Becoming Part of Solution

By R S Tolia • Third Innings • 26 May 2015

It was towards the end of this writer’s second innings, as the Chief Information Commissioner of newly founded state Information Commission ( 2005 -10 ), most of which he had the great privilege of shaping and moulding all by himself, that he was sounded by the then Vice Chancellor of Doon University, Prof. Girijesh Pant, to help him shape–up what he told was provided by way of an endowment provided by NTPC, for giving direction to appropriate public policies for this new state. This endowment had been lying un-utilized as the founding Vice Chancellors obviously had their plates more than full, with hardly any back-up, from any quarters whatever. Being a civil servant one was more trained into implementing policies rather than spending time on either reflecting on them or subjecting them to academic critique. If at all one did ‘do policy’, as he heard later in the company of some very eminent scientists their ‘doing or not doing science’, it got done quite un-knowingly or despite any conscientious effort on their part. After four long decades of hard toil in the field and offices one indeed was eagerly looking forward to returning to the ‘real mountains’, where one really belonged, where ‘every one knew you, even if you did not know every one’.

During this period most of the people with whom you had worked closely, who also came from the same surroundings, had for one good reason or the other, had decided not to go back to one’s, as it is called roots. Interesting part was that no one really believed you when you said that that is what you always planned to do and now the time has come to do it, settle down in the mountains, close to your roots. Prof. Girijesh’s offer could have been the proverbial last straw which could have provided this writer the right excuse to join the rest, and stay back. Rendered ambivalent this writer put conditions that allowed him freedom to act as he pleased, including the freedom to call quits when he decided, and above all develop the policy work in a manner that suited him best, in an ‘action-research mode’, farthest removed from semantics, as policies traditionally get crafted. It was mutually agreed that the policy-work would proceed in an ‘action-research mode’, working on an elusive search for ‘policy for mountain development’, something on which this writer had worked though-out his civil service career. Finally, there seems some glimmer of light, as they say, at the end of the tunnel.      

Third Innings

The past four years’ seemingly interminable search has finally been summarised in two Annual Reports, both bi-annual, as the steering of this Centre has been nearly as single handed, as has been the previous one, the state Information Commission, and there is reason to believe that the Centre now has crafted a platform where the mountain states and regions of India would be able to seek appropriate support, in all possible ‘policy-related’ work. In tangible terms, an all-India forum of all the 11 Indian Mountain States has been established in mid-2014, a long dreamed platform where all the best practices of the mountain regions are now getting discussed in a most comprehensive manner possible, and gradually churning of all these best practices would provide that ‘elusive insight’ that would form the bed-rock over which suitable ‘policies for the mountain regions’ would be based. The much-maligned days of working on ‘poor carbon copy’ of policies and programmes designed for the non-mountain regions are in all probability, are most probably over. Demise of a central Planning Commission and commencement of the Age of Federalism of states and Co-operative Federalism, are more than mere ‘straws in the wind’. Uttarakhand has constituted, most fore-sightedly its Policy Planning Group and what is indeed needed is to activate it for what it has been set-up. The first formal, but in actual terms the fourth Sustainable Mountain Development Summit of the newly set-up all India mountain states forum is now scheduled in Itanagar, in remote Arunachal Pradesh, during the first week of October. The host-state, the good news is, more than enthusiastic and has  assured its fullest co-operation and active participation.

Being Proud of Our Mountains

Integrated Mountain Initiative ( IMI ), as this all-Indian mountain initiative has named itself, has adopted a very imaginative Vision for India and that is  – to ‘ Make the People of India Proud of Our Mountains.’ ! However, as against this pan-India movement what one finds on the ground, say closer home in Uttarakhand, or say in most of the North Eastern States, even if one leaves out  state like Jammu & Kashmir or some states which have historical baggage of seemingly un-resoluble conflicts, the situation seems quite daunting. Recently concluded decennial Census ( 2011 ) also presents distressing macro pictures of out-migration of entire families, de-population of scores of villages, rather complete regions, signalling a worsening scenario. However, the population also keeping increasing, at the same time. It is the micro-analysis of these Census figures that present scenarious that need now to be understood properly and through suitable policy-interventions the strengths of the mountain regions are to be leveraged. What indeed begs the question is what is it that needs to be done that would make our mountain regions, should we say “attractive enough” for people to move in rather than migrate-out ?

Policies Against Depopulation

It is for the first time that through IMI mountain stake-holders, and now there are many with their number increasing by leaps and bounds, have started ‘looking out’ also for ‘best practices in the mountain regions’, including the ‘ best policies for the mountain regions’. The position of mountains in India, or even in Asia, is not much different from elsewhere. Out-migration from the mountain regions, more often that not, is always the very first ‘concern’ that gets discussed in any forum which takes up issues related to development of mountain regions. Policies Against Depopulation in Mountain Areas, or PADIMA in brief, is a project for exchange of best practices in fighting depopulation in mountain areas. Quite like most of us reflecting on our mountains, who earnestly believe that our mountains are spaces with an extraordinary development potential and indeed living in mountain area is quite like a dream – it has a far better quality of life e.g. beautiful landscapes, proximity to nature, fresh air, even the potential of the possibility of jobs in the local economy and now, as I write this article and am sure that if accepted it would be in print, thanks to an excellent broadband connectivity, even in as far of a place as Munsyari, elsewhere in the world now, the question is why do people leave ? In reverse, what would they need more in order to stay back ?  For this writer, the million dollar question has become how to help those who are coming in, or planning to come in, to feel at home ?

Interestingly these are precisely the questions that were tackled, for the advanced European mountain countries, by as many as eight partners who assembled in the PADIMA partnership. On deeper examination, given the present state of development of most of the Indian mountain states in India, the answers that have come out seem to have equal relevance and these might even constitute the core of the approach that could be followed in most of the mountain states. In this search for possible solutions the focus has been on human and social capital, ‘as a pivotal value to promote a greater demographic dynamism, in mountain areas’.

Guidelines for Making Mountains Attractive

PADIMA, interested readers would be happy to learn, bring good news to the mountain regions, and as said, even though the context has been European, many would see and find in them several initiatives which are out-right do-ables here in our settings and many a hint, which one always reflected upon but was not sure if these were indeed practical enough to be tried – out.

The First good news is that many people are positive about living in mountain areas. However, the fine print is, they will do so provided ( i ) they can combine the good quality of life associated with a natural and beautiful environment, ( ii ) with intense community life and with cohesive communities, ( iii ) with sufficiently modern infrastructure, service and work opportunities. The study concludes that it is possible to achieve territorial cohesion and it is indeed even the will of a significant and perhaps growing proportion of the European population. This has been illustrated by recent positive trends of population increase in several of the study areas taken up by the latest PADIMA project. There are positive trend of population increase mainly due to in-migration people returning from big metropolises or new comers to the mountain areas. The study points out that this positive recent trend comes after decades of depopulation and in areas where population density had fallen below critical levels. Some of the Census 2011 micro-analyses have thrown up similar trends in even average and growing administrative centres, like Uttarkashi and Champawat, trends which are just the reverse of the much-publicised net-negative growth in two oldest districts, namely Almora and Pauri Garhwal. However, when one looks up the growth of a sizeable number of big-villages there is a similar incipient trend or urbanisation of rural agglomeration. Here only the scale is different but the trend nearly similar. This finding certainly deserves a comprehensive tweaking of related-policies, re-visiting current norms, consolidating the trend into a well-calibrated development of such growing-rural-agglomerations. Even Munsyari, now with moderately modern facilities, is now a favoured permanent destination of many, with paced up private investments in modern facilities. Its recent up-gradation into the first tier of urban entity, a Nagar Panchayat, is more than symbolic, many consider this as much delayed. It cries out for innovative policy-interventions backed by pioneering efforts at developing a modern and smart mountain town.

The Second good news is that there are plenty of good ideas out there in the regions of how attractiveness can be improved. The study reveals that depopulation affects to a varying extent different population groups and considers useful to approach strategy formulation ‘target group by target group’, addressing a specific group of people at once would permit the development of specific measures intended to improve the quality of life quality of those people and reply directly to their expectations using appropriate tools and actions. Moving each target group wise suggestions are to be offered on ( i ) how to define a strategy to improve attractiveness of the mountain region for the specific group, ( ii ) main objectives that should be formulated, ( iii ) ideas of key actions to implement, and finally ( iv ) references to best practices that have been identified. Study suggests integrated strategies to fight depopulation and covers, in this report, strategies for as many as three groups; namely strategy to increase mountain attractiveness ( i ) for young people, ( ii )  for working age people, and ( iii ) for retired people.

Specific strategies

For example the strategic objectives mean for the ‘young people, includes ( a ) prevention of selective out-migration of young people, ( b ) provide young people locally with education they desire, so that they do not leave for their studies, ( c ) ensure that young people are fully aware of the career opportunities the area can offer, so that they come back in case they leave, ( d ) use the education system as a vehicle to prepare young people to enter and develop the local economy, ( e ) promote quality of life as a reason to live in mountain areas, and ( f ) seek to attract students from other areas which would eventually stay afterwards.

Coming to the strategies, to improve attractiveness of mountains, for ‘working age’ populations, the strategies would include, ( a ) development of local economy via business creation and transmission, ( b ) fostering of skills by working age people of the skills they need to find a job in the local economy, ( c ) easing of recruitment in the local economy, supporting people who are looking for a job, and ( c ) enhance the quality of life of working age population, especially though provision of the services they need.

Finally, strategies for ‘retired people’ would have the objectives of ( a ) take full advantage of economic opportunities arising from a high proportion of elderly people, development of related economic sectors ( health and every day services ), and volunteering, ( b ) seek to provide a sufficient level of public and private services to retired people, and ( c ) to develop inter-generational links to strengthen the mountain community.

The PADIMA study goes on to quote several examples of the 99  ‘good practices’ and how these can be clustered into strategic approaches and key-action lists targeting different target groups.

 For the IMI PADIMA example provides a workable template to follow and the example that we have just discussed has policy recommendations related to only three thematic activities on education and training, territorial marketing and economic diversification. In the Indian context now that the process of Five Year Plan seems to be a relic of the past development process what each of the mountain state can do best is to reach out to all other sister state, undertake the types of regional studies that we have just discussed, derive policy priorities and each decide for itself what suits them best, in a specific time frame, anywhere from 5 years to a 10 year-frame-work. For example the PADIMA results are to be used for the priorities of the European Union’s 2014-2020 policies and processes.

Before we bring this template out for a state-wide or local execution and suggest the same for a much wider pan-mountain consideration, let us conclude with the end-notes offered by the PADIMA study. It has been rightly pointed out that ( i ) attractiveness of mountain areas depends on multiple factors, and the PADIMA study has studied only a few of them. Every region has its own identity, specificity, strengths and own weaknesses. The demographic trends are not fully universal, nor are the assets of each region. An ex-ante diagnosis of the situation, is a must, covering demography, economic, social and human capital etc. Both strong communities and beautiful environments provide a strong basis to build, restore and maintain a positive image of mountain areas.

Working on territorial image and communication of this image via all sorts of media, including people themselves as ambassadors, or the diaspora of people originating from the mountain areas, must be at the core of any strategy for improved attractiveness.  This must be organised with strong involvement of stake-holders and cooperation between different levels of governance :. the whole community must recognise itself in the symbols and words adopted. Finally, gender issues and age-specific communication ( young people , retired people ) must be taken into account in a much bigger extent.

Then policies must allow unleashing of the development potential of these areas in various ways.

IMI pan-Indian Mountain Trajectory

Examination of the trajectory that the IMI has hitherto followed, as it has been more on ‘action-mode’ sans any academics and driven by several ‘ambassadors’ and surprisingly on almost in a consensual manner, the Values that it has used to describe its future course, by and large conform to the broad diagnosis that PADIMA study has shared in the case of envisioning of EU 2014-2020. IMI has wisely gone for a 3 year-plan as its institutionalization gets better grounded and it deepens its presence in its larger, national-turf.

At the micro-level, speaking of let us say a compact community like the Munsyar-Johar regions, broadly conforming to a development unit, say a Block, various initiatives undertaken appear as if some of the recommendations are being very spontaneously being implemented. The following few illustrations would demonstrate a spontaneous emergence of organised initiatives, mostly in institutional mode.

Care for quality of education, broad-basing of educational options, emphasis on ‘English-medium’, improvement in the quality of education from pre-primary, primary, secondary and higher education is perceived, as a major concern where short-falls of the public sector is more than matched by efforts made by the local community. Organisationally, infrastructurally and in terms of range of educational tiers Munsyari-Johar has emerged as a major magnet. The seriousness that is accorded both by the teachers as well as the parents has gone to make Munsyari as a major node of educational improvement.

Becoming Part of Solution

Concerned citizens did not consider efforts being made by private educational institutions adequate enough and alarmed by the relative apathy of the government sector sought time of all major offices located at the Tehsil headquarters, to learn for themselves, the existing vacancies in government sanctioned positions, problems being faced by these offices in respect of the help that they are unable to receive from district and even state headquarter and seeking even their suggestions. Quite contrary to holding demonstrations and burning effigies of the responsible officials the citizens took upon themselves as those who wish to become and be perceived as a part of Solution, rather than Problem ! This salutary realisation, on the part of a group of citizens has primarily been driven as a majority of them have long been a diaspora, who have now decided to settle down where their roots-lay. Thus the role of the diaspora, who have long been absent from their home, on return has

rst_01Becoming part of solution : Citizen-group after in front of Block cum Deputy Education Office

certainly started making a positive impact, not only on the quality of public services, but equally on an improved image of Munsyari, making it quite an attractive destination. The returned diaspora keeps itself involved, in a most voluntary manner, in a score of public service related issues.

Diaspora engages in a vast range of developmental initiatives

Past decade has seen a surprisingly large number of old institutions being revived and strengthened to take up voluntarily strengthening mechanisms to improve besides quality of education ( Munsyari Public School, managed by local community ), improvement in living conditions of those who still migrate to higher reaches, their ancestral villages though a recently formed organisation ( Malla Johar Vikas Samiti ), construct community meeting place at a very central place ( Johar Sangh ), annual sporting events, ranging from football for boys and girls, volley ball, table tennis, marathon etc.( Johar Club ), including cultural events, Tree-plantation and environmental awareness ( Johar Shuaka Welfare Society ) and educational and co-ordination of various institutional events ( Johar Sauka Kendriya Samiti ). Not to be left behind for last few years all professional medical doctors, hailing from the region, group-up and visit remote villages of the region, carry medicines and hold medical camps at the block-headquarters ( Johar-Munsyar Doctors Association ). The spirit of volunteerism being infectious these initiatives have further spawned more innovative voluntary initiatives on the part of the diaspora and this has slowly activated the political representatives in aligning themselves with one or the other initiative of the various diaspora groups. 

Munsyari, at the micro-level, presents a modest example of how one positive move on the part of a group of returned migrants has led into a range of very innovative initiatives which has not only improved the over-all environ and ambience of the area but has also resulted in a substantial private investment on the part of the return migrants. Improved ICT connectivity has also encouraged a far larger number of visitors both from within India and abroad. What PADIMA study has indicated can also be seen here in action, triggered by mostly the return migrants, who with a relatively higher educational attainment level has made an impact that also has catalysed even the normally passive public sector. Certainly its recent conversion from an average political constituency into one which represents this region via its top most public figure, the Chief Minister of the state, has certainly provided a far more conducive climate for accelerated development.

Munsyari’s recent conversion into a Nagar Panchayat, with the merger of as many as six revenue villages into this single urban entity, has also triggered an awareness of its likely impact on the rights and concession that the local villagers enjoyed via Van Panchayat route, reduction of various public representative posts into a fewer one, and a heightened awareness, thanks again to the initiatives of its enlightened return migrants, a need to re-visit various existing laws related to land, forest, urban facilities etc, for tweaking of various laws which so far had remained an activity far from the minds of the local citizens. Enlightened citizens have already offered suggestions on certain policies that will ensure not only continuation of the existing rights and concessions of the local people but which will also ensure that Munsyari remains as attractive a destination, even as an urban entity, as it has always been, primarily known for its pristine natural assets.  

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