Towards October-end, as winter sets in the doors of the Himalayas in Uttarakhand, the Kedarnath, Gangotri and Yamunotri deities are carried to temporary shelters in lower altitudes, amidst chanting of mantras and singing of hymns. For centuries, as part of this “seasonal migration”, along with the deities, people from across the state migrated too, to temporary shelters called ‘padav’ — only to return to their homes once the snow melted and the agricultural fields were ready to be tilled.
But slowly, over the past few years, as the six months of winter would pass and April return, the gods would come back, the people would not.
Last year, on one of the several occasions he raised alarm about the migration in the state, Uttarakhand Chief Minister Trivendra Rawat said, “Our villages are slowly getting vacated. People are leaving the hills permanently for want of better lives. The issue of migration is real. It needs urgent attention.”
In September last year, the Uttarakhand government formed a Palayan Aayog, or Migration Commission, to study migration in the state over the past 10 years and to offer suggestions to tackle the issue. Sharing data from its report, released last month, the Commission’s Vice-Chairman, S S Negi, said that over 700 villages in Uttarakhand have been deserted and more than 1.19 lakh people have left their villages in the past decade, with over 50 per cent of them leaving in search of livelihood, and the rest due to poor education and health facilities. Seventy per cent of those who left had moved from one part of the state to another, says the report.
Speaking to The Sunday Express, Negi says the “most staggering” information he noted was the increasing number of uninhabited villages, or as Uttarakhand terms them, “bhootiya gaon (ghost villages)”. Between the 2011 Census and 2017, the Migration Commission found, 734 villages were completely vacated by their inhabitants, while in another 565, the population fell by 50 per cent.
“It is astounding that many people are completely vacating their villages due to lack of basic facilities. That many of these villages are near the international border is all the more worrisome,” Negi says.
During his four-day tour of Uttarakhand border villages last year in September-October, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh too had expressed concern over the migration, calling the people who live there “a strategic asset for us”. He had also promised a study group of experts to look into the needs of people living near the China border, including infrastructure and livelihood, and increase in funds for the Border Area Development Programme.
Some of that migration is, of course, not unique to Uttarakhand, with hill areas not offering enough opportunities. A lot also has to do with the number of men from the state who join the armed forces. Up to 60,000 people from Uttarakhand are currently in the armed forces, and the state has at least two lakh ex-servicemen.
In one of the research papers exploring migration from Uttarakhand during the colonial period, Shekhar Pathak, a renowned historian from Uttarakhand, mentions: “Recruitment in the defence sector during the two World Wars, employment in the survey and forest departments and the opening up of roads and railway links helped in diluting the idea of ‘desh’ (plains) as an ‘alien territory’. Exposure to the outside ‘duniya’ (world) changed the traditional mindset of people. The aspirations of youth (male) shifted from agro-based livelihoods to salaried jobs.”
However, even then, the rate at which Uttarakhand villages are emptying out is worrisome.
In the neighbouring hill state of Himachal Pradesh, for example, the situation is quite different. The practice of horticulture, floriculture, and off-season vegetable production has resulted in a strong rural economy in Himachal, and migration is much less.
Census 2011 put Uttarakhand’s population at 1.01 crore. In the past 10 years, 1,18,981 people have migrated permanently from its 3,946 gram panchayats, as per a report of the state’s Migration Commission. Of these, 28.72% have moved outside Uttarakhand, 0.96% have gone out of the country, and the remaining have moved within the state.
Since that last Census, 734 villages in Uttarakhand have become totally depopulated, of which 14 are within an aerial distance of 5 km from the borders. In 565 villages, population has gone down by 50%; while 850 villages across 13 districts in the plains have seen numbers rise.
Unemployment, lack of good educational institutions, and lack of healthcare facilities have been identified by the state government as the main reasons behind migration.
As per the Directorate of Economics and Statistics data, in 2016, the state had 9.38 lakh unemployed persons. The Health Department data shows that of the 2,700 sanctioned posts for doctors in the state, less than half (1,150) are occupied.
The 2011 Census mentions Baluni, in Uttarakhand’s Pauri Garhwal region, as a small village spread across 50.63 hectares, with 32 residents, including 17 women and four children, belonging to 11 families. Now it has zero inhabitants, with only two structures in Baluni, including a Hanuman temple, remaining intact.
The 2011 Census listed 1,053 such “uninhabited villages”, of the 16,793 in the state. The Uttarakhand Migration Commission has now added 734 more to the “bhootiya” list.
Less than a year ago, from the edge of Banekh village in Pauri district, dozers excavated the hills for a motorable road. Simultaneously, labourers paved a 2-km kuchcha road downwards to Baluni village. Within a few months, a stone-laden rugged road with two serpentine curves had reached Baluni.
About the same time, Shyam Prasad Baluni, 68, packed a few of his belongings, booked a taxi, and taking the same newly built road, migrated out of Baluni — the last of the people to leave the village.
Having retired from the Army as a Naik, Shyam Prasad says he had returned to his native village in 1985 to a life of retirement. Every day he would wake up at 5 am, feed the goats and cows he reared, eat a “good diet” comprising three-four chapatis with freshly cooked home-grown vegetables, and at 9 am walk 2 km to Banekh village to a shop he had rented, where he sold snacks such as biscuits, namkeen, and fresh vegetables from his own small agricultural plot near his house. “Till the late 1990s, I always found company on my way to the store and back,” says Shyam Prasad.
While his wife Usha Devi died giving birth to their son, Prateek, 23 years ago, Shyam Prasad had his five daughters for company and to help him with the daily chores. His six children attended a government school, 2 km from the village. Later, four of his daughters completed their graduation through distance learning. Four years ago, Prateek got a job in the Indian Army while pursuing his B.Com from a college in Kotdwar, 80 km from Baluni. Prateek is now serving in the Army as a Sepoy and is posted in Patiala, Punjab.
When age started catching up around a decade ago, Shyam Prasad says, he wrote “many letters” to the authorities concerned for regular water connection to Baluni. Villagers had to walk up to a kilometre to fetch water for daily use. Finally, they did get a water connection and regular supply came for three months, but then it suddenly stopped. “Phir kab tak letter likhta reheta? Maine bhi ummeed chorh di (Till when would I keep writing letters to the authorities? I too gave up hope),” says Shyam Prasad.
As things didn’t improve, he adds, people kept leaving Baluni.
Around five years ago, when his fourth daughter got married, Shyam Prasad became the lone inhabitant of Baluni. “At the time, my son was in college, and my fifth daughter was studying at a polytechnic in Dehradun,” he says.
What followed was a series of compromises, he adds. “I sold off the cows and goats since I couldn’t manage them alone.” Then came the store. “I receive a monthly pension of
Rs 18,000, so at Rs 400 a month rent, maintaining the shop wasn’t a bad deal and a much needed pass time. However, in the last five years, I would hardly spend five-six hours at the shop. I returned home by 5 pm to avoid wild animals, especially leopards.”
With the houses emptying out, including the one next door to Shyam Prasad’s, where a lock stands intact amidst crumbling walls and premises overrun by bushes and grass, the leopards started straying closer and closer. “I would spot them on the terrace. At least twice I saw a leopard in the verandah,” he says, adding that all he had was a laathi to protect himself with.
A year ago, Shyam Prasad, who had developed heart complications, was taken by his children to a private hospital in Delhi’s suburb of Noida for an angioplasty. He returned after a month to find that Baluni finally had a road, that they had waited for all their lives — albeit kuchcha.
But with the nearest healthcare centre 5 km away, and with limited facilities, his son Prateek insisted Shyam Prasad move out. Eight months ago, he moved to Kotdwar town, into a two-room house — a far cry from the two-storey yellow house overlooking plush green hills in Baluni that Shyam Prasad was born and grew up in.
Pauri District Magistrate Sushil Kumar admits that much needs to be done in the district. “Roads are being built to villages which have a population of 250, or more. We have 500 schemes for water supply but they are stuck due to paucity of funds. In healthcare, against the sanctioned posts of 370 doctors, 210 are currently working in the district. Also, 250 hamlets in Pauri need to be electrified, which will be done by 2019,” he says.
“I don’t remember the exact date I left the village,” Shyam Prasad says over the phone from Faridabad in Haryana, where he is being treated for diabetes. “I only remember having felt confused, and full of remorse. But if I died in the village, no one would know for days. To stay alive I had to leave.”
Still, Shyam Prasad couldn’t muster the courage to pack all his belongings and take them to Kotdwar, since that would mean bidding a final goodbye. So he left most of them behind.
To the Kotdwar house that his son rented for Rs 3,000 a month, Shyam Prasad took only a mattress, a blanket, two bedsheets, a few kitchen utensils, and four pairs of trousers and shirts.
In the eight months since, the 68-year-old hasn’t been able to return to Baluni once. Recently, fresh rain brought boulders down from the surrounding hills onto the approach road —putting more distance between Shyam Prasad and home.
“I had plans of visiting, but I can’t make the 2-km journey on foot since I’m unwell,” he says.
Kaushlanand Baluni, 62, considers himself more fortunate. Though he too left Baluni, four decades ago — for access to “basic facilities like water supply, and proximity to a pucca motorable road” — he lives in nearby Banekh. “Once a year we visit home for the annual puja,” he says. For two days every year, the families of Baluni gather to pay obeisance to the deity that is believed to guard the village and its residents.
That weighs on Shyam Prasad’s mind. The first thing after the road reopens, he says, he will visit Baluni to “ask for forgiveness from the gods” for not being able to attend the puja, held in June this year. “It is the first time in three decades that I missed it,” he says.
Would the future generations return, ever? Shyam Prasad doesn’t want to think about it.
The last Census registered two families living at Saina, with five members, three men and two women. Now that’s down to one family and two people, in a village with traditionally one person per family in the armed forces.
Between 2001 and 2011, Pauri district showed negative population growth, of -1.51 per cent. During the same period, another hill district, Almora, registered -1.73 per cent, as per Census data. The plains districts of Dehradun, Udham Singh Nagar and Haridwar reflected a population growth of 32.48 per cent, 33.40 per cent, and 33.16 per cent, respectively, in that period.
It rained the night before, and the smoke from the forest fires has vanished, giving a clear view from Saina of the Garhwal hills and a horse track running through its chir pine jungles. Yet, the vast swatches of terraced agricultural fields lie fallow.
With its residents having migrated for want of better education, employment and healthcare, Saina, the ancestral village of General Bipin Rawat, the first Army Chief from the Garhwal region, now only has two people — his paternal uncle Bharat Singh Rawat (68), who retired as a Havildar from the Army, and aunt Sushila Rawat (58).
The six houses surrounding Bharat Singh’s are all dilapidated structures. Looking at the chipped plaster wall of one of the rooms in his six-room ancestral house, Bharat Singh says General Rawat visited not too long back, on April 29 this year. “He asked me to take care of the house, and to renovate the damaged portions,” Bharat Singh says.
However, the 68-year-old admits it is tough. After General Rawat’s elevation as Army Chief, a survey was done by the state government to bring a motorable road to Saina. “Bipin wants to build another house in the village so that whenever possible our entire family can spend some time here. But, we don’t even have a motorable road. The survey was done a year ago, but the work hasn’t begun yet,” he says.
Listing the trouble they have to go through on account of it, the 68-year-old says when the gas cylinder comes, “I have to carry it on my shoulders for a kilometre”.
Bharat Singh and his wife have two cows and do a little bit of farming in their land nearby, growing maize, cucumber, bitter gourd etc. But, this too is getting increasingly difficult. Sushila complains of monkeys and wild boars destroying their plantations.
Going by Uttarakhand’s tradition, each of the 21 families of Saina village have at least one family member in the armed forces. Many of those who retire from lower ranks return to their villages, or settle down in towns in its vicinity. But due to the lack of basic facilities, the ones who retire from higher ranks permanently settle down in cities outside Uttarakhand.
S S Negi, Vice-Chairman of the state Migration Commission, says that a policy to encourage ex-servicemen to return to their native villages is in the works. “It will help strengthen Uttarakhand’s rural economy and bring back people, especially ex-servicemen,” he says.
According to Dharampal Singh Bisht, the pradhan of Birmoli gram sabha under which Saina falls, till about two decades ago the region was home to 250 families, but over the years up to 180 families have migrated to the nearby towns of Kotdwar, Pauri, or cities such as Dehradun and Delhi.
“Till the 1990s, Saina was like any other village. With my parents alive and all my three children living in the village, there were seven members in my house alone. The neighbourhood was bustling. We had guests all the time,” says Bharat Singh.
But, over the years, the elderly in the village passed away and the remaining population left in search of livelihoods.
These days, Bharat Singh keeps a rifle ready for any “unforeseen confrontation”, especially with leopards. Besides, they have ‘Tommy’, their pet German Shepherd.
The couple have three children — a daughter, 35, who lives with her husband in Jharkhand; a 33-year-old son who has a government job 35 km from Saina; and another son, 30, who is looking for a job in Kotdwar.
The ageing couple are not sure how long they can go on alone in the village. “Maybe a year or two more, till we can manage our chores by ourselves,” Bharat Singh says.
Explaining why he doesn’t expect any of those who left to return, he adds, “Bipin is the Army General. Other than the facilities he is used to, there are security concerns. I don’t think he, or his family, will ever be able to return. In fact, I don’t expect my own children to return. Yahan par unke liye hai hee kya (What is there for them here)?”
Till 2011, the Census recorded at least one child in this border village of 47 people spread across 47,545.57 hectares. Now its population of 35 comprises only the old.
Uttarakhand shares a 350-km-long “sensitive” border with China and a 275-km border with Nepal. Five of the state’s 13 districts are border districts. The Migration Commission report says that between 2011 and 2017, 14 villages that lie within 5 km aerial distance of the international border became ghost villages — eight in Pithoragarh district, one in Chamoli district, and five in Champawat. Besides, population of six villages — two in Pithoragarh, four in Champawat — fell by 50 per cent.
The sky is overcast, and the Dhauliganga river gushes through the picturesque Niti valley in Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district. Between the Dhauliganga and a kuchcha road leading to the last Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) post near the India-China border, the Niti village appears to be a dense settlement of up to 80 houses.
It is afternoon, and at Niti (3,600 metres height), the last Indian village of the valley near the India-China border, the weather is balmy. While the streets of the village are deserted, glimpses of an elderly woman tilling agricultural land, and an old man sitting in the verandah of his house, provide assurance of human presence. However, the silence that runs through the village nestled in the Garhwal hills is palpable, till suddenly a woman breaks into a traditional song.
The 60-year-old Gulabi Devi is soon joined by another woman, Bhagirathi Devi (65), in singing the Garhwali song.
Gulabi is the only resident of her six-room mud house where she has now lived alone for two decades.
As part of the region’s culture of seasonal migration, in October she moved to Kodiya, a settlement outside Niti valley, for the six winter months. However, when the time came to return to Niti in April, no family member again returned with her.
While her husband lives in Kodiya, one of her sons lives near Dehradun, the other lives in Adi Badri in Chamoli district. One of her daughters lives in Delhi, and the other in Joshimath in Chamoli district.
“If my children return to the village, how will they earn money? I have three grandchildren, but they don’t like it in the village since there’s no mobile phone network and Internet here,” adds Gulabi, with a chuckle.
All mobile phone networks end 60 km before Niti. “If I need to make a phone call, I use the satellite phone in the village (at Rs 1.25 per minute),” she says.
Soon, someone drops by to hand over a plastic bag full of goods that Gulabi’s daughter has sent her from Joshimath. Inside is salt, milk, and a dozen eggs, most of which have ruptured during the 90-km journey to the village. “We don’t get these things here,” Gulabi says.
Till 60 years ago, the villagers engaged in trade with Tibet across the border. While clothes and dry fruits were sent to the other side, salt and gold were brought from Tibet.
In 1960, China’s claim over Tibet region began to impact the Indo-Tibet trade, and the 1962 India-China war ended all hopes of the trade’s revival.
“The village has no young person and no children residing in it,” says Niti gram pradhan Ashish Rana (46).
He adds that in 1967, the Bhotiya community that occupies regions across Uttarakhand, including Niti, was granted the status of Scheduled Tribe (ST). “The ST status helped many get into government jobs, so migration out of the region was bound to happen.”
While rajma (kidney beans) from the valley continues to be an item in demand, with all the youngsters gone seeking jobs in bigger mainland towns, there are not many left to pursue farming.
Laxman Singh Rawat (64), a retired IAF officer who lives in Delhi, is visiting his native village Gamsali, 8 km from Niti. “Since most of the residents here are old, a few friends from the valley and I often set up health camps across the region,” he says. Otherwise, villagers have to travel up to 90 km to Joshimath to avail the facilities.
Says Joshimath sub-divisional magistrate Yogendra Singh, “Two BSNL towers have been proposed for Niti Valley. For security reasons we cannot install towers in border areas.”
Constant migration from border villages like here is rendering the border areas vulnerable — what the state government documents call a “demographic vacuum”. Since it is the last Indian village in the Niti valley before China, special permission is required from authorities to visit it. About 15 km away is Gyaldung, the last ITBP post.
There are frequent reports of Chinese transgressions in the Barahoti region in Chamoli district. As per the state government data, between 2006 and 2011, there were 37 such bids. ITBP officials say that during the Doklam stand-off last year, the frequency of these incidents had increased and that in July 2017, twice People’s Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers entered Indian territory.
Eight months since Home Minister Rajnath Singh’s visit and assurances on border area development, there have been few substantial changes on the ground.
Back at Niti, Rana says that at Joshimath, the nearest town, life is different, people are “free”, there’s education, employment, healthcare, and mobile phone communication too. Each time he leaves the village for the “mainland”, Rana adds, he feels like “a bird being released from a cage”.