Populating Ghost Towns: How Local Families Are Creating Opportunities in Rural Uttarakhand
Uttarakhand is one of the fastest-growing states in India, yet thousands leave the hills for the plains because of a lack of jobs
Rawatgaon, Pauri: The four-acre organic farm in Rawatgaon, Uttarakhand, is lush, with 30 varieties of fruits and vegetables growing in profusion--but that is not what makes it noteworthy.
Pathal Agroproducts is an initiative of retired army major Gorky Chandola and his wife Deepti, and its intent is to stem the out-migration of people from the area in search of livelihood. At least one in four (27.8%) households in Uttarakhand has at least one member who has migrated, either short- or long-term, according to the 2017 Uttarakhand Human Development Report (UKHDR).
The state of Uttarakhand was carved out of Uttar Pradesh in 2000, after a long battle for hill-centric development. However, migration from the hilly areas continues unabated, despite the government creating the Uttarakhand Rural Development and Migration Commission in August 2017 to study the problem and evolve a vision for the focused development of rural areas of the state.
More than 500,000 people have left the hills, permanently or on a semi-permanent basis, between 2001 and 2011. Distress migration has turned many once-lively villages into bhootiya (ghost) villages--a term loosely used to refer to villages with zero to 10 inhabitants. After 2011, as many as 734 villages in the state emptied out, as per a 2018 report by the Uttarakhand Migration Commission, and there are around 1,048 uninhabited villages in the state.
The Covid-19 pandemic halted distress migration for a while, thanks to the lockdown and downturn in employment opportunities nationwide. The Uttarakhand Migration Commission reported that around 357,536 migrants returned to Uttarakhand in 2020. However, 29% of those returned to cities when the situation improved.
Why people flee Uttarakhand in droves
The main source of livelihood, agriculture, is dependent on the vagaries of the climate. Agriculture contributes around 23.4% in gross state domestic product (GSDP) and employs 70% of the state's total population. However, climate change is impacting agriculture, according to a study by the Germany-based Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and The Energy and Resources Institute in New Delhi. It has led to low and uneven rainfall and water stress, resulting in lower crop yields in Uttarakhand, the study found.
Coupled with the decline in agriculture, unemployment is another major reason for large-scale out-migration from the hills. As per Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) data, the unemployment rate in Uttarakhand increased to 3.5% in March 2022 from 1.6% in January 2016. Reports however say that unemployment in the hills is more than in the plains.
Out-migration is largely driven by a combination of push factors, including lack of employment, low income and subsistence agriculture, and pull factors, including better opportunities for employment and children's education etc, according to the UKHDR.
Migration is despite Uttarakhand being one of the fastest-growing states in India, with its GSDP expected to grow almost 10 times from Rs 24,786 crore in 2004-05 to Rs 2,78,006 crore in 2021-22. But growth has been lopsided: for instance, the per capita income in the hill region was less than half that of the plains in 2016-17.
An unexpected consequence is that as the human population thins and more and more ghost villages spring up, these areas are overrun with visitors from the wild including jackals, wild boars, leopards and bears, as this reporter witnessed first hand.
Gorky Chandola and Deepti Chandola, pictured in Rawatgaon, November 22, 2021. In 2014, Chandola decided to restore his century-old ancestral home, where he had lived as a child, and in the process, inspired others to do the same.
Photo credit: Archana Singh for IndiaSpend
How Rawatgaon got back its people
In 2020, Gorky and Deepti Chandola, along with their two children, aged 12 and six, decided to return to their ancestral village, Rawatgoan, after living for decades in Bengaluru, Dehradun and other cities.
"Around 90 people lived in Rawatgaon in 2010, now there are barely 10-15 people," Chandola said. "Those who still live here are either too old to move or emotionally attached to their janam bhoomi (native land)."
Back in 2014, Chandola decided to restore the century-old ancestral home where he had lived as a child. He faced many challenges, including the lack of skilled stonemasons and wood-workers, transportation of raw material, and the absence of a village road.
They realised early on, said Deepti Chandola, that the traditional practice of building with stone, mud and wood had been lost, replaced by cement and brick. Traditionally, houses in the region used urad dal as a natural binding agent, which helps maintain the temperature during both summer and winter; the interiors would be decorated with wall paintings using traditional dyes and designs, Deepti explained. "We had to train the masons to use traditional techniques," Deepti said.
The Chandolas solved the transportation problem by constructing the road themselves, because Rawatgaon does not meet the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojna criteria of having at least 250 inhabitants. Till date, the family takes responsibility for maintaining the road.
Once the family moved back permanently to Rawatgaon, the Chandolas began farming the land--and after eight years of hard work, it is now a thriving space, with bumper crops of over 30 varieties of fruit and vegetables including onion, garlic, pulses, peas, beans, ladyfinger, mangoes, guavas and lemongrass. Chandola uses a mix of traditional and scientific methods to grow fruits such as lychee, tangerine, apples and plum.
"We take good care of them--whether it is doing their regular pruning, watering, manuring, saving them from pests and birds, or harvesting on time. Good care has resulted in higher yields. For example, a lychee tree that barely gave 1 kg now gives 20 kg of lychee."
After restoring their own home, which they now use as a homestay, Chandola also restored several century-old houses in the village that were on the verge of collapse.
The rehabilitation of the Chandolas' home and the setting up of the farm inspired many to move back to the village. One major reason for the reverse migration was how well the Chandola kids adjusted to the village school, said Bahargav Chandola [no relation], who moved permanently from Dehradun to Rawatgaon in early 2020.
A 100-year-old stone house restored by villagers, after Gorky Chandola restored his house in Rawatgaon, Pauri, Uttarakhand.
Photo credit: Archana Singh for IndiaSpend
Many were inspired by the Chandolas to renovate their own ancestral homes, said Manish Chandola [no relation], who lived in Noida until 2021 but then decided to take up farming in Pauri village and renovate his own home.
Thanks to the Chandolas' initiatives, imitated by others, employment was created for about 100 people in the village in carpentry, masonry, cooking, plumbing and farming, Manish Chandola pointed out.
Dinesh Kathait, 56, was unemployed and severely depressed after his wife's death. "When Gorky came here there was nothing… just jungles all around. Even the road wasn't there. I have worked with him in fields, reconstruction of houses, and in building the road," said Kathait. "He has given a second life to me by giving me work."
Pathal Agroproduct's farm, run by Gorky Chandola, in Pauri, Uttarakhand, pictured on November 24, 2021.
Photo credit: Archana Singh for IndiaSpend
Kathait isn't the only one whose life has changed. Now, when you walk through the once-deserted village, you see trees laden with seasonal fruits, houses abuzz with laughter and conversation, farms filled with crops, and villagers gathered to discuss their daily affairs.
Generating employment, empowering women
In Pauri village, just 4 km from Rawatgaon, Indira Chowfin and her daughter Divya started Himalayan Haat, an outfit that makes and sells home-made, chemical-free jams, sauces and chutneys made by local women.
Divya worked as a travel editor with Dorling Kindersley, a publishing house in Delhi, until 2016 when she decided to return to her hometown after her father's death. Her mother, Indira, a school teacher by profession and a cook by passion, had been making preserves, sauces and concentrates for decades.
"During one of my visits to Pauri, I noticed that despite having fantastic produce, farmers couldn't make any profit because there was no real market for their products," Divya said. "As the transportation cost was too high, and with little or no demand, they would sell their products for a pittance, consume it themselves, distribute for free, or simply let them rot. We wanted to change that."
Divya Chowfin (left corner), with her mother, Indira (sitting in the centre), with other women employed at Himalayan Haat. Job opportunities are few in the hills of Uttarakhand, and the Chowfins are trying to create jobs for local women through their business.
Photo credit: Himalayan Haat
They first employed two villagers for cutting and chopping fruits. When the yield increased, they asked their two helpers to recruit two more women. "The next day, when I opened the door, I saw 12 women instead of two," Divya recalled. "They all shared heart-wrenching reasons for how badly they needed money."
Bharti Devi, a mother of three, struggled with an alcoholic husband and the cost of educating her kids. "Once I started working at Didi's [Divya's], a lot changed. I don't have to depend on my husband to run the house. My kids' education is also taken care of."
The women employed at the farm have flexible working hours, and are involved in harvesting, chopping and canning the fruit, and packaging the products. The mother-daughter duo have helped move to fertiliser- and pesticide-free farming in the village. All the fruits are naturally ripened, and the farmers are rewarded for their efforts with fair prices, which motivates them to not give up natural farming practices.
Himalayan Haat now employs 30 women directly, and supports over 50 pahadi families, Divya said. "Without any state assistance, we have grown at a healthy pace of around 31% year on year--from a turnover of Rs 22 lakh in 2020 to Rs 29 lakh in 2021."
An employee at Himalayan Haat strains homemade juice, June 2021.
Himalayan Haat, started by a mother-daughter duo, is a micro initiative to bring jobs to the hills of Pauri, Uttarakhand.
Photo credit: Himalayan Haat
The government takes a hand
In 2004, the Uttarakhand government along with the Uttarakhand Gramya Vikas Samiti set up 'Hilans' to market the state's farm produce across the world, according to its website.
Anjana Negi, a 43-year old woman, hailing from Delhi, shifted to Pauri in 2018 for health reasons. With the support of the National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM), she became part of a women's self-help group, Utrani, that got funding of almost Rs 1 crore for two projects--organic farming of turmeric and a paper mill, said Sanjeev Rai, NRLM Project Director of Pauri.
Negi, along with eight other trainers from Rural Self Employment Training Institutes, have been training women in making paper, candles, incense sticks, tailoring, growing mushrooms, and also teaching them how to package their products better. These are then sold under the brand name Hilans via Amazon and the Hilans website.
Anjana Negi (in mask), is training local women in Pauri, Uttarakhand, to better package local products for Hilans, a government-supported website selling locally sourced products from Uttarakhand. Negi returned to the hills for health reasons, and is now a trainer with the National Rural Livelihood Mission.
Photo credit: National Rural Livelihood Mission
Negi, through NRLM, is helping set up an online-offline pick up centre to package, market and sell Uttarakhand-made natural products like pickles, juices, spices etc. Through 'Hilans', NRLM will give a platform to more than 500 women of Pauri district to sell their products to a wider audience.
Initiatives such as that of the Chandolas and the Chowfins, and targeted interventions by the government, serve as proof of concept that creating local employment opportunities is the way to reverse the endemic out-migration that has plagued the state since its inception.
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