The state of Uttarakhand. © Mohamed Majid
Thirty-year old Puran left his village Danya five years back to work in an organic farming unit near Almora town. Twenty-seven year old Prakash and 22-year old Bhemsingh left their village in Lamgarah to work at a home stay in Ranikhet as a cook and a helper respectively. Two years back Ganesh set off from his village near Joshimath to work in a hotel 300 km away in Rishikesh leaving his ageing parents back at home. Rajesh Singh, 48, with his family of five members, relocated to the buzzing town of Rudraprayag 11 years back from his village Barsu, where he was living since his birth. What is common between Puran, Prakash, Bhemsingh, Ganesh and Rajesh is that they are a part of millions of people who migrated from villages to the nearest town or city in search of livelihood in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand in India. The state was carved out of Uttar Pradesh in 2000 after 70 long years of struggle due to lack of development and rising unemployment in this geographically unique region as 64% land of the state is forest area while more than 90% is hilly area and vulnerable to landslides.
When I ask them to take me to their villages, all but Ganesh inform me their villages lie in shambles as no one lives there anymore. While Ganesh earns Rs 8,000 ($133) per month as a helper in the hotel, he sends a major portion of it to his home. He tells me all his friends in his village have also moved out of their homes and are working in odd jobs in Haridwar, Dehradun or Rishikesh. The generation of Ganesh is disillusioned with farming and no longer wants to dirty their hands as agriculture doesn’t provide a good yield, thanks to unpredictable rains, plague of wild animals and depletion of fertile land. Moreover, farming is no more seen a prestigious work and young people like Ganesh, who have grown up watching apparently modern characters on direct to home (DTH) channels, are shaped by urbanisation and westernisation of lifestyle, unlike the erstwhile generation whose days were spent in fields when televisions and satellite channels were yet to enter homes of ordinary farmers in far-flung villages. Ganesh tells me he is not yet married but when he marries, he will leave his wife in the village to take care of his parents and come to Rishikesh for work.
Women, unwillingly, almost always, happen to be at the receiving end of this plight which takes a toll on their health tremendously. While their husbands and sons are away at the nearby city to earn a good living, apparently for the entire family, women in these inaccessible villages walk for at least five kilometres each day to carry water, fodder and fuel. Women carrying water in tin canisters on their head and holding wood fuel in one hand and fodder for their cattle in the other is a usual and ordinary sight in the mountain. Their work does not get over there. They cook, feed family, work in fields, and continue to give birth to children whenever their husbands come back home from the city to quench their thirsts. After some years, women are also made to undergo family planning surgeries for birth control in district hospitals or camps held by government to check population. Such is the case of declining gender ratio due to migration of males that in some villages, women outnumber men in voters lists. While I listen to Ganesh’s story, I hope and sincerely wish Ganesh’s wife, whenever he marries, does not suffer the same fate like several other women in his village.
Data from the 2011 census shows 33 villages no longer exist in the state’s map, while another figure from government’s statistics department suggests about 1065 villages are completely desolate and uninhabited and have turned into ‘bhotiya gao’ or ghost villages. More than 300 such ghost villages exist alone in Pauri Garwhwal district of Uttarakhand. Many villages in this district are inhabited by old and doddering people waiting for their day impatiently. When their family members migrated, these elderly people were left on their own lest they become a burden on their families due to financial constraints. Some villages like Silar, Amtola and Dalegar near to the district headquarter Pauri do not even hold a population of double digits, while Chandauli village is only inhabited by an elderly couple trying at odds to still hang on to farming while their five sons and three daughters relocated long back to New Delhi and Dehradun.
For the last decade, residents of nine districts of Uttarakhand have been migrating with their families to various urban centres for better economic opportunities. One such resident is 43-year old Sanjay Semwal from Barsu village in Uttarkashi district. As long as he can recall, he had always been a farmer and loved growing vegetables and rice for his family in the two-acre land that his family owned. His home was an intricately carved wooden house with oval frames and ornately designed balcony columns built with love by his grandfather with his own hands almost 70 years back. His large family of 14 members used to celebrate Holi, Navratri, Diwali and every other festival together with grandeur in the wide stone-paved courtyard of the house. That beautiful house still stands now without the clamour of its residents. A large rusted lock hangs on the main door of the house while weeds and bushes mushroom the red columns of the balcony. Vijay now runs a grocery shop near the bus station in Rudraprayag town. Vijay’s family is one of 262 families that once lived, smiled, loved, worked, fought and worshipped in an abandoned temple in Barsu but now the village is deserted. The once-fertile 98-acre land on which Barsu’s residents used to cultivate and grow vegetables has now become barren. Beautiful slate-roofed traditional and modern cemented houses lie abandoned with locks hanging at every door. There was no electricity or even water supply and Semwal had to carry water from a spring few kilometres away and by the time lights and water reached this village, it was too late. Till recently no proper road went up to the village and when finally the road was built and and the village became accessible, most families by then left for Rudraprayag and Dehradun for employment.
Every other pahadi (person originally living in mountains) found in almost every corner of major towns and cities like Haldwani, Dehradun, Rudraprayag and Delhi as a cook, waiter, helper, employee, labourer and maid, shares the same story with Sanjay. In hundreds of villages of hill districts of the state, lakhs of houses are closed with locks hanging on the doors. Lack of basic facilities like drinking water, electricity, health centres, proper schools coupled with disillusionment with farming due to menace of monkeys and wild boars and paucity of irrigation facilities have forced residents to look for shelter and livelihood out of their own village.
In villages situated in vulnerable hilly places both in Garhwal and Kumaon regions, exodus is of another kind. Frequent landslides, cloud bursts and flash floods remain major concerns for the villagers. Mahendra Singh Kevriwal along with his five family members had been living a quality life in Queri-Jimiya village near Munsiyari town in Pithoragarh district by selling cash crops like potato and kidney beans in the nearby market till 2010 when a huge landslide killed 18 people including his three family members damaging houses and washing away majority of his cultivatable land. Mahendra was forced to erect a tent in a village some kilometres away but was again moved out because the villagers did not want to share their lands and water resources with Mahendra and his likes. Rejected, he migrated to Munsiyari town and since then has been employed as a labour in a furniture shop. After the devastating floods and landslides that killed about 10,000 people in Uttarakhand in 2013, people living in peril and unsafe hilly places in Garhwal region quickly migrated to the plains and safer cities including Dehradun and Delhi before another monsoon and another landslide take their lives.
Till date more than 5,000 villages remain cut off from proper roads and lakhs of homes in the state do not have lavatories. When population has been increasing in other parts of the world, two hill districts, Pauri and Almora in Uttarakhand in India, show negative population growth. More than 87% farming of the state depends on rainwater but rain cycle is no more regular, thanks to climate change. Hundreds of primary schools in most districts are running with just one teacher teaching all subjects, all classes at the same time, resulting in impart of low quality of education. Around six lakh houses in the state are yet to be touched by the wonder of electricity. District hospitals and health centres are working with just medicine compounders and unskilled pharmacists in absence of doctors as almost half of doctor posts lie vacant in hospitals located in hilly regions.
Out-migration has hit the hilly state of Uttarakhand so severely that it affected the environmental and biological landscape of these villages. Paucity of self-employment opportunities, disenchantment with farming, daily struggles for basic necessities, lack of proper education facilities and basic health centres and frequent climatic disasters are forcing people from villages to move to safer and better havens.
The barren fields, beautiful wooden desolate houses, empty cattle sheds tell the tale of the sad exodus, only if there is someone to listen.