We started with a standard warm-up question as Gangi Devi, our first respondent, sat in anticipation. “Tell me a little bit about your society. What is distinctive about the Himachali way of life?” A smile lined up a face creased otherwise with wrinkles. “We are a peaceful society,” she said after thinking a little. “People here are good to one another, we stand by each other.” A person sitting next to her added for good measure, “We Himachalis are very innocent people.”
For those working in the development space in India, the state of Himachal Pradesh, a small state ensconced in the Himalayas with a population of 7 million, is an outlier for many reasons, not least of which is Gangi Devi’s near puritan response.
Gangi Devi lives near a tourist centre close to Shimla, the state capital, which has seen increasing tourist footfall in recent years. Even as her community is debating the costs and benefits of increased activity around their village, Gangi Devi and her neighbours trust that the state government would keep people’s interests in mind and address adverse impacts, if any, of increased tourism on the environment.
Their belief in the government is supported by real actions. Himachal Pradesh is the first state in India to ban the use of plastic bags. Smoking in public spaces in the city of Shimla is punishable by law.
Governance in Himachal Pradesh looks doubly impressive when considered against an enviable development record. Despite being the most rural state in India, with 90 percent of its residents living in villages,
- Himachal Pradesh’s per capita income is the second highest among “special category states” in India ;
- The state has achieved a four-fold decline in rural poverty over the last two decades;
- It has the highest post-secondary education across northern states;
- It has the second highest rural female labour force participation rate in India;
- It has a similar fertility rate to that of France and lower than that of the United States.
Most importantly, good outcomes hold true for all social groups, including the traditionally excluded Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes, who perform worse than other groups across India.
How did Himachal Pradesh not only reduce poverty within a generation, but also share prosperity even with groups that were historically left behind?
In a new report, Scaling the Heights: Social Inclusion and Sustainable Development in Himachal Pradesh, we document Himachal Pradesh’s achievements and look at the factors underlying the state’s success. We show that the foundations for progress in Himachal Pradesh were laid by early land reforms. Almost 80 percent of rural households in the state possess some land and nearly half cultivate it. Over time, the distribution of land across social groups has remained more equal in Himachal Pradesh compared to the rest of India.
Even the Scheduled Castes, who are historically over-represented among the landless, own land in Himachal Pradesh, with the gap between their landholdings and that of other groups’ closing over time. This has meant that everyone benefited from rural reforms and agricultural programs, which were instrumental in tackling rural poverty.
There are many who suggest that Himachal Pradesh’s status as ‘special category’ state, which made it eligible for concessional government grants, have made it easier for the state government to expand infrastructure and service delivery across its tough, hilly terrain.
While this is true, it isn’t clear from existing accounts why the Government of Himachal Pradesh invested its resources responsibly and how the state maintained inter-group equity, despite hosting one of the highest proportion of Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe populations in India.
Our analysis points to some institutional and socio-cultural foundations that may have underpinned Himachal Pradesh’s success. For instance, people’s proximity to state officials has created an environment where citizens have both voice and leverage. The state has a committed bureaucracy, which has constantly innovated policies of inclusion and did not shy away from distributional reforms. The state’s unique culture, characterized by religious homogeneity, a cohesive caste structure and small settlements in a tough terrain, has reinforced a milieu of interdependence and local accountability.
Together with the very nature of Himachali society, organized around a common reverence for the bounty of nature around them, these factors seem to have created a stable social contract for change.
The story of Himachal Pradesh illustrates that the state can be the foremost propeller of social inclusion, be it through service delivery, local accountability or conscious efforts to maintain inter-group equity. It also shows that culture, social norms and practices can be powerful enablers of inclusive development. For practitioners working in contexts that want to move toward social inclusion, the vivid story of this Himalayan hill state, which Gangi Devi and many others so aptly describe, promises valuable lessons and examples.
 An earlier version of this blog post mistakenly stated that the state had the second highest per capita income in the entire country. This has been corrected to reflect the fact that Himachal Pradesh ranks second among “special category” states rather than among all Indian states.