A Kumaon Diary: The assault on the hills 

The rich from the plains are buying up land in the hills for lavish resorts of the future. They are also using pumps, prohibited in the hills, to take away water and deprive villages of the same

Photo courtesy: social media
Photo courtesy: social media
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Meha Khanduri

As one approaches the village of Dumgaon, one is awestruck by its natural beauty. Beautiful sloping pine jungles line a solitary mountain road, there are thick trees as far as one can see. Cool breeze blows gently and one feels as if one has stepped into paradise.

But the only sound there is the sound of silence. No sound of human laughter, no hum of conversation, no faces of children peeking through. For Dumgaon is completely devoid of people. What’s left are ruins of village houses slowly being swallowed by the jungle, gaping holes where doors should be, and weeds and brambles overgrowing in doorways. A red and white temple high on a hilltop is the only well-kept and painted building in the village. However, like the rest of the village, it is completely deserted.

Dumgaon is one of the hundreds of ghost villages of Uttarakhand, where the entire village has been abandoned with its denizens migrating to cities in plains like Haldwani, Lucknow or Delhi to earn their livelihoods and in search of a more comfortable life.

An old man, Jeevan, from nearby Pyora village who has been our guide to Dumgaon, laments. “This village was inhabited by prosperous families. All their children and grandchildren have shifted to the city of Haldwani and no one comes anymore except an annual pilgrimage to the village temple. Dumgaon for all its beauty gives us humans the spooks and we all hurry out of the crumbling village,” he says.

The government provides no employment schemes, no incentive to stay in the hills, no doctors or teachers who come regularly. Our children have no option but to leave. The hills are dying

Every old man and woman in the mountains of Uttarakhand knows of such villages which have either been left deserted or have only a handful of residents left. The exodus from the mountains has become an epidemic.

“Our ancestral village of Lakshavgaon in Pithoragarh district has only one family left,” says Rashi Bhatt who now lives in Lucknow. She asks: “The main reason is there are no medical facilities. Who is going to stay in the mountains when we have to run to the city hospitals for every illness and injury?” Rashi’s father-in-law says that his ancestral village has only seven residents left, all of them old men and women. So acute is the absence of men that when his elder brother died, they couldn’t find enough men to act as pallbearers.

Medical facilities, good schools for children, economic opportunities and (for some) the culture of malls and theatres in towns and cities – these are attractions which mountain villages with their hard life, fresh air and farming lifestyle are unable to compete with.

“The new ‘bahus’ shift to towns and cities the moment their children turn four years old. They don’t want their children to study here. After all education in the mountains is a mess. Even our children who have a MSc degree can’t compete with the children in the plains who are taught in English medium schools. So, the young women move out,” says Vimla Bisht, a social worker employed by a local NGO who supervises the primary schools and whose daughter studies in the nearby city of Almora.

She adds, “The government provides no employment schemes, no incentive to stay in the hills, no doctors or teachers who come regularly. Our children have no option but to leave. The hills are dying.”

even as the people of the mountains sell their land and move out to live in polluted cities, rich people from the plains are escaping to hills by buying huge farmlands for resorts and summerhouses

The political leadership comes for its share of flak. “No political leader comes to villages in the interiors, except for elections,” says Abhishek Bhatt, a resident of the big mountain city of Almora.

He continues: “The life in the hill villages is so tough. Farming is difficult. Wild animals like boars and monkeys eat up the crops. Once the people are reassured that leaders are invested in long-term improvement of the mountains they will stop migrating. But for this we need political leadership with vision for the state which is sorely lacking.”

After Dumgaon, we move ahead, leave our car on the road and walk down two backbreaking kilometres on a steep path next to a cliff drop to reach the village of Khumati. The village is as quaint and picturesque as a fairy tale village. The entire village is built like a train with all its houses connected to each other like colorful compartments.

It is supposed to be the largest village of interconnected houses in the Kumaon region, known as “bakholi” in the local language. The houses have beautifully carved small wooden doors but most of them have big locks hanging from them. My companion from the neighbouring village informs me that the clan of Joshi’s established the prosperous Khumati village some hundreds of years ago. It was considered to be so beautiful that a film was also made on it some years ago. However, though the quaintness remains, extreme poverty and decaying abandonment have become its most striking visuals now.

In the last few years, most villagers and their families have deserted their houses and lands and migrated to the plains, leaving only a handful of old women and men with few sickly cows. Narendra Joshi, one of the old men informs us that only six families live in Khumati now.

“Some of these houses were built 300 years ago, most of them are deserted now and families with children don’t live here anymore. Till five years back, we had a very decent population with about 40 families. Now there is nothing to do here and the young ones leave,” he says. The ones left behind are the old and the disabled.

One could be forgiven for thinking it’s a village populated by only old women as they are the only ones seen and heard. They are vocal and each other’s support system. “My son didn’t study. There was really no money to let him study. So, he couldn’t go to the city to work, so I’m lucky that he and his children stay with me and work the fields,” says a voluble old lady who refuses to divulge her name, saying that she is an old mountain lady of no importance.

However, she is one of the very lucky ones left in Khumati. Others have seen their sons and grandchildren flee the village. Only the old ones remain and take care of each other. The oldest resident, an old lady of over 80 years, bent over and worn out with hard life, is partially paralysed and is taken care of by the old neighbourhood women. I ask why she doesn’t get treatment for her paralysis. The answer is simple and stark. There is no hospital, no nurse and no doctor anywhere close to the village. Even the motorable road is a steep climb of two km away.

“In case of medical emergency or even to get her monthly pension, ‘aamaa’ (mother as all old ladies in the region are referred to) has to be carried up on the shoulder of some man and, in the absence of a man, a doli has to be arranged. Who has that much money? The hospital is more than an hour away after reaching the road. Can’t someone come down to the village to get her signature or deliver some medicine,” a woman asks me with hope as if I can provide some solution.

The reason for the desertion of Khumati is not new. The oft-repeated tale is repeated here too for us. “The bears, boars and monkeys destroy the crops, the water has gone, thus the farming lands have been left barren. The roaming leopards eat the few cows. There is nothing to do here, no way to earn our livelihood, no way to impart good education to our children. Life is very hard.”

I ask about help from local politicians, and all the old women start laughing. “No politicians come here to help us,” they say. A story which is repeated all over the tough terrain of the hills.

A young girl, about 10 years old, a striking mountain beauty, wanders up to us with a toddler in tow. They are the only children I see in Khumati. She, her two younger sisters and her mother have returned to their maternal village. Her father lives in Haldwani to find work. Someone whispers that he’s an alcoholic and has driven their family to ruin, also a frequently heard tale in the mountains. Her mother has left to tend the fields and the young girl is in charge of her baby sister.

The young beauty tells me that she walks to a government school a few villages away, requiring a steep climb and then walk a few more kilometers uphill. I try to engage her with a conversation about fairy tales. She’s never read any or even heard of them. I want to tell her she’d be a dead ringer for the story of Heidi, but duties of handling her toddler are too onerous for her to indulge in my fancies about heroines of children’s classics. Her middle sister studies in the local primary school consisting of a one-room building nestled on the side of the steep mountain. The sahayika is a local lady who has studied till the 10th grade. The social worker with me informs me that the primary school is for little children and has recently been painted by the NGO she works for.

Ironically even as the people of the mountains sell their land and move out to live in polluted cities, rich people from the plains are escaping to hills by buying huge farmlands for resorts and summerhouses. That too has caused resentment among the local populace. “Our people sell lands and then spend the money on drink. And the outsiders come in, build huge resorts, dirty the hills, cut our mountains and employ us as chowkidaars in our own lands. They don’t do anything for the community,” says a villager in one of the neighbouring villages next to the highway.

Indeed, as far as the eye can see, entire stretches of land next to the pukka roads have been bought by big businesses and rich outsiders to build million dollar resorts in the future. A ‘pradhan’ of a village who wishes to remain unnamed says that since hills have scarcity of water, they banned water pumps, but the resorts use pumps at the local water streams and take all the water for their daily needs, denying the local villages their water.

Most of the mineral springs (called naulas) of Uttarakhand have dried up and are littered with plastic packets and bottles thrown by the tourists and the locals. With cutting of trees, the mountains slide down every year, cloudbursts happen regularly and people are in constant fear of displaced predators like leopards who roam the mountains and villages every morning and evening.

In such a dismal scenario, unemployment and alchoholism is rampant among the locals. The mountain villages of Uttarakhand for now are caught in a vicious cycle of unemployment and apathy leading to abandoned villages. There seems to be no respite in the near future for the mountains or the folks who live here. “The mountains are dying. There is nothing left here,” echo the deserted villages.

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