“ Aapada main avsar (opportunity in disaster)”— Tribhuvan Oniyal has latched on to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s phrase to turn the pandemic into a possibility to inject life into the ghost villages of Pauri Garhwal.
Every day, the social activist and journalist gets calls from people who have left the villages in Pauri Garhwal for a better life in the cities.
“Every day I get five-six calls from residents who migrated many years back for better prospects. These are not exactly from abandoned villages but those which still have half a dozen families,” says Mr Oniyal, who lives in Sangaura village with his father Vidyadutt Sharma. Mr. Sharma incidentally is the protagonist of Nirmal Chander’s documentary Moti Bagh , which was nominated for the 92nd Academy Awards and captures life in the hills of Pauri Garhwal, the district with the highest number of abandoned villages in the State.
“We had been working on making villagers self-sufficient but the pandemic has given my 85-year-old father a new motivation,” Mr Oniyal says.
“I know it won’t be easy. Out of 10 families returning, only two or three will stay back. Some of them who settled in western Uttar Pradesh decades back are for a picnic; some will not be able to cope with the harsh life of hills and return once the pandemic subsides,” he says.
Rajendra Singh, who was in a marketing job in Delhi, returned to his village, Thampla, in mid-March to make arrangements for his mother’s barsi (a ritual performed a year after the death of a person).
“After the lockdown, my family, wife, daughter and mother-in-law, got stuck in Delhi. They have somehow reached here a few days back and are quarantined in our four-room house,” Mr. Singh said.
The two months have given him an opportunity to return to farming. “I grew vegetables and chaulai (Himalayan Amaranth), enough to feed a few families. So hunger will not be an issue. As for education, I can send my daughter to Pauri, 18 kms away. If government provides some support, I won’t return,” he says.
In Pabau, the young block development officer Praveen Bhatt is optimistic. “These are early days and most of the migrant workers are still in quarantine but yes, there are stories of families returning after eight years to the same house that they padlocked, to be quarantined. We are using schools, aganwadi centres as well as these ‘ghost’ houses for quarantine purposes,” he says.
But returning to abandoned houses is not always a pleasant experience. “In Asnoli village, where there are abandoned houses, a family returned after five years to find that it was not in a habitable condition. So we had to quarantine them in the government school,” says Mohd Mujtaba Khan, district information officer.
A total of 23,423 migrants had reached 1,121 gram panchayats of Pauri till May 16, according to the District Information Office.
In Pabau block alone, which has 71 gram panchayats and 159 revenue villages, Mr. Bhatt says 1,020 migrant workers had returned.
Using new skills
“We are in the process of registering them in the MGNREGA schemes. Some of those who are skilled and have finished their quarantine period are contributing to mask making units which have emerged in the region.”
He says many villagers moved to cities and started work in factories as farming was no longer profitable. “Their skill sets could be used in MSMEs that are coming up in the region,” he says optimistically.
Dhiraj Singh, district magistrate, Pauri Garhwal says many returning workers will be engaged in horticulture, poultry and apiculture activities.
“The government wants them to stay back and is making efforts to that end. These are early days but our assessment shows the sale of seeds for horticulture has almost doubled during the lockdown period. In the long run, those with experience in the hospitality industry could be engaged in homestays.”
Mr. Oniyal says he is making efforts to train people in the cultivation of cash crops, pisciculture, and poultry-farming. However, he underlines that life in the hills is harsh and the lands that the migrant workers left are barren now. “Right now, we are aiming that if a small family could earn ₹5,000 a month that would be enough. In cities, even ₹25,000 a month is not,” he points out.
Documentary maker Nirmal Chander, who also hails from Pauri, says the pandemic has exposed the tenuous human relations in cities. “I don’t want to use the word migrant for these workers. Most of us are migrants. It is just that some are more desperate than others to reach home.”
He holds the workers who are returning to Uttarakhand are different from those who are walking back to Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh.
“Those are transitory migrants. They have a functioning household back home. They just have to join their brothers and cousins on the farm,” he says.
Unlike in Uttarakhand, he says, where those returning will have to start from scratch. “In most cases, the houses are in a dilapidated condition and the land is fallow. Lack of schools and health infrastructure, which made them leave the place in the first place, continue to be poor. To top it, a leopard may be waiting in the vicinity. So let’s not romanticise things.”
For the reverse migration to be sustainable, he says, both the government and the private initiative have to come together.
1,750 such villages in State
Narendra Singh Negi, Vice Chairman, Uttarakhand Rural and Migration Commission said the State has 1,750 ghost villages or 10% percent of the 1,65,000 revenue villages.
“Unlike UP and Bihar, those who are returning to Uttarakhand are not construction labourers; they are largely blue-collar workers who work in the service industry or factories in different parts of the country. Even before the first lockdown, 60,000 workers had returned. There were cooks, drivers, waiters, receptionists, security guards among them. After the first lockdown, two lakh workers have registered on the State portal and are being brought back,” Mr Negi said.
He said those who were returning had relatives or family members still living in the villages. “So technically, they are not returning to abandoned villages. Most of them are being quarantined in schools and panchayat buildings but some are quarantined in their homes.”
Talking to some of them, he realised that they would be keen to return once the pandemic subsides. As they are skilled or semi-skilled, their employers would want them back. “But the Uttarakhand government would want them to stay back as the services sector contributes 50% to the State GDP and this would be a great human resource to have.”
He admitted that it won’t be easy as health and education infrastructure is not as strong as in States in the plains.
Agriculture, he added, would be difficult to push because the average land holding in Uttarakhand was only 0.6 hectare which is lower than the national average. “We would have to push collective farming and create a chain so that the produce could reach markets in other States.”