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Lone ex-jawan guards birthplace in Uttarakhand from turning into a ghost village

In his youth, Prasad protected the country’s borders. Now he guards his birthplace in Pauri Garhwal — alone for the past four years.

india Updated: Feb 21, 2017 09:43 IST
Arvind Moudgil
Arvind Moudgil
Hindustan Times, Pauri Garhwal
Ghost village,Exodus from the hills,Migration
Shyam Prasad stays all alone at Baluni village in Pauri district of Uttarakhand. (Arvind Moudgil/HT Photo)

The twisty 2km trek from the paved road to a quaint mountainside village in Uttarakhand’s Pauri district is hard to detect. It is overrun by thickets, bears lurk behind the bushes; and leopards too.

Besides the wild calls of the jungle, an eerie silence surrounds the trail to Baluni, 50km from Pauri town, which looks like any of the quintessential ghost villages dotting this side of the Himalayan landscape.

“Hark, who goes there?” a deep baritone warns as one approaches the spattering of homesteads at the end of the slog. That’s a resounding warning shot, strong enough to freeze hungry cats and intrepid reporters.

From the vantage point of the village temple, that still stands tall amid the ruins of razed stone-and-wood houses, the voice emerges.

The lone sentinel is Shyam Prasad, a 67-year-old retired soldier, but for whom Baluni would have been any of the more than 340 abandoned villages in the district.

In his youth, Prasad protected the country’s borders. Now he guards his birthplace in Pauri Garhwal — alone for the past four years.

Vimla Devi (sitting on the first ladder) and Pusha Devi are the only occupants left in Bondul village in Pauri Garhwal district of Uttarakhand. (Arvind Moudgil /HT Photo)

About two decades ago, this village thrived with life with 15 families. But with the passage of time, all of them, save the Prasads, migrated to cities and towns for employment and “better life”.

Read | Decoded: Why people fled Jaisalmer’s ghost villages 200 years ago

He stayed put at Baluni with his family after retirement in 1985. When his wife died and his five daughters were married off, he was left alone in the village.

His son, who is also in the army, visits him occasionally. The other visitors are people of nearby areas who come to pray at the temple, once in a while.

“Had the government addressed the problem of drinking water, some families would have stayed back,” Prasad said.

Read | Delhi, Gurgaon, Gautam Buddh Nagar favourite with migrants: Economic Survey

The village depends solely on natural water sources that dry up in summer. Prasad has requested the state government, the Prime Minister, and the President for help. “No one cares.”

The government could not lay a 1km water supply pipeline but, ironically plans to build a 2km pathway to connect the village with the state road at Banekh.

Ratan Aswal, a member of Palayan ek Chintan, a think tank that studies the migration pattern, blamed “absurd” government policies and promises for the exodus from the hills.

“It ignored the demand for a road of more than 3,000 people in eight villages of Sarbadiyar valley in Uttarkashi. But want to give a road to Baluni, whose primary requirement is water supply,” he said.

Baluni has its fair share of quirks, frequented more by wild animals than humans. “A black bear tore down the wall of a neighbour recently to steal honey from a beehive,” Prasad said.

About 40km north of Prasad’s village lies Bondul, another unhappy hamlet. It has two inhabitants, both women — Vimla Devi and Pushpa Devi.

Read | A combination of aspiration and desperation is fuelling migration in India

Baluni and Bondul are reflections of the situation in Uttarakhand, facing an exodus of its rural population to an increasingly urbanized landscape. Demography experts call it a haemorrhage of rural regions that has left formerly vibrant villages blighted.

Pauri has the highest number of ghost villages in a state abound with more than 1,000 abandoned rural habitations.

First Published: Feb 21, 2017 08:04 IST