The Year of Indian Mountains

By R S Tolia • Random Thoughts • 17 Dec 2015

As the Gregorian calendar year races to complete its current cycle and turns into the 16th orbit around the Sun during the current millennia its time to reflect on the major events that left their imprint on the lives of the people. While the end of the year peaked with the news about the successful COP 21 at Paris signed by as many as 194 member nations of the UN and near home the fate of the so-called tea-gardens vis a vis a smart city for this writer the year belonged to the Indian Mountain States. It is in Year 2015 that the eleven Indian Mountain States finally received the attention that was due to them in the polity of States but denied all these years.

Emergence of a Mountain Forum 

 Arguably the most important development in so far as the Indian mountain states are concerned is the evolution of a forum that has been forged by several stake-holders who have been independently working towards the same goal but some how nevr found an opportunity to come together, in a formal sense. That the mountains of the world deserved a special attention had been felt for several decades, acutely so, but some how the mountain-people could never muster the kind of voice, that could be heard in the corridors of power, where major decisions get taken, that moulds and shapes the destiny of regions, and the people who live there. Historically speaking it was with Rio earth Summit of 1992 that for the first time recognized a need for Mountain Development, a sustainable one. It was Chapter 13 of Agenda 21 dedicated to Sustainable Mountain Development that catapulted the mountain ecosystems of the world before the eyes of every concerned citizen of this planet. Chapter 13 of Agenda 21 thus kick-started a process that has witnessed its one manifestation, in South Asia, the coming together of the three western Himalayan states and the eight North Eastern States of India. Integrated Mountain Initiative, or the IMI as it is now well known, is a forum which has provided this forum for the eleven Indian mountain states and some other mountain regions like the mountain district of Darjeeling. Agenda 21 paved the way for the International Year of Mountains in 2002 ( IYM 2002 ) and that twenty years later concretized itself into The Future We Want, the Final Document of Rio +20, held in 2012 – its three paragraphs on Sustainable Mountain Development.

Gradual Evolution  

It was an honest admission on the part of a Working Group set up in 2010 at the behest of the then Prime Minister of India that what really needed to be done, to really understand a highly diverse and complex mountain ecosystem of Indian mountains, and set up a discussion forum where varied experiences could be shared freely. In brief, it took India as many as six decades of development experience and as many as ten Five Year Plans, from 1950 to 2010, to appreciate that all the programmes and schemes that were being implemented in the mountain regions was like fixing  a round nail into a circular hole ! These so called development experiences included sectoral world-views and understanding of mountain ecosystems, including the much celebrated unilateral ban on green- tree felling above a certain height in mountain regions. The same conclusion was further validated by the Fourth Assessment Report ( AR 4 ) of IPCC which pointed out to a severe lack of scientific research conducted in mountain regions ( the white spot ). So much, for the scientific reseraches that have been carried out in the Indian mountain regions and the development projects that claimed spectacular results, decades after decades. Census Reports continued to spew out the fast deteriorating living conditions prevailing in the mountain regions, appalling infrastructural deficiencies forcing large -scale out-migrations of families from some of the oldest known human habitations like Almora and Pauri Garhwal districts of central Himalayan regions. However, Millions of dollars worth of foreign donor projects continued to be poured into mountain countries like Nepal and some Indian mountain states, entirely based on the expert knowledge provide by the scientists and technocrats, trained in some of the best eduactional institutions of Asia, Europe and the United States. Indeed, this has changed but only slightly if the projects that are being implemented in most of the mountain regions in Sourth Asia are any guide. The scientific projects continue to be donor-driven, donor designed based on the perceptions of those who have been raised on the ruinous so-called scientific findings, that have reduced the mountain regions into the ruinous conditions that one witnesses, all around. Hardly, any lessons have been learned from past mistakes, as it seems.

The coming together of the mountain states of India is one admission that a new beginning has to be made where one has essentially to learn from ' what works in a specific mountain region ", examining ' what makes it work' and then share it on a common platform, where all stake-holders, and not just scientists and technocrats alone, get to work and examine to-gether. Such a process, by definition, has to be all-inclusive, spread over a period of time, allowed to grow in an evolutionary manner and the gradual learning has to be woven into the policies, which are amenable to a range of situations, for which the se mountain regions are now well known, indeed, even celebrated. 'One Size Fit All,' paradigm has to be cast off and flexibility and diversity has to be in-built, indeed encouraged in the new policy and development paradigm. All this is easier said than done. Given the wide diversity that prevails in the entire Indian mountain belt spread ove some 2,500 kms and as many as eleven mountain sub-nationalities is not an easy task.  

Uttarakhand to Arunachal Pradesh : 2011 – 2015

Notwithstanding the skepticism that was inherent in any such attempt a modest attempt was made in May 2011 when the First Sustainable Mountain Development Summit was organized with the Uttarakhand Academy of Administration, Naini Tal as the venue. The event proved that serendipity is just not confined and meant for a small time event but has the capacity to aggregate into some concrete architectures that have the capacity to support as gigantic a feature as some Indian Himalayan states. This one time gathering of some well-wishers of the Indian mountains paved the way for a periodical get-togethers, that travelled from Naini Tal to first Gangtok, in Sikkim ( 2012 ), flying over intervening Nepal, then to Kohima, in Nagaland ( September, 2013 ) and recently to Itanagar, in Arunachal Pradesh ( October, 2015 ). The journey from Naini Tal in 2011 to Itanagar in 2015 has been a journey that has brought together not only a range of stake-holders but also underscored the significance of themes that deserve attention of the mountain states. The evolution of this discussion forum has allowed time for crafting and sustaining of an architecture that has to allow for a range of players, both individual and institutional. The evolutionaery process has also high-lighted the need for voluntarism of an exceptionally high order and design of a platform that is resilient enough to adjust to future shocks, of all kinds and sizes, making it as a-political as may be possible in a highly vibrant democracy, with widely divergent world-views. The evolutionery development of the Forum has now been finally formalized, a Council set up with a slim Secretariat, a clear Vision, Mission and the Values that would steer its future course. In an amazing way the consensual pattern of working has stabilized itself and the Forum now stands firmly grounded ready to take on the challenges that are as big as these can ever be. A modest action plan now looks forward to consolidate state chapters which have already been established first In Nagaland and now in Arunachal Pradesh, besides the ones that already exist in Sikkim and some other mountain states, like Mizoram and Uttarakhand. 

Year of Indian Mountains : 2015

The unbroken chain of four Sustainable Mountain Development Summits ( SMDSs ) , held at Naini Tal, Gangtok, Kohima and Itanagar, interspersed with the Meet of the Mountain States ( MoMSs ) held in 2012, 2013 , 2014 and recently at New Delhi on the International Mountain Day ( 11 December 2015 ) have left their indelible imprint- where they mean the most. The forum has back-stopped the efforts being made at the regional, national and sub-national levels – mainstreaming the positive results that keep presenting themselves, from event to event, from developments that took place during these past five years. The Twelfth Five Year Plan ( 2012-2017 ), that was aborted mid-way, resulting in the demise of a six decade old planning architecture, the Planning Commission of India, saw for the first time a Working Group constituted to factor in the mountain-agenda, the Final Plan document carrying several recommendations of this Working Group, the qualitative output of another Working Group recommending what in popular terms came to be known as the 'Green Bonus', accepting in principle that the mountain states have indeed suffered due to the infrastructural deficiencies that emanated from the restrictions that got imposed due to the rich forest-cover most of these states supported. As the Planning Commission bowed out, recommending a compensation that was not to be realized by its beneficiaries, this resulted into the forum working over-time to ensure that no further damage got caused by its successor, the NITI Aayog.

The Group of Chief Ministers that worked on re-designing of the Centrallly Sponsored Schemes ( CSSs ) was closely folllowed by the forum, back-stopping with the inputs that had been gathered over the past several years and these were reflected in the inputs that were supplied by the Chief Ministers representing the four mountain states, that were member of this ten member Special Group. Each of these four members stood for the retention of the old pattern, namely the celebrated Gadgil-Mukherjee formula,a dn the special dispensation that was specially followed by the erstwhile Planning Commission. It wa at the Kohima SMD Summit in 2013 that the forum commenced its Policy Makers' Dialogue that sensitize the states about the re-structuring that was being carried out by the BK Chaturvedi Committee-and it was followe-up to its logical end. The SG deliberations were closely followed and all NITI Aayog meetings attended by the Chief Ministers also ensured that the presentations of the Chief Ministers also followed up systematically.

The SMDSs and MoMSs were attended by various policy makers, of all hues, and the outcomes of these events of this new mountain forum was widely shared, across states, along all stake-holders groups, via all kinds of communications. Large attendance of a varied range of stkeholders in each of these SMDSs and MoMSs has had its impacts. It was for the first time in the development history of India that all major development shifts were so closely tracked on behalf of the mountain states and regions and shared so widely and in a most sytematic manner.

In an evoluntionary mode while themtic deliberations drew what was available in the country and shared during these events, as also via the proceedings, the events kept adding major themes like Climate Change and Public Policy issues, like devolution of national resources, while these informed the participating policy makers of these states those who were not directly engaged in policy making regimes, impacted the changes in their own organisations. Suddenly, one discovered a ' Mountain Division ' being created in an organization which before this had only created Units in mountain states, organizing events that invited varied stake-holders, other than just scientists and technocrats or bureaucrats. Parliamentarians and senior policy makers suddenly received attention, as it was relized that the scientific recommendations required their 'last mile' efforts. International Mountain Day was discovered again and a beginning was made in India to mark the occasion by some thing that recognized their existence, if not fullimportance, as yet. Even though the programmes and events continue to remain, by and large, supply-driven and essentially donor-driven, with hardly no engagement of the member mountain states or a range of stake-holders who need to be engaged, at least a change is seen to take place in the way the mountains and mountain -people have never been.

The Year deserves to be remembered for its mountain states as they for the first time mentioned as " HIlly States and the NE States ", away from the contentious rubric of 'Special Category States', and they receive a much deserved 90:10 and 80: 20 funding pattern of central assistance in plan resource devolution mechanism, in Flagship Programmes and Other Core sectors, respectively. Further, the icing on the cake comes from the news that gets shared by the NITI Aayog, when states are told that a Cell for Hilly States and NE States has been created in NITI Aayog !      

Tail-piece: As the new NITI Aayog architecture gets operationalised a welcome change seems in evidence when the mountain states commence improving their respective policy-making regime realizing that while their demands have now been conceded under the new dispensation the ball is squarely in their court and now they are going to be held responsible for all their acts of omission and commission ! Its time that the mountain states strengthened their own policy-makig regime and imposed great discipline in their fiscal management. Constitution of Policy Planning Groups and establishment of Centres for Public Policy and Good Governance is a clear evidence that the buck has finally stopped moving ! 

01 SMDS III Nagaland IMG_2094 21 SMDS photo Day 1

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