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Uttaranchal Today : an insight

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UTTARANCHAL, popularly known as Uttarakhand, represents a highly distinct geographic, cultural, and economic region. Therefore, the people's choice Gairsain town in Chamoli district for their permanent capital holds strong symbolic and historical significance as a uniting central point.
Realizing the people's sentiments or even before the realization, the Uttarakhand Kranti Dal (UKD) had , way back in 1992, announced the nondescript place as the capital of the future state. The UKD supremo, Kashi Singh Airy, had also laid  the foundation stone and went to the extent of naming the place as Chandranagar after the legendary freedom fighter Chandra Singh Garhwali who as a soldier had refused to open fire on the innocent Balooch people in Peshawar during the British raj in the country.

People of Uttarakhand were well aware of the fact that Gairsain was not only a remote place but also without any significant economic activity. But one thing was for sure that every citizen of the region believed that development meant for them was to reach to the remotest village only if a place like Gairsain was chosen for the future state's capital. Also, the place symbolized as the central point of the collective wisdom of the Uttarakhandi people and their extended culture. This was the fact which prompted not a single person or the party to oppose the UKD's move to declare Gairsain as the future capital.

Also, during the crowning point of the Uttarakhand movement in 1994 people visualized Gairsain as their future capital with a guarantee that the unique culture, economy and geography of the region would be fully protected and people allowed to contribute towards the nation building in whatever fashion they wanted to. Today, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance at the Center has carved out a new state of Uttaranchal out of the unwieldy Uttar Pradesh and made the non-Pahari dominated Dehradun as its capital. With this the capital question whether Gairsain would, at all, be made the permanent capital of the 27th state of Indian Union remain predominant.

When Nityanand Swami took over as the first chief minister of the new state he was quick to respond to the people's fury over the manner in which the new state was formed and over the manner in which Dehradun was made the provisional capital that a commission would look into the feasibility whether Dehradun, Hardwar or Kalagarh would be made permanent capital of the state. The highlight of his statement was that he wittingly or unwittingly skipped the mention of Gairsain. Naturally, the people back in the hills were not only furious but also demanded explanation from him why there was at all need for a commission to to look into the matter when the entire people were in favor of Gairsain as their permanent capital.

A section of people in the hills as well as several intellectuals are very apprehensive about the question of making Gairsain as the permanent capital. The apprehensions do not hold water. Anybody with a vision and long-term planning in mind would appreciate that Gairsain has all essential ingredients to play host to the capital of the hill state.For obvious reasons, there is not scope for apprehensions or doubts. We live in an era of rapidly expanding communication modes including computer networks. These facilities, and the emerging work methods, allow the government organizations to be arranged in a distributive fashion and therefore no need to cluster administrative functions around a central core.

Not only this, the present pressures have also pushed us to the verge of a drastic reduction of government machinery. Especially the organization associated with public service. The notion of a central site for administration and decision making essentially does not sit comfortably with Uttarakhand's widely scattered populations and formidable geographic barriers to travel and physical communications. It is a well-known phenomenon that the availability of modern telecommunications facilities of good quality and capacity acts as a magnet for business. This is unlikely to be any different in the hills. One might still choose to have a capital but this could be  largely symbolic and ceremonial. Even assembly sessions could be rotated between existing centers. If we put everything in the center, we may be creating the conditions for the administration virus, the disease of government by officialdom that you have been so desperately trying to escape! What is gained if we simply build another  Lucknow in the hills? Why not avoid the problem before it takes root?

Mark Annand, an eminent concept designer from New Zealand, is of the opinion that the time is ripe to question the relevance of the 19th century concepts of state centralism when, at the dawn of the 21st century, there is scope for starting afresh with a network of wired organization comprising widely scattered centers connected by telecommunication networks. According to him, a distributive approach may be more relevant to the needs of the region and in tune with its more federalist culture. An administration organized on the network model also provides a mechanism to distribute scarce public service jobs to the various centers throughout the region. So why not use the facilities already available in towns from Pithoragarh to Srinagar, Pauri to Almora and Ranikhet to Bageshwar, he points out.

It might work out to be more practical and, in all likelihood, much less costly to scatter departments of state and build an electronic network rather than a government palace in the Himalaya. Undoubtedly, electronic form of governance (e-governance) has the capacity to transform the nature of  relationship between the government and the people, provided each government department identifies activities which can be transferred online. According to the UKD supremo, Airy, the day-to-day government activities like renewal of  driving licenses or business licenses, payment of property taxes, customs and excise duties, income tax, registration of births and deaths can go online very easily. Most of the municipal functions should also be put online in a time bound manner, with target dates set for each activity. Citizens should also be asked to send their suggestions on which services they think should go online.

In fact, almost all the government activities, except a few related to matters of security of the state and the country, can in the long run be made interactive with the general public.  The point is that the power of internet can be harnessed in most useful ways for government activities as well where people have to compulsorily comply with certain regulations, seek permissions or renew licenses, etc. Transactions on the internet can be conducted round the clock. There are a number of benefits of e-governance. Conducting transactions on the internet and on the  web sites first of all is easy, secure and efficient. They would also involve lower costs, as in the long run government departments should be able to send some flab. Jobs, of course, would shift to the private agencies that are awarded the contracts. Revenues of the departments are also likely to go up and online transactions will free up certain resources which can then be used elsewhere. Also, there will be less paper work, shuttling of files, payments would be received faster and would involve reduced operational costs.

Complete transparency can be introduced on the internet and scope for manipulation reduced greatly. The government agencies which keep vigil on the government departments can also save paper which is used in sending instructions to the departments as to how to conduct transparent and fair transactions. Public representatives should also be connected in a manner that they are able to monitor the performance of these services, so as to satisfy  their constituents. Besides, a fair and transparent system of governance will emerge which will restore the faith  among the citizens about the efficacy of government machinery. Other broad benefits include more direct channels on information exchange and help build up community relationships. Apart from reducing costs and protecting scarce capital resources, investment in the telecommunication infrastructure necessary to fully enable this vision can be expected to create the conditions for rapid advances in enterprise in the hills.

It is also an easy way to communicate with the elected representatives. Each level and tier of government should be asked to identify  activities, which can go online. Government should also set up certain broad targets for implementation of online programs, keeping in mind the global trends in these areas. The experience of Singapore is particularly noteworthy in this respect, which has a track record of successful implementation of online governance. However, one thing is very clear that the online facilities presently concentrated in urban areas have to be taken to the far-flung and remote places like Munsyari, Mana, etc. It would be a good idea to popularize cyber cafes, to rope in people who do not own personal computers. In the formative stage of the new state big government apparatus is no answer. There should not be room for illusions that government can employ or create jobs for everyone, let alone solve all the other problems by itself.  In a region known for a preference for government employment, this is going to be an important issue.

Uttaranchal state has come into being at a time when it is extraordinarily well-placed to benefit from the new information economy if it is able to play by the rules of the new era and is responsive to the demands of the global services economy, which when it seeks the best locations for itself, looks for several factors. If a clean and pollution-free environment is going to serve as a competitive advantage, it stands to reason that the new state should do everything it can to promote it. This might include a program to encourage cleaner, environment  friendly transportation systems and efforts at large-scale afforestation.

While the focus on infrastructure and effective government will certainly bring in the investors and industry in due course, the immediate focus of the economy will have to include afforestation, energy  supply, agricultural and horticultural development, as well as delivery of education and health services. A state can have a big government but little governance.

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Author: Suresh Nautiyal ( Click here to read Profile of Author)
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(Formerly a Special Correspondent with The Observer, the writer is a
Delhi-based Freelance Journalist accredited by the Press Information Bureau,
Govt of India).
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