About 260 km from Uttarakhand’s Dehradun, work is underway to widen a mountain road. This road connects Diwalikhal, a small village in Chamoli district, with the assembly and secretariat complex in the town of Gairsain.
Sarojini and Suman stood nearby, struggling to make themselves heard over the roar of the mountain-cutting machines and bulldozers.
“We make a living selling pakoras and tea everyday,” said Suman, 28. “Sometimes we earn some money, sometimes we don’t. Only vehicles stirring up dust keep going past.”
The town of Gairsain has been in the political crosshairs in Uttarakhand for decades. When the state was formed in 2000, Dehradun was made its interim capital, with the understanding that Gairsain would become its capital eventually. Twenty-two years later, Dehradun remains the capital, even as residents of Gairsain say they struggle for basic facilities.
Like many other residents of Gairsain, Suman has heard stories of her home becoming the state’s capital since she was a child, and promises of how their lives would change. But the wait continues, she said. And with the assembly election scheduled this month, discussions on Gairsain have emerged yet again to the forefront.
The quest for a capital
The of Uttarakhand began in the 1950s. In 1992, the Uttarakhand Kranti Dal, one of the groups petitioning for a separate state, demanded that Garsain be made capital of the prospective state, and that it should be , in honour of freedom fighter Chandra Singh Garhwali.
In 1993-94, the Mulayam Singh Yadav government in Uttar Pradesh formed a six-member committee, headed by the then urban development minister Rama Shankar Kaushik, to consider the demand for a new state. At the time, , 68 percent of people supported Gairsain as the potential state’s capital.
When Uttarakhand was finally formed in 2000, the Bharatiya Janata Party formed an interim government while Dehradun was designated a temporary capital. The Virendra Dixit Commission was set up (and its tenure was ) to select a capital. In 2008, the commission concluded that Gairsain was unsuitable.
Kashi Singh Airy, the president of the Uttarakhand Kranti Dal, told Newslaundry it was a “conspiracy” to deny Gairsain the status of capital.
“It was clearly stated in the mandate that the permanent capital would be decided by the elected assembly and, till then, Dehradun would be the temporary capital,” he said. “But BJP's Nityanand Swami government, which was not an elected but an interim government in the new state, set up the Virendra Dixit Commission. Subsequently, elections were held in 2002 and, since then, the governments of Congress and BJP kept coming to power but the proposal of a permanent capital has not yet been passed in the assembly.”
Meanwhile, an assembly building was built in Gairsain and assembly sessions have been held here – spending in the process.
Then, in March 2020, the BJP government in Uttarakhand led by Trivendra Singh Rawat that Gairsain would be the state’s “summer capital” – which angered those who wanted Gairsain made the permanent capital. The state government’s budget for 2021-22 a provision of Rs 350 crore for the development of the Gairsain region. An MLA hostel was built, the road widened, and work on the secretariat and VIP car parking is underway.
“The BJP talked about declaring Gairsain as the summer capital in its manifesto,” Teerath Singh Rawat, MP from the Garhwal Lok Sabha seat, told Newslaundry. “We fulfilled that promise and made a beginning. The Congress did nothing. Only the assembly building was built for which the provision of funds was made during the government of Vajpayee when the state was created.”
Congress leaders deny this claim.
Harish Rawat, a Congress leader who was chief minister of Uttarakhand from 2014 to 2017 and who is fighting this assembly poll from Lalkuan seat, told Newslaundry that if his party forms the government, Gairsain will become the state’s permanent capital.
“We built the MLAs’ residence, ministers’ residence and other structures in Gairsain,” he said. “Had we won in 2017, we had promised the people that by 2020, the capital will be shifted to Gairsain. The work which started would be completed. Dehradun is the temporary capital and Gairsain will be the permanent capital.”
Will a capital bring change?
But residents like Suman want to know how this will impact their lives.
“We are a family of five,” says Sarojini, Suman’s mother-in-law. “...They are constructing these buildings for their convenience and luxury, and are fooling people. How will this construction benefit us? We need schools, hospitals and jobs which were never available.”
According to data from the state health department, Uttarakhand has one one doctor per 10,000 people. Those living in remote areas need to travel several km to big cities for access to healthcare. There’s also a dearth of schools.
When the Covid pandemic began and children moved to online classes, Uttarakhand struggled with its digital divide. According to , 82 percent of students in four districts of the state do not have smartphones or other devices to attend online classes. In remote areas, children walk 10-20 km to go to school.
This is why a capital at Gairsain is a constant demand, with locals hoping it will improve their lives. But as elections come and go, several residents told Newslaundry they’ve lost hope.
“It has been 20 years since the state was formed,” said Vasudev Singh, 55. “Come after 20 years and you will see people in the same condition. This capital is only for politicians and officers.”
Journalist Rajeev Pandey said the “hill capital” is “only a symbolic gesture” and that “the condition does not change with the symbols”.
But the campaign for Gairsain to become a permanent capital continues to have political currency. Indresh Maikhuri, a member of the Communist Party Marxist-Leninist contesting from Karnaprayag seat, told Newslaundry that the idea of a summer capital and winter capital is a “colonial hangover”.
“This colonial gloom hangs over the heads of those whose thinking is feudal even when they live in a democracy,” Maikhuri said. “Gairsain should not be a summer but a permanent capital, but the intention of the BJP and Congress governments is to set up a new assembly and secretariat complex in Dehradun.”
Charu Tiwari is a social activist and a member of the Gairsain Sangharsh Samiti, a group that has been agitating for Gairsain to be declared a permanent capital. He said, “Policymakers of the state and especially the two big parties [Congress and BJP] do not understand decentralisation and have become accustomed to politics of convenience. They neither understand the Himalayas nor do they want to climb mountains. This is necessary to carry forward the democratic model of unity and development of the Gairsain Kumaon-Garhwal region.”
Therefore, he said, “despite being symbolic, it is necessary because symbols too have importance in the public movements.”
This report was first published in . It was translated to English by Utkarsh Mishra.
This story is part of the NL Sena project which our readers contributed to. It was made possible by Abel Sajaykumar, Devaki Khanna, Subhrajit Chakraborty, Somok Gupta Roy, Sathya, Shubhankar Mondal, Sourav Agrawal, Karthik, Sudarshana Mukhopadhyay, Uma Rajagopalan, HS Kahlon, Shreya Sethuraman, Vinod Gubbala, Anirban Bhattacharjee, Rahul Gupta, Rejith Rajan, Abhishek Thakur, Rathindranath Das, Farzana Hasan, Animesh Narayan, A J, Nidhi Manchanda, Rahul Bhardwaj, Kirti Mishra, Sachin Tomar, Raghav Nayak, Rupa Banerjee, Akash Mishra, Sachin Chaudhary, Udayan Anand, Karan Mujoo, Gaurab S Dutta, Jayanta Basu, Abhijnan Jha, Ashutosh Mittal, Sahit Koganti, Ankur, Sindhu Kasukurthy, Manas, Akshay Sharma, Mangesh Sharma, Vivek Maan, Sandeep Kumar, Rupa Mukundan, P Anand, Nilkanth Kumar, Noor Mohammed, Shashi Ghosh, Vijesh Chandera, Rahul Kohli, Janhavi G, Dr Prakhar Kumar, Ashutosh Singh, Saikat Goswami, Sesha Sai T V, Srikant Shukla, Abhishek Thakur, Nagarjuna Reddy, Jijo George, Abhijit, Rahul Dixit, Praveen Surendra, Madhav Kaushish, Varsha Chidambaram, Pankaj, Mandeep Kaur Samra, Dibyendu Tapadar, Hitesh Vekariya, Akshit Kumar, Devvart Poddar, Amit Yadav, Harshit Raj, Lakshmi Srinivasan, Atinderpal Singh, Jaya Mitra, Raj Parab, Ashraf Jamal, Asif Khan, Manish Kumar Yadav, Saumya Parashar, Naveen Kumar Prabhakar, Lezo, Sanjay Dey, Ahmad Zaman, Mohsin Jabir, Sabina, Suresh Uppalapati, Bhaskar Dasgupta, Pradyut Kumar, Sai Sindhuja, Swapnil Dey, Sooraj, Aparajit Varkey, Brendon Joseph D’souza, Zainab Jabri, Tanay Arora, Jyoti Singh, M Mitra, Aashray Agur, Imran, Dr. Anand Kulkarni, Sagar Kumar, Sandeep Banik, Mohd Salman, Sakshi, Navanshu Wadhwani, Arvind Bhanumurthy, Dhiren Maheshwari, Sanjeev Menon, Anjali Dandekar, Farina Ali Kurabarwala, Abeera Dubey, Ramesh Jha, Namrata, Pranav Kumar, Amar Nath, Anchal, Sahiba Lal, Jugraj Singh, Nagesh Hebbar, Ashutosh Mhapne, Sai Krishna, Deepam Gupta, Anju Chauhan, Siddhartha Jain, Avanish Dureha, Varun Singhal, Akshay, Sainath Jadhav, Shreyas Singh, Ranjeet Samad, Vini Nair, Vatsal Mishra, Aditya Chaudhary, Jasween, Pradeep, Nilesh Vairagade, Manohar Raj, Tanya Dhir, Shaleen Kumar Sharma, Prashant Kalvapalle, Ashutosh Jha, Aaron D'Souza, Shakti Verma, Sanyukta, Pant, Ashwini, Firdaus Qureshi, Soham Joshi, Ankita Bosco, Arjun Kaluri, Rohit Sharma, Betty Rachel Mathew, Sushanta Tudu, Pardeep Kumar Punia, Dileep Kumar Yadav, Neha Khan, Omkar, Vandana Bhalla, Surendra Kumar, Sanjay Chacko, Abdullah, Aayush Garg, Mukarram Sultan, Abhishek Bhatia, Tajuddin Khan, Vishwas Deshpande, Mohammed Ashraf, Jayati Sood, Aditya Garg, Nitin Joshi, Partha Patashani, Anton Vinny, Sagar Rout, Vivek Chandak, Deep Chudasama, Khushboo Matwani, Virender Bagga, Keyur Gokhale, Shelly Singh, Goldwin Fonseca, Upasana Gupta, Leslie Isaac, Stephen, Anupam Kumar, Nishanth Perathara, Sudin, Bhavin Ved, Sriram Arthanari, Sanjit Mehta, Shashank Shekhar, Somsubhro Chaudhuri, Pallavi Das, Animesh Chaudhary, Dr Avishek Ghosh, Bharat Kumar, Renain Safi, Kanhu Kishore Nanda, Shubham Wankhede, Jagbir Lehl, Bharadwaj Upadyaya, Mohamed Suhair, Keith Rebelo, Saurabh, Aman Seth, Himanshu Singh, Malwika Chitale, Mohit Chelani, Abhishek Thakur, Utpal Kar, Abdul Aziz Abdul Gafoor, Aditya Kumar Tiwari, Chanchal K Mitra, Subhojit Bakshi, Jitendra Kumar, Subhransu Panda, Vaibhav V, Neerja Jain, Muzamil, Parminder Randhawa, Aishwarya Ghaisas, Siddharth Kulkarni, Fadil Sherrif, Jomy Mathew, Asim, Senthil Kumar Sakthivel, Abhimanyu Sinha, Srinivas Addepalli, Pratul Nema, Varun B Kothamachu, Aarushi Mittal, Sushil Gulati, George Isaac, Sameer Naik, Saurabh Naik, Ragesh Vyas, Vishal Sodani, Muhammad Shafeeque, Vivek Ashokan, Rachita Dutta, Sayani Dasgupta, Ashutosh Singh, Shrinjay, Siju Mathew, Paul Lazarus, Thufir Hawat, Kruttika Samant, Shireesh Vasupalli and other NL Sena members.
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