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Threat of abandoned villages

Threat of abandoned villages
A political storm is brewing in Uttarakhand. And as is the case with most political storms, at its centre is a long-standing socio-economic issue: migration. But unlike the inter-state migration witnessed in the Garhwal region in the second half of the 20th century, migration now is intra-state­—from rural areas in hilly districts to urban centres in the plains. 

In the past two months, Uttarakhand Chief Minister Harish Rawat has publicly spoken on the need to arrest migration. Protest marches have been held, public seminars organised and a bill drafted to stop the hills of Uttarakhand from losing their inhabitants. All indicators point to the making of the biggest socio-political movement in the state since the agitation for separate statehood in the 1990s. The severity of the situation can be gauged from the fact that 9 percent of the villages of the state are virtually uninhabited. As per Census 2011, of Uttarakhand’s 16,793 villages, 1,053 have no inhabitants and another 405 have a population of less than 10. The number of such ghost villages has reportedly risen particularly after the earthquake and flash floods of 2013. Recent media reports put the number at 3,500.

Take the case of Saniyar, a set of twin villages nestled in the hills, 20 km from Pauri district headquarters. The villages are completely deserted. According to residents from a nearby village, it has been about six years since Saniyar’s residents abandoned it. Trees and undergrowth have swallowed both the villages as well as the clearing in the forest that once served as their access paths. The few houses that occupy the space that is supposed to be Saniyar are all locked.

Bitgaon, located half-a-kilometre from Saniyar, is a livelier village. But it is not half as lively as it was a decade ago when it had 150 homes and a population of 500, says resident Puran Singh, a sexagenarian farmer. “Just like Saniyar, the exodus in Bitgaon too started in 2000s. The population has now come down to 175,” he says.

Migration is not new to Uttarakhand. It reached a peak in the 1980s and fuelled the demand for a separate state, which everyone hoped would lead to economic growth and check migration. But census data and other recent reports show that the rate of migration from the hilly areas of the state has increased after it was formed in 2000. Only the destination of migrants has changed and the phenomenon has turned into a self-propagating cycle. Experts say that migration leads to abandonment of villages which causes degradation of land, makes villages unlivable, and further fuels migration. In fact, the migration to cities has been in such great numbers that Uttarakhand has recorded the highest increase in the share of urban population in any of the Himalayan states of the country while its rural decadal growth rate is the lowest.

“The issue is of over all growth of the state. There are people who say there is nothing wrong in our farmers leaving the hills to find better opportunities. But instead of asking what is wrong in migration, we should ask why is there still a need to migrate,” says environmentalist Anil Joshi, who recently undertook a 20-day march across Uttarakhand as part of the Gaon Bachao Andolan (“save village movement”) to address the issue of migration from villages.

Lopsided growth
Uttarakhand has witnessed a high rate of economic growth since its formation. But despite nine of the 13 districts in the state being situated in the hills, the lion’s share of this increased revenue has been received by districts that lie in the plains of the state. The state government’s Annual Plan 2013-14 shows that the per capita income in the villages is much lower than in the plains. According to the state’s Directorate of Economics and Statistics, only one of the hill districts has an average per capita income higher than the state average while the three districts in the plains occupy the first three positions. And since economic prosperity has largely been limited to the three districts in the plains, the hills are contributing the most to the migrant labour force.

Talking to Down To Earth, the Speaker of Uttarakhand’s Legislative Assembly, Govind Singh Kunjwal, who has been involved in efforts to check migration, said that lopsided development, rather than a complete lack of development, is to blame for the failure in stemming the outflow. According to a survey sponsored by the National Institute of Rural Development, about 88 percent of the households in the 18 sample villages in Pauri Garhwal and Almora districts had at least one member migrating for employment. The survey also found that about 90 percent of the migrants from the two districts are long-term migrants (who stay away from home for over one year).

The other major reason is the lack of healthcare facilities. This is as true today as it was before the formation of the state. The healthcare centres that have opened are blighted by a severe lack of medical professionals and serve, more often than not, as referral centres to hospitals in cities such as Dehradun and Nainital. With much of the young and able-bodied youth having migrated, it is the elderly who have to live with shoddy healthcare facilities. And they too want to move out. 

Improved connectivity, education
To its credit, the state government has greatly improved connectivity to villages in the hills. Of the 5,852 km of roads that have been built between 2010-11 and 2014-15, almost 4,000 km have been built in rural areas. Access to primary education has also improved significantly, with all hill districts having at least one primary school for every two villages, as per the Union District Information System for Education (U-DISE) 2013-14. But similar growth is not visible in the number of high schools in hilly areas. This means that most villages have a de facto urban dependency if they want a good education. And, ironically, the increase in the rate of migration in Uttarakhand can, in part, be attributed to the developmental achievements of the state. As people attain education, they seldom find suitable employment in the hills and have little or no skills, or interest, in persisting with agriculture. Even for those who stay behind, it is a matter of compulsion rather than choice. “We wish somebody could find us an accommodation in the plains. Farming has stopped completely and it is only a matter of time before everyone moves away,” says 63-year-old Pushpa Devi, Bimla Devi’s sister-in-law.

For outsiders, particularly people from the cities, the hills are a symbol of solitude and peace and the phenomenon of migration simplistically linear, often interpreted as simple village residents deserting their heavenly abodes for crowded and polluted cities. The view from inside is quite different and far more pertinent. “What outsiders fail to see is that villages are communities and work only as communities. If even a third of the village is gone, it becomes difficult for the rest to stay back and put the pieces back together,” says Pushpa Devi. This is truer of agriculture than anything else because active farm plots interspersed with inactive ones are difficult to manage.

Barren landholdings
Landholdings in Uttarakhand are typically small and segmented. According to the Watershed Management Directorate of the Uttarakhand government, the average landholding in the state is about 0.68 ha, which is divided into several patches. This is much smaller than the national average of 1.16 ha per farmer. This means villages that have witnessed migration in the recent past now have to deal with several plots of untended land interspersed with active farmland. Untended land turns barren or is covered with by resilient weeds and shrubs (such as Lantana and Parthenium) that are very difficult to clear. Moreover, such land is being increasingly managed by immigrants from Nepal. “Owners prefer leasing out their land to Nepalese labourers instead of people from their own village. This gives them a sense of security that the land cannot be usurped,” points out Ajay Joshi, a farmer from Munsiari in Pithoragarh district. For instance, Arjun Singh, a former labourer from Nepal has leased about 0.4 ha close to Pauri town at Rs 10,000 per year where he has been farming for the past three years. “We used to be seasonal labourers, but as pieces of land started being vacated, many of us stayed to continue farming on leased lands from those who had left,” he says.

A report by the Sashastra Seema Bal, a paramilitary force that guards India’s borders, in October claimed that 128 families from Nepal have procured documents that prove both Indian and Nepali citizenships. Such factors have caused a perceptible decline in agriculture, which is still the backbone of the rural economy and employs more than 60 percent of the population of Uttarakhand. According to the Union Ministry of Agriculture, the net sown in area in the state has declined by around 10 percent, from 769,944 ha in 2000-01 to 701,030 ha in 2013-14. 

Experts cite another reason for the decline of farming in the state—extremely effective implementation of welfare schemes like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). “Farming in Uttarakhand has traditionally been sustenance agriculture. But now farmers work under MGNREGA and use the money to buy food which is available at very low costs after the enforcement of the Food Security Act. Farmers now see agriculture as an activity not worth the effort,” says Prakash Mohan Chandola, president of non-profit Bharatiya Gramotthan Sanstha, which works for rural development in Uttarakhand.

Depleting water table 
A depleting water table is also possibly linked to migration. Although there has been no official study on the correlation between the drying up of water sources and migration, it is interesting to note that the three districts that have registered the highest migration rates are also the districts that have witnessed maximum depletion in water sources. “Earlier, there was no shortage of water but of late there has been a seasonal shortage even in drinking water, let alone water for irrigation. There are quite a few people who have left villages due to this,” says Sunil Singh, a village resident from Chaukutiya tehsil in Almora.

Agriculture in Uttarakhand is primarily rain-fed, with irrigation capacity limited to the plains in the state. “Agriculture in the hills and mountains of the state is only possible due to the existence of springs and mountain streams. There is very little in terms of irrigation infrastructure in the higher altitudes. The streams and springs act as a lifeline,” explains Ravi Chopra, professor and water management expert at People’s Institute of Science in Dehradun. In recent years, there has been an unprecedented drying up of streams and springs which have created a water stress in several regions of the state.

According to P C Tiwari, professor of geography at Kumaun University, about 37 percent of the natural springs that contribute to the Ganga river system are rapidly drying up. “Perennial streams have now become rain-fed streams and several rain-fed streams have dried up. About eight percent of the first order springs, which do not have any tributary, have dried up at a rate of about six-seven kilometres per year. Then there are also perennial springs that have become seasonal and this has impacted the availability of drinking water, water for sanitation and irrigation in many regions,” he says.

Tiwari’s observations have been corroborated by the Uttarakhand Jan Sansthan recordings. According to a study of 500 sources of water over 11 districts of the state, over 70 percent of the water sources had depleted by more than 75 percent in the four districts of Pauri (almost 86 percent),  Almora (over 76 percent), Tehri (over 75 percent) and Pithoragarh (almost 71 percent)

(This is the first of a two-part series. Views expressed are strictly personal)
Shreeshan Venkatesh

Shreeshan Venkatesh

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