Chandigarh: With thousands of migrants who had left Uttarakhand for greener pastures returning amid the lockdown, the state government is trying to convince them to stay on and rebuild their lives there, offering interest-free loans, subsidies and free electricity to set up eco-tourism and micro-enterprises. The state government has also added an additional budget for employment-generating schemes such as the Veer Chandra Garhwali Yojana, which offers micro credit aimed to create sustainable employment opportunities in tourism and establish facilities to run taxis, buses, restaurants and tourism info centres.

However, migrants say it is too soon to decide, and point out a bevy of problems that made them leave in the first place, including inadequate public healthcare and education; low productivity in agriculture as well as damage by wild animals; and poor infrastructure.

“Let the government first set up a successful model of a venture and run it successfully to evoke confidence,” said Bhupender Singh Rawat, 37, who worked in Zambia in an agrochemical firm for nine years, and is now back with his wife, children and parents in Pauri Garhwal’s Buakhal village.

Over the years, Uttarakhand has seen a large exodus of people to the plains, other parts of the country and abroad as poor development in the hills created few opportunities. Now, the widespread closure of manufacturing units, hotels and other businesses elsewhere has forced them to return.

As of April 23, 2020, a total of 59,360 people have returned to the 10 hill districts of Uttarakhand, according to government records and officials. Of these, 12,039 are from Pauri Garhwal and 9,303 from Almora, two districts most affected by migration, according to an interim report released by the state’s Rural Development and Migration Commission (RDMC) on April 23, 2020.

Around 350,000 residents were estimated to have migrated from the state between the 2001 and 2011 censuses, leaving 1,048 villages totally uninhabited. Of nearly 16,800 villages in Uttarakhand, as many as 734, mostly in the hilly areas, have become uninhabited after 2011. Such ghost villages with their houses lying in ruins and fields overgrown with vegetation abound in Pauri district, where 186 villages turned uninhabited since 2011.

The return of migrants, and their staying on, could help the hill state rectify its socio-economic imbalance and repopulate deserted villages that are perched along a strategic international border, experts say.

Many abandoned houses in Bedgaon village in Pauri Garhwal are now being used to quarantine reverse migrants. The owner of this house lives in Delhi.

Villages come back to life

The return of the migrants has breathed fresh life into many abandoned villages in Pauri Garhwal, where district magistrate Dhiraj Singh Garbyal told IndiaSpend that villages are looking lively again as many have begun ploughing their fields to utilise their free time.

Of the sizeable number who have returned, 60-65% have come back states such as Haryana, Punjab, Chhattisgarh, Goa and Tamil Nadu; 25-30% from the urban pockets in Uttarakhand such as Dehradun, Haridwar and Udham Singh Nagar; and the remaining from other countries such as Dubai, Australia and Oman, the RDMC’s April 2020 report said. Most of the returnees are 30-45 years old and work largely for the hospitality sector at low pay.

“Life is hard. It is very difficult to live in cramped one-room rented accomodation with three others,” said Puran Bisht of Badait village, who works as a helper in a spice store in Dehradun. “I want to return to my parents, wife and children in the open and healthy environment of my village, for good, provided the state government helps me in earning a decent livelihood.”

Sex ratio improves, but women face the brunt

Though the out-migration has improved the sex ratio, with 1,037 women for every 1,000 men in the hills as against 900 in the plains and 963 across the state, according to an April 2018 RDMC report, researchers say that men’s leaving only exchanges one form of oppression for another. “If the son migrates to the city, then his wife has to bear a higher workload to take care of his parents, children, land and cattle in the village,” Shankar Gopalakrishnan, Uttarakhand-based researcher who conducted a comparative study on migration in 2016, told IndiaSpend, “If she accompanies her husband to the destination, she becomes much more dependent on him, lacking in the local support structure and partial independence that she was able to rely on in the hills.”

The elderly, women and children left behind in the villages live without basic amenities such as healthcare, education, piped water, electricity and, most importantly, livelihood opportunities, said Aranya Ranjan, a social worker based in Khadi in Uttarakhand’s Tehri district. They feel disinterested in taking up agriculture due to the problem of wildlife damaging their crops, Ranjan added. “Earlier, people would allow animals to eat away a part of their crops,” said Mahendra Kunwar Singh, founder of Dehradun-based Himalayan Action Research Centre (HARC) that works with several self-help groups to grow 89 types of organic produce for sale in smart packages in markets across the country. Monkeys were declared vermin in 2019, and wild boar in 2016 and 2018, allowing local authorities to cull these animals, which were ruining crops, reports show.

Trepan Singh Chauhan and Gopalakrishnan are credited for launching “Ghasiari contest”, a competition in Tehri Garhwal in 2016, in which the woman who proved fastest at cutting grass was awarded Rs 1 lakh prize money. The contest was aimed to impart dignity to the work of women who go out into the jungle to bring back fodder for the cattle and firewood for the kitchen.

Besides the workload, women also face attacks by wild animals such as leopards and bears when they go out in the fields to graze cattle, Geeta Gairola, an activist from Bhatti village under Aswalsyun Patti of Pauri Garhwal, said.

Women must battle on every front without the menfolk around to help, said Malti Devi, a resident of Badait village, “I urge the state government to facilitate employment for our men so that our families can reunite and we can work together to develop our hills.”

Malti Devi, 25, a resident of Badait village of Pauri Garhwal, brings fodder from the jungle for her cattle. Women like her, left behind as men seek better work elsewhere, have a higher workload, taking care of the elderly and children, fetching fodder and wood from the jungle, and working on farms.

Government incentives

A report that recommends steps for the state’s economic revival, such as rural job creation in the hills to stem out-migration and lure migrants to return, is due to be submitted this month, Indu Kumar Pandey, head of the state’s Economic Revival Committee Post-Covid and chairperson of the Uttarakhand Finance Commission, told IndiaSpend.

“It is a great opportunity for the state government to reach out to thousands of its skilled and experienced migrants who have come home these days,” Sharad Singh Negi, vice-chairperson of RDMC and finance secretary, told IndiaSpend. However, he said, “As of now, 70% of them have declined to stay back. Some have shown interest in starting their own small ventures.”

Meanwhile, every district administration has prepared a profile of each migrant. The RDMC has submitted an interim report after conducting an online sample survey on April 23, 2020.

“After talking to migrants, I have made some recommendations to the state government in my interim report which include laying down provisions for interest-free loans, heavy subsidies and free electricity for people to set up new ventures in sectors like eco-tourism or for micro enterprises,” Negi said, “Additional budget for employment generating schemes like Vir Chader Gadhwali Yojana too have been suggested.”

The other recommendations of RDMC include setting up a new cell for migrants by the Rural Development Department, a helpline to resolve their problems and a database on their aspirations.

The commission is trying to fix the issues responsible for out-migration, as described in the RDMC’s interim report cited above. A new report with an action plan for 15 blocks under three districts, Pauri Garhwal, Almora and Pithoragarh, has been submitted to the state government, Negi said. The action plan includes establishing new schools, primary health centres and road networks wherever required. The government has allocated an additional Rs 50 crore in the state budget to implement this action report, Negi said, adding that the lockdown had temporarily halted the release of funds but it would be resumed soon.

Meanwhile, Chief Minister Trivender Singh Rawat too has called upon the migrants of Pauri Garhwal through an open letter on April 24, 2020--in an emotional message, he implored the migrants that the land their ancestors had cultivated through hard work to feed their families now lies barren and neglected.

“I have recommended one village-one cooperative culture, where all the small landholdings of one village are pooled to grow one kind of produce and sold through a smooth supply chain,” said Pandey of the finance commission. “We will encourage value addition for all our enterprises like agriculture, cultivation of herbs, dairy and poultry farming for the rural sector which will give a boost to the income of villagers. Decentralisation and micro-economy through self-help groups will be supported.”

Experts also agree that migration has damaged the rural economy and aspirations of the simple hill-dwelling family. Out-migration from villages along the international border “poses serious national security concerns”, according to the RDMC’s 2018 report, corroborated by reports of “territory marking” in Baharoti village in Joshimath. Anil Joshi, proponent of the Gaon Bachao (save villages) campaign, has recommended the development model of neighbouring Himachal Pradesh, which has a similar topography. “Himachal Pradesh has generated a booming economy with intense agriculture and horticulture,” Joshi said. “The same model if replicated in Uttarakhand, will not only generate employment but will also enrich the ecology.”

Farmers could do wonders with the fertile land and natural resources in the hills and the problem of wild animals would also disappear if people worked in the fields, said HARC’s Kunwar Singh.

The biggest chunk of people, 43.6%, work in the agriculture sector, followed by 32.2% in labour in Uttarakhand, according to the RDMC’s 2018 report. In Pauri and Garhwal, this figure is 38.8% and 38.7%, respectively, according to the RDMC report.

Life for most of the migrants working in low-paying jobs is no better than in the village, said Binod Khadria, director of Migration and Diaspora Studies Project in Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. “Across the Himalayan belt in the world, the hill communities suffer the worst working and living conditions in the urban areas while working for low-paying jobs. So migration has its own side effects,” he said.

Khadria recommends that the state government form an advisory board of consultants and stakeholders to devise innovative solutions for reverse migration through sustainable development in the hills, where families live united and take care of their jungles and other natural resources.

What the migrants say

Paramvir Rawat, 24, who has returned to Raidul village from Dubai on March 20, 2020, days before the nationwide lockdown was enforced, said he would wait for infrastructure to improve. “Livelihood and opportunities have to get better on the ground for us to return,” he said.

Over the last decade, Uttarakhand has also seen an influx of people from outside--many have left successful careers to settle in the serene and pollution-free life of the hills. Many have also fostered local communities. Roopesh Rai, 40, a top executive with a five-star hotel in Delhi, quit his job and turned abandoned houses into home-stays in many villages such as Raithal and Kanatal. He also set up the non-profit Green People. “The common tendency of red tape and intrusive approach to create hurdles in order to extract money from entrepreneurs needs to stop,” he said, “Secondly, the government should focus on large dynamics like creating mega infrastructure for adventure tourism rather than targeting individuals through schemes.”

Anand Sankar, 38, Bengaluru-based photojournalist, brought the nondescript Kalap village of Mori tehsil in Uttarkashi, situated at 7,800 feet, into prominence, after settling down there in 2003. With his Kalap Trust, he set up a school and hospital in the village, which had none. For short-term pragmatic measures to tide over the impending recession, he suggested: “As of now, the government can help in setting up food processing units in the hills for people to make pickles, spices, juices, etc. and growing vegetables and also stuff such as chillies and ginger which are not eaten by wild animals. In the winter, they can make warm apparel and woollen to sell, for which the government needs to take the marketing initiative. Hopefully, after that the religious tourism season pertaining to the Char Dham will pick up.”

Some migrants are tempted to stay on. Pankaj Bisht, 26, a resident of Paidul in Pauri Garhwal, who works as a chef in a Delhi-based eatery, says his euphoria of being with family has been diluted with the concern of losing his income as he came home with just Rs 3,000. Given an opportunity and financial assistance, he would start a computer lab in his village as now he is wary that such a pandemic might recur, and he feels safer in his village than in the city.

(Sharma is an independent journalist based in Chandigarh.)

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