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How Abandoned Villages In Uttarakhand Are Posing A Major Threat To The State

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By Shreeshan Venkatesh:

Note: This article has been republished from Down To Earth

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 at least four times. 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 (see ‘Vicious cycle‘).

“The issue is of overall 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 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.

“My son has shifted to Gurgaon where he earns about Rs 7,000 a month. I have begun having health troubles but there are no medical centres nearby. Given the chance, I would move to a town,” says 65-year-old Bimla Devi, who is one of the only 11 people that populate Bandul, a village near Pauri.

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 more true 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.

Dheeraj Kumar of Bandul village is one such person who has been supporting himself solely through social welfare schemes. “I have sent both my children to Pauri to stay with my sister and study. Here, I can easily manage without working in the farms. I make Rs 7,500 for 50 days of work in a year on MGNREGA projects and can procure rice, wheat and coarse grains at Rs 3 and Rs 2 and Rs 1 per kg,” he says.

Leopards On The Prowl

Tracts of untended land have given birth to another problem­: increased human-animal conflicts. This has further fuelled migration. Barren land in Uttarakhand is different from barren land elsewhere because shrubbery quickly takes root. “With the decline in population in villages, we have seen a marked rise in incidences of conflict with wild animals. Populations of wild boars and monkeys too have increased and have made farming difficult. They damage practically everything that is grown,” says Virendra Singh, a farmer in Chamoli district.

The far more feared conflict is the one with leopard. As farming and the number of livestock in the hills have reduced, leopards have started descending the slopes and wandering into human settlements in search of food. Camouflaged by the wild vegetation that has infested vacant farmlands, leopards can easily reach habitations without being sighted and their attacks have become far more frequent in recent years. According to Management of Human Wildlife Interactions and Invasive Alien Species in India 2015, a report published by Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun, the problem of leopard-human conflict has become chronic in Uttarakhand while in other parts of the country it has reduced. On an average, 50 people are killed every year by leopards in the state, says the report.

Depleting Water Table

A depletion in the water table of the state 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 has 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).

Course Correction

Policymakers believe 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, a total of 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.

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