As the sun dips beyond the hills and twilight bathes Bandul village in Uttarakhand’s Pauri district, Vimla Devi hurries to finish off her household chores to retire for the night.
Nightfall will bring out the leopards from the nearby bushes and there is none Vimla Devi, 65, can call for help if the big cats attack her. The other person in the village – around 250 km from state capital Dehradun – is Pushpa Devi, also in her sixties.
The two sexagenarians are the only people left now in what was once a bustling village of over 65 families; this is Bandul’s tragedy and Uttarakhand’s peculiar predicament.
But Bandul is not an isolated case.
In Uttarakhand’s hilly interiors, far removed from the development taking place elsewhere, rural settlements are fast turning to ghost villages with people migrating to the plains in search of employment and for education.
Official statistics confirm the spurt in migration from the hills in the past one decade.
A study conducted by the directorate of economics and statistics in 2011-12 revealed that nearly 1,100 villages do not have a single person left. Officials said that in the past three years, the number of such ‘ghost villages’ is bound to have gone up.
Nestled in the lap of the Himalayas, Uttarakhand was carved out of Uttar Pradesh in 2000 with the aim of ensuring development in the hills, which comprise 88% of the state’s geographical area.
Nine of the state’s 13 districts are completely in the hills while two are partially hilly. According to official data, around 35 lakh out of the 1.1-crore population live in the hills.
“Successive state governments have failed to make policies focusing on the hills. Other Himalayan states have similar issues then why cannot Uttarakhand adopt good points from other hill states?” questions Anil Joshi, chairperson of the Himalayan Environmental Studies and Conservation Organisation, a non-governmental organisation.
Government data shows that out of 664 villages with negligible population in the Garhwal region, 341 are in Pauri district alone.
According to officials, the problem of migration is acute in Almora, Pithoragarh, Chamoli, Rudraprayag, Bageshwar and Tehri districts, which are also some of the state’s most underdeveloped areas.
Former bureaucrat SS Pangti feels Uttarakhand needs to adopt an economic model like that of Himachal Pradesh.
“Tourism in the state has not gone beyond Nainital and Mussoorie and the government is talking about having industries in the hills. Migration could only be checked if horticulture and small-scale fruit production units are supported in a big way in the hills,” Pangti adds.
To stem migration from the hills, the state government recently unveiled a plan to throw open some of its hill villages to domestic and foreign visitors to create a niche tourism circuit in the scenic state.
Tourism is main revenue earner of the state with lakhs of people visiting the state every year. However, most of the visitors are pilgrims who travel to the fabled four shrines collectively known as the ‘char dham’.
Vijay Jardhari, a green activist from Tehri Garhwal, says migration has become rampant since agriculture is no longer beneficial in the hills where farmers have to depend on the monsoons.
Tappar Singh, 52, resident of village Kunja in Chamoli district left farming a few years ago and now runs a sweetmeat shop. Heading a family of four, Singh says he can no longer feed his wife and children from farming.
The issue has already taken political colours with the Rastriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the ideological mentor of the opposition BJP, chalking out plans to link people of hills origin with their roots.
The hill-plain divide is stark in the estimates of the economics and statistics department, which found that per capita income is very high in the plains and nearly half in the hills.
Surender Kumar, the spokesperson for chief minister Harish Rawat, said the government was seized of the matter and taking steps to stop the migration.
“We realise that lack of job opportunities is leading to migration. Therefore, the government has introduced a separate industrial policy for hills. This policy will accelerate pace of development and create jobs in the time to come,” Kumar told HT.
Back in Bandul, Vimla Devi and Pushpa Devi point to houses which have not “heard children cry and adults talk” for a long time.
“We want to die in our ancestral village… anyway, what options do we have?” Vimla Devi says.
She was merely echoing the sentiments of many other people, too old and rooted to their places of birth. For them, there is just that bit of life left in Uttarakhand’s ghost villages.