Seven kilometres ahead of Kanatal in the Tehri district, three large boards announce that a slip road is being built under the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana. This narrow road leads to Saur, once a bustling village but now eerily silent and desolate. Roofs have caved in and weeds have taken over untended land. Of the hundred or so families that own land and houses here, just 12 can be found now. The rest have migrated to the plains - for good.
Among those who still live here are some musicians who play traditional drums and bagpipes in nearby hotels and resorts. Sohan Das, who plays the dholak, is happy about the benefits tourism has brought to the village. He also fixes water pipes and does some menial labour in the village that fetches him money to run his six-person household.
Still, the desire to move out is unmistakable, and he is ready to trade his life in the verdant hills for one in a slum in some dust-choked city. The Das family has no land other than the house it owns. The musician father has not passed the craft onto his children and is desperate to get his son placed in a "service company", which can only happen in the plains. He is willing to see his son uprooted from his moorings, and to possibly see him once a year, for the sake of a better life for him. "There's nothing here other than the beauty you see around you," he shrugs.
As I turn to make my way back to the cottage, Das wants to know if I can get his son a job.
It is not uncommon for visitors - even tourists and trekkers - in Uttarakhand to be accosted by total strangers for a job. Lack of employment opportunities, zero innovation in agriculture, absence of proper education and medical facilities, and growing water scarcity have robbed the mountains of their residents. Every day, busloads of people lock up their homes in the Garhwal, Kumaon and Johar regions, in the low hills and the high mountains, and come to the cities in the plains in search of an easier life.
This has made cities in the foothills, like Dehradun and Haldwani, boom towns. Property prices have shot up. The infrastructure has more or less crumbled under the weight of the extra population. Even distant cities like Lucknow, Delhi and Jaipur now boast of a sizeable population from Uttarkhand. And those who venture out are reluctant to come back to the old hard life.
Sanjeev Upreti's father moved to New Delhi before he was born. The question of whether he'll ever want to go back to his village brings a wry smile to his face. "We gave all our land away, there's nothing there to go back to. After living in the city for so long, I don't think our families can live without the basics," he says.
In an attempt to boost the state's economy, the Centre offered tax breaks for companies that set up units in Uttarakhand (along with the other two northern hill states of Himachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir). That did attract sizeable investments into the Haridwar and Rudrapur belts, but the hills didn't benefit. Tourism provided a lifeline but the devastating floods of 2013 spooked visitors, which dealt a crippling blow to the local economy.
According to the 2011 Census, nearly 1,100 villages in Uttarakhand have seen a decline in population, some to a degree that their inhabitants can be counted on one hand. According to some historians, such decline, especially in the Pauri and Almora districts, was witnessed for the first time since census began in 1871.
Houses in these ghost villages have fallen into decay from disuse. Springs have dried up. Farms are untended. Armies of monkeys roam freely, destroying all that comes in their way. Why just monkeys, wild boar and even leopards roam freely in the villages.
Shankar Datt, a postman in Lohaghat in the Pithoragarh district, has seen the demographic change in his 30-plus years of service. "When I travel to deliver post now, I see only the elderly living in villages. Either them, or young couples with toddlers who are on the brink of migrating out of their home towns," he says.
Money orders, once the lifeline of the hills, have fallen sharply. Bank officers say even online transfers are in decline.
And the local culture is dying a slow but certain death. Kumaoni, one of the principal languages of Uttarakhand apart from Garhwali, is recognised as a "vulnerable" language by Unesco's Atlas of World Languages in Danger.
In the hills, the importance of a stable job is drilled into the mind right from childhood. By the time boys near the end of their teens, they become paranoid for work - any work. The hills have for long been a fertile ground for recruitment in the armed forces, but the intake is small compared to the unemployment. This obsession plays on people's mind all the time.
A winding road from Dehradun to the foothills of Dhanolti takes me to Satyon, the biggest village in the cluster of villages in the valley. Seema Uniyal, a teacher and beautician, meets me on the main road and we make our way to her village, Uniyal. The village has just 40 to 50 families living there, where there were once as many as 200 families.
Most families, Seema says, have left for the sake of a better future for their children. The neighbouring village, Haveli, has only two families left behind, and the rest, about 20 houses, lie abandoned.
Ganeshi, like most others in Uniyal, is defensive about her people and her village. "We have electricity, water and the school is nearby. We don't want anything else," she says defiantly.
It is only when I mention employment opportunities that she begins to open up about the issue of migration from the village. "The young don't want to stay back and they won't unless the government creates jobs for them," she says. "I think ever since the roads got built, people have found the easy way out of moving to bigger cities." She misses the irony in her statement, though.
Ganeshi's three daughters are studying in Dehradun. After a while, she asks me if I'm married. When I say no, she looks alarmed. "What is the point of all this education if my daughters are going to marry late," she says. As much as it is inviting, progress comes with its own clouds of suspicion.
Two blocks away, Ashish Uniyal stands at his home's doorway, looking at the rain. He is home for the summer from Chamba, a neighbouring town where he is pursuing his graduate degree. A large bed occupies most of the space in his room. Posters of Hindu deities are all over the blue-distempered walls, with space only for school textbooks on wall shelves. Will he want to come back after completing his degree course? "No," he says emphatically.
Prakash Pant, state Bharatiya Janata Party general secretary and former Uttarakhand Vidhan Sabha Speaker, says that youth like Ashish are not alone. "Till a decade ago, 35 to 50 per cent of those who migrated would come back to their villages. Not any longer. Migration is fast becoming permanent," he says.
Some people say the consequences of the permanent migration will be disastrous. Hotelier Rajeev Lochan Sah, who also runs a newspaper called Nainital Samachar, feels it has huge ramifications for the state's 65 per cent forest cover, besides its eroding culture and languages. "It is extremely important to have native people take care of their hills. Outsiders don't understand the hill life and they are only going to ruin the mountains," he says.
In fact, Sah says that during the agitation to separate Uttarakhand from Uttar Pradesh, one of the demands was that outsiders should not be allowed to buy property in the state. The mountains, he explains, regulate all of north India’s weather and, if not preserved, can have a catastrophic impact on climate and the environment.
It has a bearing on border security as well. Uttarakhand being a border state, the worry is that these abandoned villages would create a no-man’s land of sorts for neighbouring countries to move in on. Some years ago, there were fears that Leftist rebels from Nepal had sneaked into Uttarakhand — the abandoned villages could provide them sanctuary.
“Government policies have pitted man against nature. There is no stake-holding, no sense of ownership. No one wants to come forward and douse forest fires,” says Sah.
He fears that despite all the incentives and schemes, nothing can be done to change the mindset of those who want to move out of the hills. “How can you hold someone back when they don’t feel rooted to their own soil,” he says with tears in his eyes.
Does the state government have a plan to arrest the trend?
Chief Minister Harish Rawat’s residence at Bijapur House in Dehradun is packed with visitors even at 8 pm. His media adviser, Surendra Kumar, takes me through a labyrinth of rooms before we finally find a quiet corner to discuss the issue of “ghost” villages at length. Kumar is instantly defensive about the state of affairs. “You must understand that there are 300 villages that need to be rehabilitated. The others are not completely abandoned, there is just a decline in population,” he says.
These 300-odd villages, he says, have been nearly depopulated owing to deterioration caused by various natural calamities like heavy rains, cloud-bursts and low-intensity earthquakes typical to the region. The rehabilitation project needs the central government’s approval and Rs 800 crore. But with a shift in leadership at the Centre since 2014, the Congress-led Uttarakhand government, according to Kumar, is suffering deeply. This is the first time I see a political spin to the migration problem.
Dressed in a crisp white shirt with only a golden pen in its pocket for embellishment, Rawat sits behind a large desk, addressing sundry requests and queries. A man wants to know if his wife can be transferred to a school in the same district where he is posted. Another wants Rawat to bless his newlywed son and his bride. The four chairs facing his desk are all occupied. Rawat takes turns to speak to the people in his office and asks them to clear the room before he turns to me.
“Uttarakhand,” he tells me, “has been dealing with the issue of migration since its birth in 2000. This issue has been a priority for our government.” He discusses various schemes that have been introduced to rejuvenate agriculture and horticulture, education, healthcare and ecology. “We would be the first state perhaps to give a water bonus to those who harvest rainwater.”
These are all meant to make the hills livable, though the results are yet to kick in. Innovative schemes like Mera Dhan, Mera Gaon, where residents will be paid rent for building and maintaining buildings, sound promising.
Aware that able-bodied men have moved out of the hills in large numbers, Rawat says women are the backbone of the state’s economy. “In two years, I should be in a position to say that half of the state’s businesses would be run by women,” he adds confidently.
Some others feel that the problem calls for more innovative solutions. Shekhar Pathak, the historian who has traversed the hills of the state several times on foot, says that Uttarakhand, despite gaining statehood, has become a “bad copy of Uttar Pradesh”. But he feels that things could still change. The key, for him, lies in making the lives of the remaining population in Uttarakhand better and accept that migration will be a part of the process. “We need a unique development policy for the hills, perhaps not one like Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness, but not those like the fast-paced development model of Gujarat either.”
One option is to use the state’s pravaasi (non-resident) population as a resource, he says. Raghunandan Singh Tolia, the former chief secretary of Uttarakhand, too feels the diaspora could be relied upon to rehabilitate the villages. The real issue, he says, arises from the abandoned land and houses that cannot be claimed by the state or developed. “They remain in a state of disrepair so long as the diaspora does not come back and take interest in its own roots.”
He adds that organisations like the Centre for Aromatic Plants in Selaqui near Dehradun have attempted to arrest migration by offering aromatic plants to farmers as a plantation alternative. “This could be scaled up, but only if families in the villages agree to take this up,” he says. But since landholdings are small and the soil is semi-fertile, the produce is limited, making villagers desperate to move away from agriculture.
According to a report in Mail Today, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh launched its gaon wapasi campaign at Dehradun in May. Under this programme, titled Mera Gaon, Mera Teerth (my village, my pilgrimage), RSS will hold regular meetings with non-resident Uttarakhandis across the country and appeal to them to return to their villages and hometowns at least once a year.
Sah finds the desire to own houses in cities has destroyed the spirit of community living. This is on ample display in villages like Pangot, where villagers have sold their lands to resort owners and there are more “outsiders” than native village folk. “Once they sell their land, they don’t know what to do with the money. You’ll find men working as chowkidars at the same properties they once used to own.”
Twenty kilometres from Nainital, Pangot is a bird-watcher’s paradise. Tourists from cities walk around the lanes inside the village. Despite the posters about not littering, these lanes are dotted with stray wrappers and other garbage — the telltale signs of callous tourism.
Besides the tourists, the other striking feature is the construction in the village. Sprawling farmland has given way to tall, concrete buildings that will soon become resorts. A young woman walks ahead of her group of friends, explaining to them in perfect English why she chose to buy land here. A sustainable, community-driven model of tourism seems to have escaped Pangot.
Nima Joshi, a local, stops a Tata Sumo carrying vegetables to chat with the driver. Her family is one of the few who have not sold their land yet. When I ask her if she would also sell her land, she becomes a little resentful. “I’m sure those who have sold their land are happy with their lives. But how will we earn money if we don’t grow crops? The money won’t be enough to sustain us in big cities,” she says.
People seem to stay back for lack of alternatives rather than any rootedness to their village.