Ghost Village Festival: A timely reminder of Uttarakhand's alarming migration crisis

In the Garhwal region of Uttarakhand (Tehri district to be precise), lies Saur, a ghost village. The Himalayan state, famous for its chocolate (which is nothing like us city folks would imagine) and buransh squash, is witnessing a crisis. As many as 1,048 villages have been declared “ghost villages”, according to the 2011 Census. These villages are either completely uninhabited or have a maximum of 10-12 families living in them.

However, a minuscule ray of hope came in the form of a bunch of youngsters, who were able to reach one of these villages before the government, armed with paint cans and brushes. They were spotted painting the walls of Saur in bright colours under The Wise Wall Project. Spearheaded by Project FUEL and sponsored by Roundglass, the project is based on “wisdom collected from an entire community that no longer lives there,” in the words of the founder of FUEL, Deepak Ramola. He tracked down the former residents of Saur, most of whom live in different parts of Uttarakhand now, heard their stories and collected anecdotes, folk-tales and life lessons to take them back to where they belonged. Painted them on the walls of the houses of the village, that now has a total of 12 families remaining out of 300 — and just like that Saur came alive once again, witnessing a homecoming of sorts.

 Ghost Village Festival: A timely reminder of Uttarakhands alarming migration crisis

Project FUEL gives the world its first village of life lessons — Saur. Image from Facebook/Project FUEL.

Mind you, this isn’t just a group of youngsters who decided to embark on a trip to the mountains, came across Saur, painted the walls and left. FUEL has also created The Saur Fellowship — an ongoing programme under which the remaining kids of the village are being given English and Computer lessons for six months.

The beneficiaries of the Saur Fellowship Programme. Image from Facebook/Project FUEL

The beneficiaries of the Saur Fellowship Programme. Image from Facebook/Project FUEL

Now, four months later, the paint has probably developed cracks, baking in the early winter sun, but Ramola is back with his team, this time with the Ghost Village Festival. The two-day festival commences on 4 November and will see a group of 100 people engage with the handful of families that remain there. When Ramola describes the origin of the festival, it hits close to home because it’s so innately pahadi. “During my research, I was talking to an 83-year-old Saur local. He said his favourite memory of growing up in Saur was a small mela, a fair that used to happen in the village. It ceases to exist now due to massive migration. Therefore, we thought of organising this mela, to bridge the gap between the city-dwellers and villagers.”

A partnered project with Hans Foundation, the objective of this two-day exchange is to generate funds and small-scale employment in the village. In order to not overwhelm the villagers and inundate their homes with large crowds, the number of attendees have been limited to a humble 100. And so, the villagers are ready, with their shops set up, products laid out and hopes high. 

However, it is ironic that a state which was formed so that developmental reforms particular to its challenging geography could be expedited, requires a two-day festival for people to pay attention to its abandoned houses. Facts and figures from reliable sources suggest that these ghost villages might be too difficult to revive. A survey conducted by National Institute of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj indicates the lack of employment opportunities as the primary reason (47.06 percent) of migration.

Scattered economic growth, which is mainly concentrated in the plains, is also one of the reasons why the hilly terrains remain alienated from the rest of the state, even 17 years after the state was formed. The report suggests that the per capita income of four rural districts is roughly half of that of commercial cities like Haridwar and Dehradun. At this point, one could argue that Uttarakhand's 78.8 percent literacy rate, which is higher than the national average of 73 percent, is of little value to the people of the hills. According to a report by Hindustan Times, agriculture ceases to be a flourishing sector in the state and ancestral lands remain barren. While its neighbouring Himalayan state, Himachal Pradesh showed an agricultural growth of 8 percent between 2010 to 2015, Uttarakhand stood at 4 percent, in this study.

With such glaring disparities, is it even fair to ask the village folk to stay back or are the quasi-cultural tendencies of the urban folk at play here? Why should the rural residents be burdened with the sole responsibility of preserving the state's heritage? Ramola has the best answer: "We want to hold them back, but there are kids there who have dreams and aspirations, too, and we are trying to prepare them for the world outside."

With that being said, let us hope for better policies and even better execution, so that saving the hills does not remain a one-man-mission.

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Updated Date: Nov 05, 2017 10:43:30 IST