Year after year, the tribals of Kinnaur in Himachal Pradesh braved icy weather to get to the ballot boxes and vote.
Even though they knew the results were in, the winner declared and, often, the new government already in power.
The rest of the country couldn’t wait for the snow to thaw in the unreachable heights along the Indo-Tibetan border, so the weather had pretty much sealed the fate of Kinnaur's 78,000-plus people.
Till local politicians noticed that the turnout — despite the relative fruitlessness of the voting — remained consistently high, and, at over 65 per cent, considerably higher than the national average.
In the run-up to the 2004 national elections, local leaders began demanding that polls be held simultaneously in Kinnaur and the rest of Himachal Pradesh.
They finally got their way. Elections are now held here in May — when even the upper reaches are accessible once again.
“Until recently, we only saw our politicians when there was a natural disaster of some kind,” says 22-year-old Gyan Negi, a shopkeeper in Rekong Peo village, about 250 kilometres north-east of the state capital of Shimla. “The rest of the time, we didn't matter at all. Now, thankfully, that is changing.”
But the decades of neglect will be hard to fix.
With no development and just one college in the entire district, there are no employment options and generation after generation remains bound to small, ancestral apple orchards. Some run tiny provisions stores.
The only way out is to leave Kinnaur for the bigger towns and cities.
“The richer tribals send their children out to study,” says Ranjit Singh Negi (65), a retired IAS officer from Nesang village. “When the kids are well-settled, they call the rest of the family out too.”
Negi, who went to college in Shimla, is one of the few who returned to try and fight for his people. Most never look back.
Left behind on the icy hilltops are the poor and the old.
“We were abandoned to our fate,” says 24-year-old Pankaj Kumar of Kalpa village, who tends a small apple orchard for a living. “Isolated in every way from the rest of the district and state.”
Kumar had once dreamt of becoming a computer engineer.
But in a tribal district where only 5 per cent of the population is involved in non-farm activities — most working in government offices in the small towns — there was little hope of him finding a job at home.
“I have no confidence to face the world outside Kinnaur,” says Kumar, a BA dropout from the district college. In nearby Spillow village, Jamuna Negi (25) sweeps the floor of her neat little grocery shop.
“There isn’t a single gynaecologist at any of the government hospitals or health centres in the district,” she says.
“Complicated pregnancies and even Caesareans had to be referred 120 kilometres away to Rampur in Shimla district.”
But we now have hope for the road ahead, she adds. She’s not just being metaphorical.
The government has finally begun restoring the arterial Hindustan Tibet road across the hills.