The efficacy of any government is often measured by the successful execution of the social welfare and infrastructural schemes launched during its tenure. Money is invested and resources are utilized to conceptualize, design and implement these schemes on the ground but after completion, no one talks about their sustenance and upkeep. Of all the schemes and announcements, the infrastructural projects bring hope particularly for people residing in remote locations as they bring with them employment opportunities while promising a better quality of life. However, once the project is concluded, no one ever returns to check.
In the mountainous region of Uttarakhand, villages are tucked away in some of the most isolated corners. In these villages, people do not venture out of their houses after sunset. The fear of attack by wild animals in dark forces villagers to stay indoors. “To tackle the situation, the state government had announced the installation of solar lights by Uttarakhand Renewable Energy Development Agency (UREDA) and make life a little easier for us,” shared Kheem Singh Bisht, a resident of village Sirsoda in Almora District.
After installation of lights, villagers in these far-flung areas started venturing out even during the night without any fear. However, with no proper maintenance, lights started showing trouble. “We’d lodge complaints on the number provided by the implementing agency, but it wasn’t always successful. Sometimes, they would guide us on the telephone or through videos to repair the lights but due to lack of technical knowledge and training, we hardly succeeded,” rued Kheem Singh. He believes that for such an arrangement, villagers should be involved while conceptualizing the scheme and should be given proper training to be able to repair lights on their own.
These solar lights were installed in 670 villages in the entire state under the Atal Adarsh Gram Yojana which was launched in the year 2010-11. But like Sirsoda village, several solar lights that were previously installed have been rendered useless. This has led to sheer darkness on the streets connecting these villages taking away the little joy that had entered the lives of the villagers.
“In the year 2015-2016, UREDA had installed 20 Solar lights in our village. Streets where one could not walk after the evening was lit up by these lights. It brought a sense of safety among villagers. Today, however, 9 out of the 20 lights are not working,” shared Govind Singh Fatrayal, a resident of village Kaltani in Almora Development Block. After filing several complaints, the concerned department fixed the issue but due to lack of maintenance, the lights stopped working again.
Narendra Mohan, who works with UREDA in state capital Dehradun agrees that proper maintenance is required to ensure successful implementation of any scheme. “If we talk about the maintenance of solar lights, I believe that the previous arrangement of offering subsidy on these lights should be re-considered. Equal investment by individuals would put equal responsibility on villagers to maintain these lights. The government should provide them with proper training and technical knowledge to make them capable of repairing these lights on their own,” said Narendra Mohan. He also suggested that self-help groups can be given the responsibility of looking after such projects in the village as these groups are quite active in the mountainous areas.
Another project that has lost its enthusiasm in the state today is the management of forests by Community members through Van Panchayat. Once recognized as effective bodies for managing and protecting forest areas in Uttarakhand, Van Panchayats are facing serious challenges today. Every year, several saplings are planted by the Van Panchayats and a success rate of 100 per cent is shown on official papers. The ground reality, however, differs. Of the total, only 55 per cent of plants manage to survive due to lack of maintenance. But no one is bothered about the success of the scheme as long as a formality on official papers is fulfilled.
The activities under the scheme are being conducted without any course correction. Multiple projects of similar nature are simultaneously being implemented in most of the villages. Due to this, around 2-3 oak trees have been planted within a parameter of 2 meters completely overlooking the fact that due to lack of enough space these saplings will not grow. Clearly, these initiatives lack technical expertise and a concrete plan on follow-up activities.
Similarly, the mounds and trenches constructed for water conservation are facing a similar fate. The resources are being invested in new structures while the older ones can be seen in dilapidated condition in these Van Panchayats. As per one Pitamber Melkani, a resident of Jalna Neel Pahari in Dhari Block in Nainital district, “Between 2018-20, Central Himalayan Environment Association (CHEA), as part of a project under the Department of Science and Technology (DST), constructed mounds and trenches in Van Panchayat of our region. It provided employment opportunities to locals and today, 55 families are able to fulfil their water requirements because of these structures. But who will be responsible for the maintenance of these structures over the years?”
It is not just Uttarakhand, but several other hilly states face a similar fate as tough geography and weather make it difficult to maintain such projects. It is, therefore, becomes quite crucial to build the capacities of the locals and make them equally involved in such initiatives. Narendra Singh Bisht, the writer, believes that the ownership by the community will make them responsible for successful maintenance and protection without relying on government all the time.