The Pulse | Politics | South Asia

Gairsain’s Uphill Task: Uttarakhand’s Plan for Two Capitals

The little-known Indian town of Gairsain will be a ground of an experiment in shared governance.

Krzysztof Iwanek
Gairsain’s Uphill Task: Uttarakhand’s Plan for Two Capitals
Credit: Rohit Gosain via Wikimedia Commons

I found the Indian town of Gairsain rather nondescript when I crossed it in 2011, on my way to the higher parts of the state of Uttarakhand. Its provincial character appeared to be no match to the sprawling urban jungle of the state’s capital, Dehradun. And yet Gairsain is poised to gain the same status as Dehradun – that of the state’s other capital.

Uttarakhand gained its statehood in 2000, having been separated from Uttar Pradesh. It had initially been decided that Dehradun will serve as an interim capital of the new state. Twenty years have passed since then, and Dehradun is still the capital of Uttarakhand. Many people in the state demanded the capital to be shifted to little-known Gairsain (some envisaged it in this role even before Uttarakhand was created). A whole movement took place to achieve this objective, but not much happened in this regard for years.

There were strong points both against and in support of this idea. With its population of half-a-million people, spread out in a large valley, the current capital, Dehradun, is a city proper. Located in a place where the plains of northern India give way to first hill ranges, at an elevation of less than 500 meters, it is fairly well connected to the country’s capital, Delhi, as Dehradun possesses both an airport and a railway station.

Gairsain, in comparison, is a mountain town like dozens of other ones. Its population is barely 7,000 people, and it does not have an airport or a railway station of its own (Gairsain’s nearest station will be Karnaprayag, less than 50 km away, but only when the construction of the Karnraprayag-Rishikesh line is completed). Nested in a valley much higher in the mountains, 1,650 meters above the sea level, Gairsain is not easily accessible. Moreover, in 2009, the Justice Dixit Commission considered the town as inappropriate place for a state capital, given the fact that it is earthquake-prone.

But for many inhabitants of Uttarakhand’s higher ranges, Dehradun is not easily reachable as well. The capital is not only located in the foothills – it is also based in the western extremes of the state. For many people of Uttarakhand, the journey to the present capital is long and torturous. The transport infrastructure in and around Gairsain is admittedly mostly poor when compared to that of Dehradun, but the town is located nearly exactly in the centre of Uttarakhand, in an area which is a meeting point of state’s two regions, Kumaon and Garhwal.

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Many pointed out that Gairsain does not offer even urban basic services: it does not even have its own proper hospital, only a health center. But for those in favor of moving the capital there this is precisely the reason to proceed with the initiative, as it is expected that the government would finally focus on the town’s development.

Thus, the demand to shift the capital to Gairsain can also be read as a wider cry to devote more attention to the undeveloped mountain regions of the state. The supporters of the idea may say that the capital status is necessary for Gairsain and its vicinity to progress. The sceptics can point out that other mountain regions need these development as much, and that basic public services, such as a hospital for Gairsain, is something that the government should have provided anyway, without the town enjoying any administrative privileges. The Gairsain debate thus highlights the challenges of Indian governments – the central one and the state ones – to provide development to various regions while facing serious financial limitations.

As India is a federation and very concrete powers lay with state government and legislative assemblies, the status of a state capital offers a chosen city much more than pure symbolic value. The state governments are responsible for a number of legal and governance issues, such as land property, education, law and order (including the control over most of the police units), and much more. A state capital would typically house the legislative assembly building, government office, a high court, governor’s residence, a secondary education board and other institutions. With this, a state capital is a center of not only political power, but also of vested interest, and the range of subjects it deals with forces many people to come there, permanently or occasionally.

While India did not experience disputes on the location of a state capital too often, the few cases of these showcase the significance of such cities. When the state of Punjab was divided in 1966, none of the two newly formed states, Punjab and Haryana, wanted to part ways with their capital, Chandigarh. The city thus remained a capital for both, hosting government and legislative buildings of both states. When Telangana was separated from Andhra Pradesh in 2014, it was originally planned that, similarly to Chandigarh, the city of Hyderabad will remain a joint capital for both, but it was eventually decided that Andhra Pradesh will establish a new capital, Amaravati.

As of now, it seems that a compromise has been reached. In march this year, Uttarakhand’s Chief Minister T.S. Rawat announced that Gairsain will be the summer capital of Uttarakhand, while Dehradun will retain its administrative status as well, now serving as the winter capital. While Rawat made same announcements in the past years, and this decision is not final yet, it seems this solution is indeed the most acceptable now.

It also would not be the first arrangement of this sort in Indian circumstances. The state of Jammu and Kashmir, also mostly a mountainous and a hilly region, also has two capitals: Srinagar in Kashmir is the summer capital, while Jammu, located in a lower-lying region, serves as the winter capital. Moreover, in 2017, it was announced India’s yet another mountainous state, Himachal Pradesh, was to have two capitals as well: Dharamshala and Shimla (so far it has only been Shimla).

It seems that at the heart of the current double state solution lies the idea of compromise. A compromise between the two extremes of retaining the capital in Dehradun and shifting it entirely to Gairsain. But also, very importantly, a compromise between the state’s two largest ethnic regions, Kumaon and Garhwal. Dehradun lies on the western fringes of Garhwal – it could not be more distant from Kumaon. Gairsain, while also located administratively in this region, is in turn not far from Kumaon.

But the task of developing Gairsain and shifting the capital partially there will be an uphill one, both figuratively and literally. A legislative assembly building is nearing completion in the village of Bhararisain next to the town. So far however, the legislators came down from Dehradun to Gairsain – or actually went up to Gairsain – only to hold few sessions in recent years, a move which was more of a token political gesture than a real administrative process. Some representatives of the local population were heard complaining that what they really need is not a legislative assembly, but an already-mentioned institution: a hospital.

It may be pointed out that Uttarakhand has already had some experience of diffused administration: the state’s High Court is located in the mountain town of Nainital, not in Dehradun. But this example does not necessarily strengthen Gairsain’s case: in recent case the court started considering moving elsewhere, as small Nainital’s space turned out to be insufficient for the institution.

On the whole, the Gairsain experiment may be a significant example of an Indian experiment in shifting administration and more diffused development in peculiar geographical conditions. If it fails, it may be due to some of the country’s most pressing problems: lack of finances, corruption and putting politicians’ need ahead of those of the common people. But if it succeeds, it may as well showcase the best of Indian practices of seeking compromises and adjusting to particular conditions.