In a recent report, Dehradun-based nonprofit organisation Social Development for Communities Foundation has flagged migration as one of the biggest issues in Uttarakhand ahead of Assembly elections on February 14.

“Today it is a well-acknowledged fact across the social, political and business spectrum that the state has failed to live up to its vast potential and has witnessed unabated migration,” the report said. “Lack of employment, inadequate education and limited healthcare facilities had exacerbated the prolonged exodus.”

The Social Development for Communities Foundation had examined voter data in the 2017 Assembly elections. It found that the lowest polling rates were in the hilly districts of the mountainous state, especially in Almora (53.07 %), Pauri (54.86 %) and Tehri (55.68%).

The highest voter turnout in the Assembly seats was in the plains, all in the Haridwar district: Laksar (81.95%), Haridwar Rural (81.76%) and Piran Kalyar (81.6%). This provides a clear picture of how skewed voting patterns are between the hills and the plains.

Distress migration

Anoop Nautiyal, social activist and founder of the nonprofit, emphasised the difference between migration, which happens everywhere, and “distress migration, which in Uttarakhand is caused by lack of opportunities, especially for men, for decades”.

He gave the example of his own family, where his father had to leave the state to look for employment. “The State Migration Commission submitted its report in 2018,” he said. “From a data perspective, it informed us that over 5 lakh people have migrated from Uttarakhand, and these migrants are categorised as 24% permanent migrants who have no roots left in the state.”

He added: “Of those who migrated, 50% gave the reason as lack of employment opportunities, 15% for education reasons and 9 % for health. This makes it clear that as far as Uttarakhand is concerned, the basics are missing.”

It bears mentioning here that Dehradun is considered an education hub and contains within it some of the most prestigious schools in India, with Nainital coming second. By contrast, the situation in the hills is the outskirts is dire.

The same is the case with healthcare infrastructure. Over the past decade, Dehradun has managed to get a few private speciality hospitals but that only provides an unfortunate contrast with the situation in the hills. The All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Rishikesh is a welcome new entrant in the public health service but is scarcely enough.

“Nobody has been able to address these issues,” Nautiyal said. “Migration policies are made, but there is no implementation. So why are governments, whether BJP or Congress, not working?”

According to Nautiyal, one of the problems is the difficulty of fixing responsibility. There are far too many departments involved and “no one knows where the buck stops”.

“The issue is complex and has so many dimensions, that bureaucrats alone cannot handle it, nor can X, Y, Z minister,” he said. “Within the institutional framework, people work in silos and thus miss the big picture. The fact that plans go awry cannot be an excuse.”

“We still need plans with the biggest focus on strengthening primary healthcare,” he said. “Additionally, the quality of our data is poor, it is not collected in a robust manner in Uttarakhand.”

Multi-dimensional issues

Development itself is a skewed issue in Uttarakhand. The state is rich in human and natural resources. But it is environmentally sensitive and its fragile ecosystem and biodiversity need to be carefully nurtured. The problem is that a sledgehammer approach to win elections leads to grand projects that may not necessarily address the issues of either employment or distress migration.

Nautiyal pointed out that about 11 lakh to 12 lakh people are registered in employment exchanges in Uttarakhand. “That means that every tenth Uttrakhandhi is registered,” he said. “This makes the situation graver than the national average. And while the numbers of the unemployed are going up, there is no long-term planning to deal with it.”

This is made worse by the fact that the Covid-19 pandemic induced reverse migration as jobs dried up across India. “A public health crisis was induced and no one has addressed this either.” For a state going to elections, as ever these vital issues are all too often ignored in the hurly-burly of campaigning, posturing and party-hopping.

“We are a diverse state, from Haridwar to Pithoragarh, each area has its own challenges,” he said. “You cannot look at Uttarakhand with one lens It has to be multi-dimensional. We have only 13 districts. Why not separate policies for different areas?”

The Social Development for Communities Foundation is in the process of collecting further data as polling day approaches. Nautiyal has, meanwhile, has offered some simple ideas that voters may perhaps use to influence campaigning politicians: “Why not a model hospital and model school in each area of the state?”

Ranjona Banerji is a journalist in Dehradun.