Fruit belts of Mukteshwar, Ramgarh give way to posh resorts and cottages
Hundreds of hamlets dotting Uttarakhand’s scenic fruit belts of Ramgarh and Mukteshwar have emptied out. There is not a single village in the twin fruit belts where there are no abandoned houses, or, where residents don’t have poignant tales of peasants committing suicide to tell.dehradun Updated: Jun 05, 2017 21:19 IST
RAMGARH (NAINITAL): Ashok Dhaila, 40, a resident of Dak Bangla village here, points to the lock at the front door of a house.
“Once it used to hum with activity. This house now lies abandoned. My cousin, its owner, migrated years ago after selling his apple orchard,” Dhaila says. “Apple trees had stopped bearing fruit as winters turned warm. Wild animals would destroy other fruits,” he sighs.
Dhaila says, just like his cousin’s family most other families grappling with livelihood crisis owing to the chronic failure of the fruit crops have migrated from his village.
Dak Bangla though is no exception.
Hundreds of hamlets dotting Uttarakhand’s scenic fruit belts of Ramgarh and Mukteshwar have emptied out. There is not a single village in the twin fruit belts where there are no abandoned houses, or, where residents don’t have poignant tales of peasants committing suicide to tell.
“They end their lives in desperation,” rues Nain Singh Dangwal, 42, a social activist who also owns an orchard at the picturesque Sunkiya village just four km’s drive from Mukteshwar. “They are forced to take the extreme step after exhausting whatever money they had got after selling their orchards,” he adds.
Cottages and resorts mushrooming in the twin fruit belts is another reason behind peasants selling their orchards. Also, this “ugly concrete jungle” has badly affected the micro climate leaving natural springs---the only lifeline of the locals -- drying up.
Hemant Singh Sanga, 39, an orchardist at Jamrani village in Ramgarh recalls that bad times for fruit growers began in the 1990s when apples ceased to grow as the warm winters replaced the chill required for their fruiting. “Other varieties of fruit trees like peach, apricot, plum, cherry etc do bear fruits but they fetch hardly any income as armies of wild animals--monkeys, wild boars, bear , langurs, and deer destroy them,” he says. “Farmers tried to grow vegetables but they too were destroyed by wild animals.”
As a result, like elsewhere, most of the families have also migrated from Jamrani. “There are families where only elders are left. There is nobody to look after them. When one of them dies, hardly anyone is available to take their bodies for cremation,” regrets Sanga.
Yet, people continue to migrate or are forced to eke out a living as daily wagers as horticulture that once used to fetch them “really good returns” is no longer lucrative. “Had age been on our side,” says Rakesh Dhaila, 47, a resident of Dak Bangla village, “we too would have migrated with our families as we can’t pay even our children’s school fee.”
Shorn of green cover, Dak Bangla resembles the surroundings of Jhuthia, a nearby mountain village, which appears blotched and barren. “Some 20 cottages owned by retired bureaucrats, politicians and other influential people from Delhi, Mumbai and elsewhere have come up here in the past several years,” says Kailash Singh Mehra, 60, a local resident.
“The period saw some 50 families leaving this place for good after selling their orchards.”
Like Ramgarh, the once leafy Mukteshwar fruit belt, too, has now been replaced with resorts, hotels and cottages. “The remaining orchards in the entire hill top areas here have also been sold. I think it is a matter of time before these orchards too would be replaced with a concrete jungle,” says Dangwal.
Hargovind Singh Nayal, an orchardist at Letibunga, a village near Mukteshwar, says except for a few, hardly any of the locals benefited by the sale of orchards. “They are the ones who earned huge commission by facilitating the sale of orchards to wealthy outsiders. Today, they lead a luxurious life while the life of the majority of those who sold their orchards is completely ruined,” he adds.
Bhagwati Nayal, 25, a housewife from Letibunga says most men in her village have wasted the entire money the sale of orchards fetched, in drinking. “They are now left without work and loiter around drunk. Many men from our village have died due to drunken brawls,” she says. Driven to desperation, women in Letibunga recently launched a campaign against the liquor shops that have mushroomed in Mukteshwar.
Jagat Singh Harnwal, 66, a horticulturist at Bohrakot village in Ramgarh says the wealthy outsiders purchased orchard after orchard in the Ramgarh and Mukteshwar valleys drawn by their scenic charm that matched that of Kashmir. “They were mostly high profile politicians, retired bureaucrats, journalists and other professionals from Delhi and elsewhere,” he recalls. Besides, “big business houses like the Tatas, Birlas, the Singhanias and the Scindias also colonised the swathes of terraced lands” once covered with leafy orchards.
“Later, most of them had their cottages and resorts built in those orchards”, says Harnwal.
According to Dangwal, most resorts dotting the fruit belts were originally built by their owners for residential purpose. “Later, they started minting money using these cottages as resorts either illegally or in connivance with officials and politicians taking advantage of the weak land laws,” he says, referring to the Uttar Pradesh Zamindari Abolition & Land Reforms Act (UPZALRA), which stands enforced in Uttarakhand after it was carved out of UP in 2000.
Shamsher Singh Bisht, a veteran social activist, says the politician-bureaucrat-builder mafia kept those laws “deliberately weak” to pave the way for the indiscriminate sale of land from which they all benefited. He points out that barring Uttarakhand, in all other Himalayan states including neighbouring Himachal, land laws are “tough and, therefore, the farmland owned by the poor remains well protected.”
Vandana Singh, joint magistrate, Nainital, insists that the land laws (UPZALRA) strictly prohibit conversion of land purchased by outsiders for residential purpose, for any other use. She, however, agrees that the law “is being misused, thanks to the negligence on the part of officials.” The official also agrees that the issue is serious and “merits a thorough probe as one official can’t undo the wrong committed by others over the years.” Official records suggest that some 71,000 hectares of agricultural land in the state has been converted for nonfarm purposes since its formation 17 years ago. “The real figures would be even higher, which is worrisome as farmland in this mountain state is not even 12%,” which continues to decrease, thanks to the hills witnessing the fast paced urbanisation”, says Bisht.
The massive sale of orchards did bring in cash for the farmers but it also spelt an acute socio, economic and environmental crisis. Only a few poor farmers could make use of the sudden inflow of cash by investing it somewhere or in setting up business. “The majority (60%) of them splurged it on boozing, or, in providing expensive dowries like motor cycles or swank cars to their daughters in marriage,” says Dangwal.
According to him, many who turned broke committed suicide. “There were about 35 cases of untimely deaths reported from the Ramgarh area alone in the four years since 2010,” he says. “Except for four or five, the rest were obvious cases of suicide.”
Dr Subrat Sharma, Head, Climate Change at Pt G B Pant Himalayan Environment and Development Institute, Almora, agrees that warming of winters resulted in a sharp drop in the apple crop. “Warming of winters together with heat radiated by cottages and resorts also badly affected the hills’ micro climate resulting in natural springs drying up”, he opines,” he says.
“Yet, whatever little water is left in natural springs is supplied to cottages and resorts by Jal Sansthan as those owning them are influential people,” regrets Devendra Lal Shah of Jhuthia.
Adds Rama Nayal, a housewife at Letibunga: “During the day, the womenfolk work on fields. In the night we stand around the public tap, which mostly remains dry as the entire water is supplied to nearby 50 cottages owned by the wealthy outsiders.”
S K Pandey, General Manager, Jal Sansthan, Kumaon region, denies that farmers are discriminated against in distribution of water. He admits that those who are resourceful do extract water from natural springs. “We can’t stop them unless water rights are clearly defined”, says Pandey. “In that connection, a water policy is currently being formulated.”