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Impact of forced migration: No village for young men in Uttarakhand

Lack of proper education and facilities force people out of their homes in Uttarakhand, leaving behind the old and infirm

india Updated: Dec 28, 2017 09:21 IST
Anupam Trivedi
A dilapidated house in Uttarakhand’s Pauri Garhwal district.
A dilapidated house in Uttarakhand’s Pauri Garhwal district.(Arvind Moudgil/HT Photo )

Kothar appears to be frozen in time. Creepers grow out of cracks on brick walls, small houses with locked doors are on the verge of collapsing, reptiles, not all of them friendly-looking, slither across grassy courtyards in this once-bustling village in Uttarakhand’s Pauri Garhwal district.

Kothar is one of the many “ghost villages” of the Uttarakhand hills – waiting to be overrun by advancing forests as the people migrate to bigger towns and cities in search of livelihood.

Those who have chosen to stay behind are the old — emotionally attached to their native places — and the infirm. “I have no option but to live like this. The people who have money are moving out to Pauri and other cities. My sons also don’t want to return here and why should they?” says Vishveswari Dangwal, a 76-year-old widow for whom the hills are home.

Vishveswari Dangwal, a 76-year-old widow for whom the hills are home. (HT Photo)

Kothar today has just eight inhabitants, including Vishveswari’s pet cat. It has frequent visitors, many of them nocturnal – leopards, jackals and wild boars.

According to a state government study, there are 664 such villages with “negligible population” of 0-10 people in the seven districts of the region. Pauri alone has 341 villages. Then, there are the 3,900 other villages in the hilly state that have a population of 50 or less.

Sorrow of the hills

The so-called distress migration is the biggest and most ironic story in Uttarakhand. The state was carved out of Uttar Pradesh in 2000 to ensure equitable growth of the hills, which comprise 88% of the state’s geographical area.

More than 17 years later, the grand idea seems defeated, the dreams of the hill people dashed.

There are official statistics to show how much the hills have lagged behind on the development index. The per capita income of Haridwar, a district in the plains, is Rs 1,22,172 but in the northern-most hill district of Uttarkashi, the figure is just ~59,791, according to an IndiaSpend report quoting the 2014-15 Statistical Diary, Uttarakhand.

Nine of the state’s 13 districts are completely in the hills, while two are partially hilly. According to official data, around 3.5 million of the state’s 11 million people live in the hills.

The reasons for the migration are many. Individual land-holdings are small, making it increasingly difficult for farmers to feed growing families. Lack of private industries means the scope for an alternative livelihood is scarce.

Tappar Singh, 52, from Kunja village in Chamoli district, left farming a few years ago. He now runs a small sweetmeat shop in Galnau, a hamlet on the way to Gairsain, the proposed new capital of the state. Heading a family of four, Singh says farming isn’t viable anymore.

For many, lack of government infrastructure – education and healthcare facilities, for instance – are big factors that make living in the hills an unattractive proposition.

Activists said that healthcare centres often function without doctors as government officials find one excuse or another to avoid transfers to the hills. Last year, the government even announced incentives for doctors who take up hill postings — with little effect.

“Uttarakhand is a 17-year-old state and youngsters are the assets for the state. But sadly, they are moving out to cities and working for as less than Rs 4,000– 5,000 a month,” said Ratan Aswal, who heads the non-profit ‘Palayan Ek Chintan’ which aims to sensitise authorities and locals on the issue of migration.

Govt response

For years now, distress migration has been a major political issue raised by all parties, especially ahead of elections.

Before the assembly polls earlier this year, measures to combat “migration” figured in the promises of the two major political parties — the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress.

Haunted corners of the hills
Distress migration, which has left most houses in the state empty, has been a major political issue raised by all parties, especially ahead of elections
Four districts of the state – Udham Singh Nagar, Haridwar, Nainital and Dehradun contribute little more than 50% of Gross State Domestic Product (GSDP)
Credit Deposit Ration (CDR) in hill districts is 33%, while it is 75% in plains as per latest report of National Skill Development Corporation. The lesser CDR indicates bank lending less amount for entrepreneurial activities in the hills.
In terms of literacy, the hills outnumber plain districts. Hill districts have 72.7% literacy in comparison to 64.6% that’s in the plain districts n Haridwar and Udham Singh Nagar districts are considered plain districts. Dehradun and Nainital are partially plain districts.

After taking the reins of the state as head of a BJP government, chief minister TS Rawat set up the Rural Development and Migration Commission to look into issues that trigger migration from the hills. Commission vice-chairman SS Negi, who held several rounds of discussions with villagers in the hills, said distress migration was a complicated subject and there was no quick-fix solution.

“Mostly, it is lack of good schools that is forcing people to leave, besides limited options of livelihood and (threats from) wild animals. People want a better quality of life,” Negi said. The Commission, he said, will complete a scientific survey by March 2018 and coordinate with different departments to find a “tailor-made solution” to the problem.

Former Congress chief minister Harish Rawat claims that during his tenure, he had announced a minimum support price for the produce of hill farmers, for the first time in the state.

“I (also) tossed the idea of hemp cultivation to get high-quality industrial fibre and now the chief minister (TS Rawat) has also proposed the same. I made a road map for development of the hills which everyone will be forced to follow,” the former chief minister said.

The BJP government is also looking at horticulture to boost the hill economy.

“You will see a horti-tourism model taking shape soon. It will help in checking forced migration as it will directly link with revenue generation,” horticulture minister Subodh Uniyal said during the assembly winter session that concluded on December 8. But such projects and policies by successive governments have done little to stop waves of people deserting their once happy abodes in the hills.

Tell-tale numbers

The 2011 census figures show a marginal growth in the population of the state, barring the two districts of Pauri Garhwal and Almora, where the numbers dipped. These districts are also the worst affected by migration. For instance, Pauri’s population was 6.97 lakh in 2001 but fell to 6.87 lakh in 2011. Similarly, 6.32 lakh people lived in Almora in 2001 and by 2011, the number came down to 6.22 lakh.

As per a study conducted in 2011-12 by the Directorate of Economics and Statistics (DES), an estimated 1,100 villages have turned into ‘ghost villages’ in the hill state. Almost 863 people out of every 1,000 migrated from rural areas, the report showed, leaving the state with close to 16,700 ghost villages.

A dilapidated house in Uttarakhand. (Arvind Mopudgil/HT Photo)

The 2011 census also threw up other significant numbers. About 10% of the houses in the hills — 3.36 lakh — were lying vacant and another 17,000-odd were completely abandoned out of a total 33.8 lakh houses surveyed. What is more worrying is the steady rise in the numbers of vacant houses – the number was 2.22 lakhs in 2001, which grew to 3.36 lakhs in 2011, a 51% increase.

Since then, the numbers have only increased, activists said. But there are examples to show that all is not lost yet. Till 2015, Barsu village near the fabled Hindu shrine of Kedarnath shrine had turned into a ghost village. Vijay Semwal, 40, was one among those who left Barsu to find an alternative career in Rudraprayag town. That didn’t work out and he decided to return to his village even as his family advised against it.

“People said ghosts live in the village. I was also afraid but was determined to go. It was not a smooth start. There were water pipelines but no water…but I managed. Today, I have cows, hens and I make some ~20,000 month,” Semwal told HT over the phone.

Semwal’s example shows there is that little bit of life left in the hills, waiting for a spark to trigger a full-blown reverse migration that will, perhaps one day, restore the glory of the “land of the gods” that is Uttarakhand.