Boiling Uttarakhand!

Unrest in Uttarakhand may be triggered by Ankita Bhandari’s murder but it is culmination of longstanding outrage against rampant corruption in the state

Boiling Uttarakhand!

The people of Uttarakhand are mostly peace-loving and nationalist. They have shown their competence in all spheres of life by occupying top positions in constitutional bodies, sports, administration and whatnot. Every 6th soldier of the Indian Army is from Uttarakhand. The state has also produced global leaders like late Sunder Lal Bahuguna in environmental conservation. However, ever since this state was carved out of Uttar Pradesh in 2001, it has always been in the vortex of political conflicts. A bunch of political leaders have blatantly misused their powers to loot and amass public money, and distribute with impunity the senior jobs to unqualified people including their own sons and daughters. Financial and political positions are also accorded to people of dubious characters. At the same time, the people of Uttarakhand have been suffering silently from the collapse of transparent governance. Being a small state, it is not of much political importance in terms of government formation at the Centre, yet, it is a border state with strategic importance and cannot be ignored for long.

For the last few days, people of Uttarakhand have been on roads, burning and damaging vehicles, blocking traffic, carrying out candle marches and protesting all over the state. The trigger for this spontaneous mass protest was the brutal killing of Ankita Bhandari — a 19-year-old promising girl who was working as a receptionist near Rishikesh in the resort of the son of a former state minister and BJP leader. She was murdered on September 18, 2022 by the resort owner and his friends — allegedly for refusing to entertain the guests in the resort. Her body was thrown in River Ganga in Rishikesh. The post-mortem report of AIIMS Rishikesh reveals that she died of drowning and blunt force trauma. The police fished out her body from a canal near Rishikesh on September 24 with the help of State Disaster Response Force. After recovery of the body, the culprits accepted their crime and have been sent on a 14-day police command. Since then, people have given up patience and are on streets, seeking quick justice and castigating the corrupt leaders of all parties in Uttarakhand for looting, introducing criminals in administration and fooling the people for 21 years of statehood.

This mass uprising has come after multiple scams were unfolding on a regular basis. After the creation of the state in 2001, a culture of loot and shameful luxury was started by most of the politicians. Those who were travelling in scooters now have BMWs and five to six cars, several acres of land, houses, resorts, and investments in India and abroad. They misused their powers with impunity and joined hands with land, mine, drug and liquor mafia and are ensconced in voluptuary lifestyle. One Chief Minister, in the name of industrial development, allowed the purchase of up to 12 acres of land by outsiders — giving free hand to the land mafia in the hills. Ankita's life was snatched by this voluptuary, lavish lifestyle of their children which never gets satiated.

Now let us see what was brewing in the minds of people for a long time. Recently, the recruitment scandal of Uttarakhand Subordinate Service Commission (USSC) in selling the examination papers of each and every exam for the past 10 years surfaced, with the mastermind Hakim Singh — a BJP Uttarkashi District panchayat member — having links with higher ups and collaborators sitting in Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand and Bihar. The police have constituted a special investigating team and arrested several culprits but what is surprising is that very low-rank staff from the USSC and other departments were part of the racket. It may be worth mentioning here that Hakim Singh, who owned several resorts, was once a cook of the District Magistrate. He was close to chief ministers and other leaders as well. The police are also investigating recruitment scandals in police, forest and other departments. Even in academics, news of a scandal appeared in the press, for an open university where 54 people were appointed allegedly without following the norms. In a nutshell, most posts in all departments were either sold or given to cronies, as if they were running their own fiefdom. A video from 2018 is going viral where a woman is being asked for sexual favours or money by a member of the Uttarakhand Public Service Commission, promising her the post of a lecturer. The member had to resign after the video went viral but the matter stands suppressed and God knows how many youths were cheated by unworthy people sitting on powerful posts.

The story of state assembly is even more bizarre, where the previous speakers appointed their sons and daughters and promoted a clerk to level 16 pay matrix as secretary of the assembly within a few months. From 2001 to 2021, more than 550 officials were working there, appointed by various assembly speakers. Compare this strength of staff for 70 MLAs with similar number of staff in Uttar Pradesh assembly where the number of MLAs is 403! After the scandals were out, two previous speakers strongly defended themselves as a matter of their rights. However, sensing the public opinion, the chief minister and the current speaker have cancelled 268 ad hoc and contractual staff, and suspended the secretary of the assembly who was promoted on super-fast track from a very lower post. But the moot question is, why to only single out ad hoc and temporary staff and why not sack all illegal appointees? Similar firefighting is being done on recruitment scams by constituting investigating teams. Even as the fire-fighting goes on, there is no let-up in illegal recruitments. The buzz is, elect us from Uttarakhand but we will give favour to outsiders.

Uttarakhand politics needs lock, stock and barrel banishment of current leaders and their acolytes, numbering around 1,000, from the political scene. The credibility of bureaucracy, which is a willing partner in these shoddy deals, has also come into question, as the honest officers and leaders stand side-lined. The BJP appears to be losing its mass appeal in the state. The rot is so deep that it requires Uttarakhand to be made Union territory for at least five years to set up an administrative infrastructure that would allow the grooming of honest and committed politicians. This writer is reminded of a quote "Let the country be governed by the monkeys. At least they will only steal banana". Will the prime minister's slogan, "Neither I will be corrupt nor I will allow corruption", fructify in the state? People of Uttarakhand are waiting for it.

The writer is Chairman of Centre for Resource Management & Environment. Views expressed are personal

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