On the morning of 15 February, a group of six will leave Boundul village on a long trek along a narrow path to cast their vote in Uttarakhand’s assembly elections.
There is a reason they will make the journey together through dense forests. As the only adults left in an empty village at the bottom of a hill, they are each other’s sole defence against a growing list of threats to their daily life.
“Akele jayenge toh baagh kha jaayega (if I go alone, a leopard might attack me),” says Buna Devi, one of Boundul’s three remaining women. But nothing will stop her from casting her vote. “We have to go. Voting is our right.”
Devi has cast her vote in all three assembly elections since the formation of Uttarakhand in 2000. Her reasons for voting increase with every term.
Boundul is one of the 341 villages in Pauri district with just a handful of residents. There are 664 such villages in the Garhwal region. Worse, nearly 1,100 villages in Uttarakhand— 88% of the state is hilly — do not have a single person left.
Migration from the hills is one of the biggest issues facing political parties in this election. Yet, it’s a problem they have no clue how to handle.
There are a number of reasons why these villages are emptying out. After the first batch of working-age people left for a better life in the plains, the remaining residents struggled to carry on with farming, their only source of income.
“Pine trees spread wild in the fallow farms, monkeys settled themselves on these trees and began to destroy whatever crop we managed to grow,” says Birbal Singh, gram pradhan of Balori, a remote village in the foothills of Pauri.
As Pine trees encroached further into the villages, so did the surrounding forest’s wildlife. “Leopards, bears, wild boars, you name it,” adds Singh.
Waves of young people have left these villages over the years to work in cities. “Dehradun, Haridwar, Ghaziabad, Noida, Faridabad, Mumbai — anywhere they can find a factory,” says Basanti Devi, mother of two sons in Balori. One works in a factory canteen in Gurgaon. The other will follow soon.
“Most of us find work either in factories or restaurants,” says Bipin Kumar, one of Balori’s 12 residents below the age of 25.
“The worst thing about the migration from this part of Uttarakhand is that you will find our people doing the pettiest of jobs for the most meagre salaries because of the complete lack of option back home,” said a district official in Pauri.
Those remaining in these villages no longer have faith in governments, whether it’s Congress or BJP at the helm. “Jahan haath chala jaayega, wahin vote lag jaayega,” says 70-year-old Lalita Devi. Most people of her generation have followed their children to the cities.
A hundred families lived in Balori in 1980. Most of their typically multi-storey wooden houses have crumbled to the ground. Giant locks hang from the colourful doors still standing.
The villagers have tired of trying to seek government help.
“We need more time,” says Mathura Dutt Joshi, the Congress spokesperson. “The Congress took a number of steps to counter migration — offer a bonus of Rs 500 for every quintal of produce to farmers in the hills, send doctors to remote medical centres, open industrial training units for the youth, create jobs in the forest sector. We could have done better had the BJP not disturbed the process by trying to topple the government. ‘Reverse migration’ is the Congress motto for this election.”
Says Munna Singh Chauhan, BJP MP and spokesperson: “We have several plans in mind — launching small and micro enterprises in the hills, pushing tourism by building better roads and bridges, promoting organic farming, setting up plantations of apple, ginger etc.”
The leftover people in the hills have heard these promises before.
“Our lives don’t change with change in governments,” says Naveen Juyal, one of the three men left in Boundul. All of them support their families with occasional work under NREGA. It’s too late for these men to leave the village looking for jobs. They hope their teenage children will take them along once they grow up and go out. “Either that or when the animals take over.”