Flanked by hills and with a steady stream of the Sutlej running through the middle is Ka. The hamlet, with a few, isolated houses perched on uneven terrain, is a blink-and-miss for tourists heading towards Lahaul-Spiti and Leh. But with the state voting on Saturday, Ka has had visitors.
Last week, a team from the Election Commission visited Ka, in Himachal Pradesh’s Kinnaur district, and set up a booth for its 16 voters — the lowest voter count among the 7,881 polling stations in the state. The election officials also helped the residents with their voting and Aadhaar cards.
It’s this that Tenzin Gonpo, 27, and his wife Gulab Poti, 26, are excited about — the visitors, not so much the elections. Among the 16 voters of Ka, the couple run a dhaba that usually serves as the first point of contact for outsiders.
“We love tourists. It is nice when they stop by and we interact with them. In many ways, they are our link to the outside world,” says Tenzin, who is voting in his first election.
Most of the 16 on the EC’s voter list are extended relatives of Tenzin and Gulab.
The echoes of the high-pitched election campaign in the rest of the state almost die out by the time one gets to Ka, a village of around 50 people that’s part of the Kinnaur Assembly constituency. The BJP has fielded Surat Negi, who is up against sitting Congress MLA Jagat Singh Negi.
Both the parties have rolled out their best arsenal — Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah have made multiple visits to the state and the ruling BJP has made a string of promises, from Uniform Civil Code to 8 lakh jobs. Not to be left behind, the Congress has promised Rs 1,500 to women between the ages of 18 and 60 and assured that it would bring back the Old Pension Scheme.
But Tenzin says the people of Ka have few expectations of the government and political parties, and therefore, aren’t disappointed.
“Elections are important, but we have to earn our own living and cannot rely on government benefits. For us, it is about survival. First, we survive the rains, then we survive winters. And somewhere through all this, we make our living. So we are happy if someone comes and meets us,” says Tenzin, sitting outside his dhaba, watching the sparse traffic below.
The sound of silence is broken only by the rustle of the cold wind and the occasional army trucks and tourist vehicles on the highway below.
The nearest health centre is in Nako, 30 km away, and the closest specialty hospital is in Shimla, around 300 km away. The closest medical shop is also 30 km away.
People in Ka usually travel to villages on lower elevations such as Spillow to stock up on their vegetables and groceries. On a Monday evening, the hamlet was largely deserted, except for Tenzin and Gulab, and two elderly residents. With no broadband or WiFi networks, villagers largely rely on mobile internet — though the signal is usually patchy.
“If I have to make an internet call, it is better if I cross the road. I have to do the same if I have to listen to a politician’s speech.
So I don’t hear them much,” jokes Tenzin.
A broken mud-step spirals to a two-floor building right next to the highway. It used to be a primary school but it has been closed for years as the village has no children — it has now been refurbished as a polling booth.
While satellite TV has helped villagers keep in touch with political events, they prefer a different pace.
“There’s not much politics that happens here. Modi factor? Hmm… People in our family regarded Virbhadra Singh highly. He was the one who built Himachal and we were told he would visit these areas. We keep hearing about the BJP but we have not seen their big leaders in person. Are they promising schemes for women? But here we are by ourselves,” says Gulab, sipping tea.
Tenzin, who studied Tibetan culture in Dharamshala, returned to Ka to set up the eatery four years ago. He says Gulab and he built it without any government assistance or loans. The electricity supply is regular and rarely interrupted. “Water is an issue, though. The supply comes from a nearby station and we use a motor to pump the water and store it in cans. We have good road connectivity. But that is not for us. The army needs to have access and a lot of road infrastructure is built for them. It will be nice if the government has a dedicated scheme for us. We may be less in number but we also matter,” says Tenzin.
The Election Commission can’t agree more.
“People tell us 16 is a small number, but for election purposes, it is a significant number since the policy is to focus on every single voter. The people of Ka are crucial to our democracy and the administration will ensure they are helped at every step,” said Abid Hussain Sadiq, DC Kinnaur.