Poor infrastructure has forced 15 lakh people to migrate from Uttarakhand’s five high-altitude districts along the international border since the formation of the hill state in 2000, data shows.
Near to total absence of basic facilities like roads, hospitals and schools is prompting the residents of Chamoli, Uttarkashi, Pithoragarh, Champavat and Udham Singh Nagar to relocate downward the Himalayan terrain. The first three districts are adjacent to the China border, while the others share fence with Nepal.
Experts and developmental activists claim the problem lies in flawed priorities. Even dedicated funds for development in the five districts are channelled to minor works like laying drainage or paving streets with bricks, they point out.
Together, these districts get a dedicated fund of Rs 30 crore annually under the centrally-funded Border Area Development Programme. Besides, there is the Pradhan Mantri Grameen Sadak Yojna under which roads are built in border areas. The state government, too, releases funds for building schools and hospitals.
Uttarakhand, with a population of 1.01 crore people, has 13 districts in its two divisions of Kumaon and Garhwal. The 2011 census said 1,053 of Uttarakhand’s 16,793 villages had no inhabitants, while 405 of them had less than 10 occupants. The state had 85 lakh people in 2001.
The migration continues to low-altitude places in the state or even to urban places elsewhere in the country, says M M Semwal, a professor of political science at the HNB Garhwal University.
The result, as social activist Surendra Singh Pangety who originally belongs to Pithoragarh’s Zohar valley notes, is a line-up of ghost villages across Uttarakhand’s 350-km international border. “The area used to be prosperous, thanks to once-thriving India-China border trade,” adds the retired bureaucrat, who is settled in Dehradun.
Jaisingh Danu, who is a former vice-chairman of the Uttarakhand Seemant Kshetra Vikas Parishad that is mandated to carry out development in the border districts, says the “emptying out” has also posed a grave threat to India’s security. “People inhabiting our frontiers are our second line of defence,” he points out.
Ironically, the council is headless since March this year after a gubernatorial order that has rendered most such constitutional positions in the state invalid amid a political crisis that ended last month.
According to Danu, the council is empowered to release funds against proposals for works passed by the Block Development Committees (BDCs). “But the BDC is not constitutionally empowered to recommend proposals for building schools, hospitals, roads and other basic facilities,” he adds.
Absent infrastructure has serious economic implications. “Without roads, farmers in high-altitude districts don’t find their profession cost-effective,” says Pangety.
Adds Semwal: “We have not been able to create jobs in the border districts. So, people migrate.”
State minister for panchayati raj and rural development Preetam Singh denies zero development in the border areas since 2000. “The growth is relatively slow-paced,” he told HT.
“That is because of the tough terrain.”