With the Governor’s imprimatur on the state government’s decision to make Bhararisain (Gairsain) the summer capital of Uttarakhand the stage is now set for the resumption of shadow boxing (noora kushti in Hindi) between the two main political parties in the state on the issue of the state’s capital. It is quite clear that neither wants to disturb the unstated agreement between them regarding continuation of Dehradun as the de facto capital of the state, although theoretically it is still only an “interim” capital.
Going by newspaper reports the exchange of charges and counter charges has already started. The party in power hails it as a historical decision (incidentally, all decisions taken by the present dispensation at the centre and in the state are labelled ‘historical’; future generation of students will have a really tough time studying history with text books becoming really voluminous). Be that as it may, the question that should really concern us is: does this decision make any sense? My answer is a resounding No!
The first issue that we need to address is whether, objectively speaking, there is any need for two capitals in a relatively small state like Uttarakhand. How many states in India have two functioning capitals? I cannot think of any other state (now Union Territory) except Jammu & Kashmir. The concept of summer capital is a colonial legacy – Simla became the summer capital of India and the state of Punjab, Nainital of UP, Darjeeling of Bengal, Ranchi of Bihar and so on during the colonial period because the ‘sahibs’ wanted respite from the searing heat of the plains.
This was also the origin of the ‘season’ in these hill stations. In J&K the practice of shifting the capital to Jammu from Srinagar during winter months, which is still followed under the name of ‘Darbar move’ is a feudal legacy started during the reign of the erstwhile Maharaja. Though designed to escape the harsh winter of the Valley, it was clearly a political move by the Dogra ruler of Kashmir to keep his kinfolk satisfied.
The need to maintain the regional balance between the Valley and Jammu is what leads to the continuation of the practice, even as voices have been raised from time to time to scrap it on account of its high cost and disruption of government work for extended periods.
Are we then willing to say that we are going back to our colonial and feudal legacy by having two capitals? That would be a damning admission for a hyper nationalist political party. Perhaps it would be more accurate to term this decision too as motivated by politics: keep the Paharis satisfied by the bait of summer capital, since the new state has only exacerbated the latent hill-plain divide.
The second issue with this new version of Darbar move is defining the contours of the idea: for how long will the government function out of the new capital every year? which offices will shift fully and which only partially? does it mean that staff will be available both at Dehradun and at Gairsain? what infrastructure would be needed at Gairsain/ Bhararisain in terms of office buildings and residential quarters for the staff?
These are issues that cannot be solved immediately. They will require considerable thought and discussion to come up with an optimum solution. Ideally these should have been considered before the announcement; which obviously did not happen. That is what newspaper reports appearing after the Chief Minister’s announcement seemed to suggest: ‘the CM sprang a surprise’ they said. This seems to be in line with the spirit of many recent “historical” decisions of the central government – act now, think later.
A third, and very important, issue relates to the cost of the exercise. Obviously it is going to cost a tidy packet, but as yet the government neither has any idea of the total cost, nor how it will be financed. As it is, the finances of the government have never been very comfortable to take on the burden of a second capital. At present they are under acute stress on account of the Corona pandemic. Revenue collection is severely impacted, while expenditure demands on account of relief are quite high. Central help too is an iffy proposition.
Hence all talk of summer capital in this situation is foolhardy. It is of the same nature as the central government’s proposal to redevelop the Central Vista in New Delhi and earmark Rs 20,000 crore initially for the project. Hence prudence demands that the idea is abandoned. If political ego does not permit summary abandonment, then as a second best alternative it should be put into deep freeze.
(These are personal views of the author)
Author is the former Chairman of Fourth State Finance Commission, Govt. of Uttarakhand and ex Vice-Chancellor, Kumaon University.