For Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a third ‘M’, beyond Muslims and minorities, exists that can no longer wait to receive his attention. This is the epic-scale migration out of India’s mountain states, and I don’t mean Jammu and Kashmir.
Uttarakhand became the 27th state of the union of India on November 9, 2000, after a long-drawn people’s struggle. As much as 86% of the state is mountainous, and those villages, which once used to cackle with children’s laughter, now present a sorry picture of mass-abandonment and desertion.
In the decade between 2001 to 2011, over 950 villages were completely de-populated. Over 3,500 villages were left with a population of less than 50.
Anger pours from every heart as locals wonder why the state turns a blind eye to its chronic under-development. Extreme water distress across much of Uttarakhand cannot be separated from the crisis of livelihood that plagues young people. Arvind Singh, a pradhan in Bhainsora village, some ten miles outside Pauri, told me that for youth and senior citizens, staying on in the village is an act of extreme majboori.
Water shortages for months, farm work that is unviable and often dangerous due to wild animals, and the absence of decent off-farm jobs have mixed into a cocktail of distress.
It is causing both young men and women to migrate out of the state in large numbers.
In the neighbouring village of Siku, 25 of the 55 local families have elderly members, aged 70 or above. The majority are ex-servicemen and pensioners with some income but no one to look after them. The primary health centre in Siku, which caters to seven gram sabhas from Kandheri to Ghadyal, has been without a doctor for months.
Although a pharmacist was appointed recently, village elders recall that a ward-boy and the safai karamchaari would dispense medicines to the sick, who only visited the PHC out of sheer helplessness. The largely dysfunctional PHC building is used for the most part as a night shelter by wage labourers working on the road outside.
Many hoped that the outmigration, which started in the ’80s, would be stalled – if not reversed – after Uttarakhand was granted statehood. To Uttarakhandis, the change seemed wrapped in the promise of a new life and livelihoods.
However, all that change delivered was an unending turnover of chief ministers. Successive governments turned a blind eye to the distress out-migration, an issue that had had formed a raison d’etre for statehood in the first place.
The years since then have coincided with a massive expansion in communications and mobile connectivity. On social media and 24×7 cable television, young girls from the hill districts encountered another life, one less blighted by the drudgery that has only increased with extreme climate variability and constantly depleting rainfall.
In leaving, they see deliverance from a youth wasted in carrying hundreds of gallons of water over long distances and over multiple trips each day.
Rural millennials see a future of sorts in the rapidly urbanising Doon valley. Young women across the state, regardless of education, cannot wait to say adieu to their punishing lives in the hills as water-bearers for the family that leave their feet, hands and arms numb with fatigue.
In village after village, women are spurning offers of marriage with the rich landed peasantry, choosing instead to move in with any pahari of modest means living in the plains of Dehradun, Delhi or elsewhere in the country – as long as the place does not remind her of her daily enervating hardships of village life in the hills.
The absence of young people in hundreds of villages in Pauri Garhwal has been the death-knell for traditional, community-based responses that worked for centuries to keep wild animals off farms and away from human habitation.
Many village elders now live in splendid isolation with domestic pets, in dread of wild animals raiding their farms and threaten their safety. Elderly women pine for sons who left and never returned.
Seeing their crop and produce destroyed and ravaged by wildlife season after season, most villagers gave up on farming, in some cases completely.
Monkeys and langurs wreaked havoc by the day, the wild boars and leopards had a field day at the farms during the nights.
Cultivation spread over fragments of step-land became untenable for the farmers, a majority of whom belonged to the older generations who were battling seclusion, demoralisation, poor health and worse.
The state’s response was to promulgate new legislation for chakbandi or land consolidation. The law, however, like many others, remained on paper and was never implemented on the ground.
The desertion of villages is a proof of the government’s stark political and economic failure to fulfil it’s covenant to citizens in an ecologically fragile and politically sensitive region.
The state governments should internalise and understand that the state has no identity without its mountain villages. The state will have to roll up its sleeves to stem the tide of outmigration, which has assumed such frightening proportions that two districts have consistently witnessed negative growth in population from 2001 to 2011.
Without a determined policy impetus, it is possible that in the next 18 years, the state’s people will be confined to the limited plains, leaving its thousands of villages to vegetate as one vast jungle, where only wild animals hold sway.
A senior journalist living in Dehradun laments that the presence of a battery of heavyweights from the state in New Delhi – among them the National Security Advisor, the Chief of Army Staff and a couple of former chief ministers and now ruling party MPs – have done nothing to bring hope to the mountain state, let alone stemming the unstoppable tide of migration from its hills.
Kumar M. Tiku is an independent researcher and author of Humans on the Run – of exiles and asylum.