The village is under a thick white blanket. Hurling gets cut off from the rest of India every time it snows. And for the past three days, it has snowed heavily in the upper reaches of Spiti, Himachal Pradesh.
So, the news that Lahaul-Spiti has topped Indian districts with a child sex ratio of 1013 works like an icebreaker. “Really?” exclaims Yeshey Dolma, who teaches in the village school. “I didn’t know this. And how would we know? No newspapers reach Spiti between October and May.”
NS Bist, Professor, Himachal Pradesh University, who specialises in demography and population studies, says women, who work in the fields, are the family’s mainstay. “Cultivation in the tribal districts of Lahaul, Spiti and Kinnaur is carried out by women between April and November. Also, for the last four years, the government has implemented the Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act more forcefully. This has reflected in Census 2011.”
Butite Jagmo, 11, one of Dolma’s students, hasn’t just out-studied her fifth-class dropout dad Chunni Lal, but her unlettered mother and grandma as well. Butite’s mother wasn’t allowed to attend school. “I was made to cultivate rice instead. I have ensured it doesn't happen to my daughter,” she says.
At the senior secondary school in district headquarters Kaza, 25 km from Butite's home, in subzero conditions, a group of girls is sweating it out on the basketball court. “They are my power-puff girls: they always beat the boys at studies and sports,” says their history teacher Dikit Dolker.
At home, the boys have it easier. School or no school, girls begin their day cooking rice for the family, says Nawang Dumgzo, a Class X student. “I then wash the floors and fetch water as the pipes get frozen. After school between 10 am and 4 pm, I return and again cook dinner,” adds Dumgzo. “All that boys do is while away time playing or watching cricket,” she says.
Since the last Census in 2001, people in Lahaul-Spiti have realised that the “sincere” girls also take better care of their elders, says sociologist Sonam Angdui, from Spiti’s erstwhile royal family. “Boys take to drinking in their teens, drop out and become taxi drivers or construction contractors. By the time they are 40, they turn into alcoholics.”
Religion also affects the region’s demography, says Kishore Thukral, author of Spiti, Through Legend and Lore. Between 700-800 monks inhabit Spiti’s Kee, Tangyud, Dhankar, Tabo and Kumgry monasteries. Most villagers send one of their children to embrace monkhood. “Which could be why Lahaul-Spiti’s population hasn’t grown as rapidly as other districts,” says Angdui.
In the 2011 Census, the population of Lahaul and Spiti actually dropped from 33,224 in 2001 to 31,528 in 2001.
Celebrated agricultural scientist MS Swaminathan says Spiti’s arid weatherand the capacity to keep seeds dry is ideal for multiple crops. “If we develop its marketing potential the district can turn into another Switzerland,” he says.
Much before Swaminathan, a certain Rudyard Kipling praised Spiti with these words in the classic Kim: “Surely the Gods live here…This is no place for men.”
He could well have been talking about the age of the girl child.