.

Neglect of Public Health

The audience was stunned to hear Takpa Tenzing of Spiti Civil Society point out that even something so basic as ultrasound scans are difficult to get at government facilities in the mountain desert region.

Pregnant women have to travel the 420 kilometres to Shimla for these basic tests.

“Recently a woman bled to death in Lohsar village after an internal hemorrhage. It is a shame that such things are happening 70 years after independence in this country. The government is making tall claims on providing heli-ambulance services. We do not want heli services. We want basic healthcare in the area, which is cut off for six months every year,” Tenzing said.

He added that road and digital connectivity are both in pitiable condition in Spiti. “Prime Minister Narendra Modi talks of Digital India but we have no connectivity most of the time. Either he should stop talking about Digital India or provide us connectivity,” he said.

Solar Power Ignored for Destructive Hydel Projects

Tenzing also touched on the politics behind development policies – despite Spiti’s immense potential in terms of solar power, he said, no efforts were being made to tap solar energy, with the entire emphasis laid instead on hydro projects, of the sort that have already caused immense damage in neighbouring Kinnaur.

The activists are of the view that the overemphasis on promoting hydroelectric projects has caused immense damage to the environment, and is threatening the livelihood of the majority of the people who are dependent on forest, land and water resources.

They say that governments have created ‘water bombs’, putting all these communities at risk.

People Denied their Rightful Land

Another issue the activists highlighted was the denial of rights under the Forest Rights Act of 2006. Many pointed out how the process of granting land rights to forest dwellers continue to hang in a limbo. Ringzin Hierapa from Lahaul related, “Most of the time the officials deputed are unaware of the Act. Often, by the time they have studied its intricacies they are transferred out. There is no political will. There cannot be a more important legislation than this to resolve the issues of forest dwellers.”

Said Jiya Lal Negi from the predominantly tribal district of Kinnaur, “The state government cannot give directions under the Forest Rights Act. The directions come only from the Union Tribal Affairs Ministry. But here even subdivisional magistrates are interfering in its implementation – the whole approach is negative.”

The activists related how many times people are simply told that they cannot be beneficiaries under the Act.

The ‘Encroachment’ Bogey

Manshi Asher of Himdhara Collective related how various forces have connived to create the image of forest dwellers as ‘encroachers’. “12,000 hectares of jungle land has been transferred out since 1980, 60 percent of which has been given for hydro projects and transmission lines. Under ‘scientific forestry’ so called, timber producing species of trees have been given prominence, while slow growing and pastoral species are being done away with,” she said.

According to Asher 30 percent of forest land is under cover of pines, resulting in frequent forest fires and water scarcity, with the pastoral communities standing at a loss.

One of the participants was young Pawnu Kumari from remote Bara Bhangal. To reach her village one has to trek for three days in harsh mountainous terrain from the nearest roadhead. Kumari spoke at length about how the lopsided development policies of successive governments have led to a crisis of livelihood for the pastoral communities.

She disclosed that there have been efforts to evict these communities from forest land by declaring forest areas as sanctuaries and national parks. “Our struggles to ensure our pastoral rights have been long. We also want development, but not ‘development’ that spells doom for the communities,” she said.

Discrimination against Single Women

Providing a new dimension to the debate on gender and development, gender rights activist Nirmal raised the issue of the denial of land rights to single women. These include widows, those separated or divorced, and those who do not marry.

“There are 4,38,000 single women in Himachal. They contribute in economic activities and are yet denied their rights. The attitude in society is totally different for a man who has lost his wife and a woman who has lost her husband,” said Nirmal.

Adding to this, Abha from the organisation Jagori underlined, “Women have 50 percent reservation in Panchayats – but this can become significant only when they are allowed to speak and take decisions in the Panchayats and Gram Sabhas. In fact it is their husbands and other male members who take decisions on behalf of elected women representatives in these local democratic institutions.”

Untouchability and the Mandate for Social Justice

The touchy issue of rampant caste based discrimination against Dalits in the state was brought into focus by eminent social and environment activist Sukhdev Vishwapremi.

Dalits reportedly constitute around 28 percent of the Himachal’s population, a proportion second only to Punjab.

Referring to the recent episode of a Dalit bus conductor being penalised for entering an upper caste house in Kullu district, Vishwapremi said, “There is a lot of talk about Swachh Bharat Mission and Normal Panchayats, but first it is the minds of the common man that need to be cleaned.

“The Gram Sabhas have a mandate on social justice and they should act on it. There is a need for a campaign on the issue right to the village levels. It is sad that even cremation grounds and water sources are divided along the lines of caste in the state.”

Evidently some urgent interventions are needed, if Himachal Pradesh is to retain the tag of being an ideal state in terms of governance and progressive policy making.