Course correction: Checking migration
Policymakers believe that addressing the decline in agriculture should be the first step towards checking migration because farming is the main occupation in the state. “Any issue that plagues the villages cannot be resolved without solving problems related to agriculture. The only reason Uttarkashi and our valley of Ravai have not witnessed the kind of migration seen in other hill districts is because farming is still popular among the youth,” says Vijaypal Rawat from Uttarkashi which saw a decadal population growth of 11.89 percent between 2001 and 2011.
Though environmental factors have started playing a role, the issue of migration remains primarily socio-economic. The good news is that farmers are starting to realise that most of the concerns arising out of shrinking of villages can be tackled by banding together as against carrying on separately. The idea of cooperative farming is slowly gathering steam in rural Uttarakhand as a viable alternative to traditional individual farming. One such farm, Gauri Swayam Sahayata Samuha has 26 families collectively farming on about two ha of pooled land in Gaurikot village about seven kilometres from Pauri. Supported by a Rs 5 lakh loan taken from A R Cooperative, the group has invested in horticulture, fish farming, poultry farming, and vermiculture. The collective makes use of new technologies like hand-held power tractors to increase efficiency in the farms.
“When Nepalese labourers and farmers can successfully run rented farms, why can’t we? And as for being a collective, it just made more sense. One of the big problems here is the wildlife—leopards, pigs and monkeys. It can be hell if you have to stay up night after night to look over your crops but it becomes manageable if the responsibility is shared,” explains Anil Rawat, a former farm labourer and founder of the collective.
Janardhan Singh Rawat of Uligram panchayat narrates a similar story. Families in the village have started cultivating mandwa (a traditional foodgrain) and mushroom on a collective basis and have been reaping the benefits. “Everything from soil-related work to harvest is being done collectively in our village. We have been producing mandwa flour for the past year and today have a demand of about 45 tonnes. The effort has been so successful that even families who have migrated have begun asking that their fields, now gone barren, be included in the cooperative,” says Rawat.
In fact, even the government is supporting pilot projects incentivising cooperative farming. In Marora, situated at an altitude of 1,300-1,395 m, the government is experimenting with collective farming to reclaim land that has gone barren. Pooling together 8 ha held by 48 farmers, the government is encouraging plantation of horticultural crops such as pomegranate. “We have been providing tissue-cultured specimens of pomegranate to farmers at Rs 45 per sapling which includes transportation and mulching sheets to reduce losses involved in traditional farming. After harvest, the profits are shared on a per tree basis. As a result, though the land is held by 48 families, 80 families have benefitted in Marora. Moreover, water management with the help of governmental irrigation schemes for pipe laying and lift-irrigation has improved due to sharing of resources,” says Naveen Singh Barphal, deputy project director, Integrated Livelihood Support Project division at the watershed management directorate in Pauri.
Although schemes have worked in improving the living conditions of village residents in a few areas, there is also a perception that the initiatives are inadequate because they are often misaligned with the needs of villages. “The lack of facilities and environmental burdens are driving migration because they contribute to an overwhelming sense of helplessness among farmers. There is a need to eliminate this helplessness. Unfortunately, most schemes are centralised and target-oriented, not need-oriented, and often provide support that the farmers don’t need,” says Akhilesh Dimri, senior project manager of Reliance Foundation, working at Jakol village in Uttarkashi.
Bill to arrest migration
The state government has taken cognisance of the problem of migration. On October 6, it released a draft version of a land consolidation (chakbandi) bill to push for revitalisation of barren agricultural land holdings in the hills by consolidating small and scattered holdings.
“The draft is a solid plan to arrest migration and encourage farming which is necessary in the state. We hope to use a carrot-and-stick policy to incentivise consent for consolidation,” says Anil Bahuguna, a veteran journalist and member of the drafting committee. The government has invited suggestions from the public and will introduce it in the Assembly in January. According to a statement made by state agriculture minister Harish Rawat on October 6, 200 villages have been identified to spread awareness about land consolidation.
“Chakbandi is our brightest hope to bring development to the hills and I hope it is implemented successfully,” says Ganesh Singh Garib, a noted social activist who has been the pioneering voice in the movement for land consolidation in Uttarakhand. Addressing a two-day seminar on migration, titled Palayan-Ek Chintan (“Rethinking migration”) in Pauri on October 25, Uttarakhand Legislative Assembly Speaker, Govind Singh Kunjwal, said the only way to tackle migration is by launching a popular movement similar to the one that resulted in statehood. The Speaker ended his speech by invoking a popular phrase of the statehood movement—Jal, Jungle, Zameen (“water, forest, land”). However, it is ironical that these are the three resources responsible for driving people away from the hills.
(This is the second of a two-part series. Views expressed are strictly personal)