Water and hopes down to a trickle in Uttarakhand's hilly areas as residents ignored by state abandon their homes
With natural water resources gradually drying up and households still waiting for drinking water connections, Mason village in Uttarakhand's Pauri district is one of worst-hit by migration, earning the moniker of ‘ghost villages’
According to the 2011 Census, there are just under a 1,000 uninhabited villages in Uttarakhand
Pauri district has 38,764 abandoned houses. Ekeshwar, where Mason village falls, is among the worst-hit blocks
Lack of water supply, employment opportunities and healthcare facilities is some of the major problems faced by villages like Mason
Residents of Mason village claim they abandoned their homes because water supply was very irregular in pipelines laid by the government
The nearest government health centre is 35 kilometres from Mason village and often the doctor on duty is absent
Editor's Note: The idea of a 'ghost village' is now a reality in Uttarakhand, where remote villages in the hills lack basic amenities like roadways, health centres and schools. This seven-part series will examine the root cause of this migration and the measures being taken to tackle the problem.
Dehradun: It’s been seven years since Rachna Thapliyal left her home in Mason village in Pauri’s Ekeshwar block with her frail mother-in-law and two young children in tow. With natural water resources gradually drying up and households still waiting for drinking water connections, Rachna’s family was one of the last ones to leave.
The Himalayan village once had a bustling population of 100 families; today 20-odd people remain mostly the old and infirm. "The water crisis worsened with time. For so many of us, it was difficult to spend hours fetching water from a pond for our basic needs. We couldn’t even imagine taking a bath every day,” says Rachna, who now lives in Dehradun while her husband works in Kuwait. The family had to part ways with their village due to the increasing water crisis despite having sufficient income.
Residents of the village say that the authorities did lay pipelines for two taps in the village which were meant for public use. But the water supply was very irregular.
Rachna’s mother-in-law Parvati Devi who spent a few months in the village last summer says that the taps were non-functional the entire time. "They were just meant to show that developmental work is being carried out in the village, no one has come to check whether the taps are working or not," she says.
"It wasn’t easy for us to leave,” Rachna adds, quickly.
“We didn’t abandon our roots without a fight,” she says, recalling how when complaints to authorities fell on deaf ears, 19 families decided to pay for a tank to store water.
But they couldn't find enough water to store.
"Some years, rainfall was sparse. In peak summers, the water level in the pond would reduce drastically. There were days the tank barely had enough water to drink. A family was allotted a bucket each. Water feuds were frequent,” says Rachna.
It wasn’t just their day-to-day life that was impacted due to lack of water. Residents also shied away from grand ceremonies or feasts. The reason: more guests would mean more water was required.
"In the hills, most of the festivals are community-oriented. People love to gather and celebrate things like the harvest season or arrival of a baby. We had to stop all that because everyone wanted to conserve whatever little water they had,” says Rachna.
Parvati reminisces about old traditions that were also lost as migration from Mason and nearby villages continued. "Around Makar Sankranti in January, kids would distribute yellow flowers in exchange for foodgrains from households. On the last day of the month, khichdi was made from the foodgrains and shared among the residents,” says Parvati with a wry smile on her face.
She adds, "When we were uprooted we lost not just our homes but also the sense of community we grew up with. Our children are living a very different childhood than we did."
Without sufficient water for irrigation, agriculture also took a hit. Most of the fields are now barren, says Rachna.
“Fields that did have standing crops had to be guarded against animals like boars and monkeys. But the young men in the village were the first to go. Without them, who would keep watch over the fields?” she adds.
Incidents of wild boars damaging crops in the hills are common. According to media reports, farmers in Nainital had to resort to playing songs on loudspeakers in 2015 to keep away wild boars. Notably, the Centre had declared wild boar a vermin in Uttarakhand for a year in 2016. This meant that no permission was required to kill a boar if it was found roaming on agricultural lands.
As agriculture became more and more infeasible, people needed other sources of income. So they left, one after the other. Some moved to more accessible districts in the plains while others went to neighbouring states like Uttar Pradesh or the national capital. A recent report by the Uttarakhand Rural Development and Migration Commission also highlighted lack of income opportunities in the hills as one of the key driving factors for migration.
Across Uttarakhand, migration from the hilly areas has left scores of villages empty, so much so that the villages have earned the moniker of ‘ghost villages’. According to the 2011 Census, there are just under a 1,000 uninhabited villages in Uttarakhand. Pauri district has 38,764 abandoned houses. Ekeshwar, where Rachna’s village falls, is among the worst-hit blocks.
Some government schemes have focused on providing income opportunities to those in the hills. One of these much-hyped schemes include aiding villagers to turn their houses into homestays. The focus has, however, been on developing homestays in villages on routes frequented by tourists, such as those that fall on the annual Kailash Mansarovar yatra route. In many other villages, people like Rachna and Parvati say that they have never heard of a 'homestay'.
Lack of basic amenities driving migration
The rate of migration from Mason has increased in the past decade. Rachna says that her son, now 11, completed his primary studies in a school in Mason which then had about 50 students from three villages. Today, crumbling walls and locked doors greet visitors to the school. The lone government inter-college in the region is also on the brink of closing due to lack of students.
Citing another example, Parvati says that health services in the hills are also threadbare. “The nearest government health centre is 35 kilometres from our village and often the doctor on duty is absent. Most people have to go to state capital to seek treatment. Without these basic facilities, one can’t live in the village even if they want to,” she says.
In the last year alone, several incidents in the hill state were recorded where women in labour had to give birth on the road for lack of an ambulance. Such cases are common not just in remote districts like Pithoragarh and Champawat but even in the state capital, which is eyeing to become a smart city.
The author is a Dehradun-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters
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