Tehlka: Over a decade after the state was founded, nine of its 13 districts are facing a crisis of migration. More than 1,000 villages have been deserted for the comforts of the plains, reports Baba Umar.
IN THE picturesque village of Chandauli, deep inside the forests of Uttarakhand’s Pauri district, an old couple is silently defying a phenomenon that is fast stripping the outer Himalayan state of its people. Today, Prem Singh (75) and his wife Surma Devi (70) are the only remaining residents of this once lively village of over 60 families.
“You’re the first person to have reached us,” Singh claims as he smokes from an old copper-and-bamboo hookah inherited from his great grandfather. “But there will be no one to smoke from this after me.”
There is no direct road to Chandauli. The only access is a sharp downhill dirt track amid thorny bushes and Chir forests from the village of Thanmool atop the slope. Upon entering Chandauli, one witnesses several locked-down houses and a weather-beaten temple. On its western end, Singh’s three-room mud and brick cottage stands decorated with white and blue paint.
Palayan (mass exodus) of the mountain people to plains is fast turning hamlets into Bhutya Gao (haunted villages). The state’s statistics department claims that 1,065 villages have permanently turned into ‘ghost villages’.
More than a decade ago, after a bitter power struggle saw mountainous Uttarakhand seceding from Uttar Pradesh as a new state, the dominance of people from the plains over their mountain counterparts was seen as history. Uttarakhand was billed to be a state that would serve the interests of mountain people only. Words like employment, development, industrialisation and healthcare formed the bedrock of political slogans of all the successive governments. However, a decade later, an old phrase, Uttarakhand ke Pahadon ka pani aur jawani eskey kaam nahi aatey (Mountains of Uttarakhand seldom hold its waters and young men) is gaining currency.
Singh says, his five sons and three daughters migrated to Dehradun and New Delhi to try their luck, leaving the poverty-stricken village behind. Twelve years after the state was born, in November 2000, basic facilities like drinking water, connectivity to main roads, schools and dispensaries are yet to reach most villages in the state.
“The elder one is a government employee and the rest work as salesmen. It was two years ago that they came to visit us. The money they gave is enough to buy grains and spices from there,” Singh says, pointing a trembling hand towards a hilltop market, which is at a vertical distance of almost 8 km from the village. “It takes me three hours to reach there. And three to come back.”
The Singh couple owns almost 200 nali (10 lakh sq ft) of land, but these days Surma Devi’s concern is to protect her small onion field outside the hut from monkeys. “Stay away for some time… I’ve to take out onions before they (monkeys) destroy the turf,” she says in a native Gharwali language.
In fact, the neighbouring villages of Chandauli, like Thangardhar, Amtola, Kismolya and Thanmool, perched high on the slopes, too, have been witnessing exodus of families for the past many years.
Birender Das, the headman of these villages, admits people have been migrating from the hills over the last few years. “Despite our hamlet being a cluster of small villages, more than 50 families have migrated so far. The situation is such that in some villages if a person dies there aren’t enough shoulders to carry him/her to the cremation ground.”
There are some villages where the total number of residents does not add up to double digits. For example, the population in Silar, Kotmahadevsen and Dalegar, close to Pauri town in Kaljikhal block, runs in single digits, mostly children and the elderly. Only one person is left in Baluni village.
Almost 185 km east of Dehradun, the situation in the villages of Rudraprayag district is the same. The village of Barsu, 5 km from Rudraprayag town, is deserted. The scenic village was once home to more than 60 families. Today, it is called Bhutya Gao by locals who seldom go there. The abandoned village sends a chill down the spine.
ATTEMPTS TO persuade other locals to visit Barsu seldom work here. For the first three-and-a-half-kilometres, a newly laid road takes a visitor to the edge of the mountain from where a dirt track, followed by a rocky path inside the forests, ends up at the outer rim of Barsu village. However, just before the village starts, thorny branches and a huge burnt tree trunk carefully placed in the middle of the path act as blockades at two places. Ever since the last family – of one Arvind Semwal, an armyman — left Barsu in the summer of 2010, no one has visited the ‘ghost’ village.
One can see huge rusted locks hanging on the doors. Structures left behind include nicely wood-worked traditional houses, an abandoned temple, cattle sheds and several water tanks now overrun by creepers and shrubs. The cattle sheds are now used by sloth-bears and leopards during the rains.
Nearby villages like Cham Gudhera, Gwar, Bauntha and Ghaniyalka, too, are witnessing mass migration of villagers. In fact, Jhakoli village, which is 60 km from Rudraprayag, has witnessed almost 30 villages turning into haunted hamlets.
Of the 13 districts of Uttarakhand, migration has hit nine hill districts over the last decade. According to latest census reports, two hill districts, Pauri and Almora, show a negative growth in population (In the case of Pauri 6,97,078 in 2001 to 6,86,527 in 2011 and in case of Almora 6,32,866 in 2001 to 6,21,927 in 2011).
According to the 2011 Planning Commission report, no major industry exists in the hills; 5,000 villages (almost 58 percent of villages) in Uttarakhand remain cut off from proper roads. It goes on to add that in the state’s 11 mountain districts, a mere 18 percent of land remains irrigated, compared to over 95 percent in the plain districts of Haridwar and Udham Singh Nagar.
A fresh report released by the state planning commission cites an example of how retaining government staff in far-flung and remote hill areas has become an uphill task. It says, during 2002-03 to 2007-08, 912 doctors were appointed by the Uttarakhand government following the recommendations of the Public Service Commission. Only 573 doctors have joined the Department of Health. And more than 50 percent of the sanctioned posts of doctors are vacant in the hill districts. This despite a law that makes it obligatory for doctors and other professionals to serve in hill districts.
TO REVERSE migration, the state’s planning commission has sought a Central government assistance of Rs 21,200.79 cr for restoration and rehabilitation of the villages rendered unsuitable for habitation.
“If we carefully study the trend, we’ll realise that a population of around 20 lakh has been displaced ever since the state was created. It means we can create a district as big as Haridwar out of these migrants,” explains RS Tolia, former Chief Secretary of Uttarakhand. Tolia, who is also a member of the Working Group on Mountain Ecosystems and Challenges faced by Hilly Areas, of the Planning Commission, adds, while the aspirations of young Uttarakhandis can’t be ignored, agriculture, once the backbone of village economy, “has no longer remained a holding force.”
The solutions he proposes include, reinvention of agriculture, agro-forestry, rain-fed farming and inviting industries to the mountains that don’t pollute the fragile ecosystem.
“If the government establishes skill development centres and re-looks at the education and the healthcare system, things will dramatically improve,” Tolia suggests.
The demographic change has also led to delimitation exercises – redrawing the electoral map of Uttarakhand.
Following the 2001 census, the delimitation exercise of 2006 saw the hills losing six constituencies (from 40 to 34) to the plains districts, raising the Assembly seat strength of the plains districts to 36 in the 70-seat state Assembly.
And if the mass migration isn’t checked, the next delimitation of 2026, which will be based on the 2011 census, will further shift seven more constituencies from hill districts to plains; raising the constituency strength of the plains districts to 43.
“What development could one expect for hill people when they lose representation in the Assembly? Delimitation process dents the very effort behind the creation of Uttarakhand as a hill state,” says Anupam Trivedi, a local journalist who has extensively covered the migration patterns. “So far all politicians and CMs have promised to reverse the migration but they either never worked on it or failed in their efforts,” he adds.
Trivedi claims that Dehradun has become New York for the mountain boys, who are no longer interested in living in far-flung, inaccessible areas.
“There is nothing really left for them here. They wear trendy clothes, watch movies on satellite channels, and dream of settling in Dehradun. With them, the elders too are migrating,” he says.
State Congress leader Suryakant Dhasmana claims that the party’s focus has been to ‘reverse’ mass migration in the state and claims that the government is going to declare tourism as an industry, “which should help empower local entrepreneurs” and bolster the hospitality industry.
“Besides, we are focussing on small and big eco-friendly hydro power projects, agriculture and cash crops. Our focus is to stop migration from districts that touch international borders. Army is there but if there is no human presence in such districts, Chinese and Maoists can march down any time without anyone realising their presence. We have voiced this concern in the recently held National Security meet too.”
But between the government’s unfulfilled promises and their own hopes, villagers like Prem Singh and his wife Surma Devi say their wards are better off elsewhere, where they have enough water to quench their thirst.
Author: Baba Umar is a Correspondent with Tehelka.
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