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'Ghost villages' of the Himalayas foreshadow a changing India

The village of Sumari in Uttarakhand had about 100 households in the last official census in 2011. Now the village has fewer than 20 families.
Raksha Kumar/NPR
The village of Sumari in Uttarakhand had about 100 households in the last official census in 2011. Now the village has fewer than 20 families.

JHAKOT, Uttarakhand, India – Lakshmi Devi and her husband live in a small village in the hills.

Just a decade ago, the farming community was home to 38 people from seven families.

Two months ago, Devi says, one of the three remaining families packed up their belongings and moved to Delhi, where their children had jobs.

"Loneliness takes over," says Devi, reflecting on this latest departure from Jhakot in the country's middle Himalayan region. Family after family has left in the past 10 years, Devi says, pointing out the village's half-dozen locked and abandoned houses.

Jhakot is one of some 1,200 "ghost villages" in the area — that's the term many use when the number of residents is down to 10 or so. And at least a thousand of those villages have been completely abandoned based on the latest official figures, which are far from current, dating back to 2011.

"Loneliness takes over," says Lakshmi Devi, about her village in the Himalayas that is seeing its population dwindle.
/ Raksha Kumar/NPR
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Raksha Kumar/NPR
"Loneliness takes over," says Lakshmi Devi, about her village in the Himalayas that is seeing its population dwindle.

"These are permanent migrations," says professor Rajendra Prasad Mamgain, an economist at Doon University in Uttarakhand state. It's not a new phenomenon in this region, but the reasons for the current exodus have changed. "Migration has always been a part of the hilly regions of the Himalayas, except these latest ones are drastic and distress-induced," he says.

He says people are migrating from the upper reaches of the Himalayas to the plains along the Ganges River in Uttarakhand because of lack of jobs and schools — and, in the last decade or so, climate change, which has made it more difficult to farm.

And some observers say the government shoulders some of the responsibility, as policies that devote resources to urban areas are contributing to the transformation of a once-thriving farming region into a network of abandoned communities and devastated natural beauty.

Patti Devi, who estimates her age to be 80, says larger towns and cities seem to get more resources from the government.
/ Raksha Kumar/NPR
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Raksha Kumar/NPR
Patti Devi, who estimates her age to be 80, says larger towns and cities seem to get more resources from the government.

The lure of the cities

Patti Devi (no relation to Lakshmi), who estimates that she's about 80 years old, lives about 60 miles from Jhakot in a village called Sumari. People in her village farmed to live but wanted a different life for their children.

Her family grew enough millet, fruits and vegetables to sustain a large family. "After we filled our stomachs, we began to seek education for our children," she says.

In 2011, her village had 112 families. It also had a government school, where Devi sent her seven children, and a hospital that served most of the village's primary health care needs.

But over the years, she says, families began leaving the village. Devi contrasts her village to Srinagar, the nearest town some 12 miles away with a population of about 20,000.

She says that in her observation, roads first came to Srinagar, and once the town was better connected to other nearby towns and cities, better paying jobs followed, then a school and a hospital. She says — and economist Mamgain agrees — that the residents in her village grew dissatisfied with the quality of the local school and the hospital, where the equipment was out of date.

Devi estimates that Sumari has about 25 households; all of her children have moved to nearby towns or larger cities, some even to Delhi.

As more people have left, Mamgain says, the government further neglected public schools and hospitals.

The only hospital for the residents of Sumari has been under construction for a few years.
/ Raksha Kumar/NPR
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Raksha Kumar/NPR
The only hospital for the residents of Sumari has been under construction for a few years.

The only hospital in Sumari is closed. A new one was under construction but hasn't been finished, and residents think it's unlikely to ever open. A few stray cattle graze on the grass outside the construction site.

A way of life in peril

It has become harder and harder to make a living as a small-scale farmer. Part of the problem is the migration. Most people who leave the villages are between 26 and 35 years old, according to a report on Uttarakhand by The Energy and Resources Institute, an Indian and German research organization.

"Our children do not want to do agriculture anymore," says Krishna Lal, who estimates her age to be around 65 and who lives in the village of Gwad. They're looking for office jobs and other kinds of employment in towns that may be 10 or 15 miles away.

"My son makes the arduous journey to the office every day," says Lal — there's no asphalt road connecting to the nearest town. And, Lal adds, he "will not till the land he owns."

With fewer farmers in the village, many of them older, they can't keep up with tasks like fertilizing and watering their fields. So land has became unusable for agriculture, explains environmental activist Rajendra Negi.

Right now, only Lal's family and her brother-in-law's family remain in the village. "We used to grow our own food," says Lal. But without enough family members to farm, food security has become a major problem. To make ends meet, the villagers rely on money from their children or money from the state.

Krishna Lal's house
/ Raksha Kumar/NPR
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Raksha Kumar/NPR
Krishna Lal's house

Climate change is exacerbating farming difficulties. A 2014 Uttarakhand government report says the state is already facing water shortages as temperatures rise, glaciers recede and rainfall has become erratic. So plants that depend on consistent rainwater are no longer reliable crops.

The government says it is concerned about the emptying of the hills. As people move to cities in the plain regions, water, sanitation, hospitals, schools and other services will become overwhelmed, says Sharad Singh Negi, who works for the Rural Development and Migration Commission, established by the Uttarakhand government in 2017 to study migration in the state.

The commission "really wants to focus on rural rehabilitation so that the pressure on the urban areas in the plains is eased out," Negi says. That would mean improving schools and health care, among other projects.

But that's a daunting challenge in villages scattered in the mountains.

A group of villages constitutes a panchayat. Each panchayat gets funds to set up schools, hospitals and day care centers. In Uttarakhand, villages that sit on adjacent hills form a panchayat. "In many cases, the primary school is on one hill, the secondary school on another and the hospital on the third," says Negi. "People have to navigate through tough terrain to reach any one of those."

For Lakshmi Devi, whose family is one of the two left in the hilltop village of Jhakot, that means a 15-mile trek across hills and fields, as there are no roads to the nearest town of Chamba, where they head for medical emergencies and even to purchase household supplies.

The land left behind

Even as the villages falter in this beautiful Himalayan land of hills and forests, the government is taking a further toll, some say.

India's urban areas are projected to grow by 70% in the coming decade. About a third of Indians live in urban areas now; that proportion is projected to grow to about 40% in the next decade. To meet the needs for drinking water, sanitation and housing, the government is launching infrastructure projects, many of them in the Himalayan states.

For example, to supply cities with electricity in the next decade, India is planning hundreds of hydropower projects, with many of them in the Himalayan states, harnessing the flow of the Ganges down the mountains.

"India is taking care of its burgeoning urban population by razing forests, setting up massive hydroelectric power projects and mining sand on the banks of the rivers in places like Uttarakhand," says activist Negi, who also runs a community radio station in Chamba.

"Such a model is inequitable and [ecologically] unsustainable," says the economist Mamgain.

Nor does it help the residents in the region. "Building large dams has not given the local people much," says Nrip Singh Napalchyal, a former senior planner in Uttarakhand. In fact, they believe they will suffer from these projects. In his home district of Pithoragarh, hundreds of people took to the streets in February to oppose the Bokong Baling Hydroelectric Project in the wake of what's happened in another Himalayan town called Joshimath. There, some residents have been evacuated from their homes by the government, which found that their houses had become structurally unsound, and both experts and locals worry that a hydroelectric project is partly to blame.

The tourism tradeoff

The government is banking on tourism to help the economy of the region, but that also may take a toll on the land. Uttarakhand is commonly called the "Land of Gods" because of the many Hindu pilgrimage sites. "This means the government should focus on how to manage an influx of millions of tourists to certain religiously important parts of the state while other parts are virtually emptying out," says Negi.

In 2013, flash floods in a Hindu pilgrim site, Kedarnath, killed about 6,000 people and affected about 4,500 villages. One analysis by the Department of Tourism Studies at Christ University in Bangalore say one of the causes was building roads and buildings quickly to accommodate tourists while ignoring environmental regulations and paying scant attention to flood management.

Hindu devotees wait for their turn outside Kedarnath shrine on April 24, 2015, at Kedarnath, India. In 2013, a flash flood in the area killed about 6,000 people, both pilgrims and residents.
Vinay Santosh Kumar / Hindustan Times via Getty Images
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Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Hindu devotees wait for their turn outside Kedarnath shrine on April 24, 2015, at Kedarnath, India. In 2013, a flash flood in the area killed about 6,000 people, both pilgrims and residents.

A separate government report also cited "unwarranted changes of landscape under impact of various developmental and engineering projects," as well as "unscientific development and land-use practices" and "increasing tourism pressure."

In 2016, the Narendra Modi government began building a 550-mile-long highway in the state to connect four important Hindu pilgrim sites. Environmentalists opposed the project, asserting that it would cause landslides and deforestation and disasters like the one at Kedarnath. They petitioned the Supreme Court to stop the highway but the court ruled in favor of road construction in 2021, saying it's also of strategic importance for the military since some of the roadway is close to China.

Threats close to home

Back in the villages, those who remain say they face yet one more threat.

Kishan Kumar, 57, lives in Chaman Kot village in the Paudi Garhwal district. His family of five are the only inhabitants left in the village. "When we had a community, people would get together to fight the wild animals that came to destroy our crops," he says of the deer and the other animals.

The animals pose a danger to their lives as well. Kumar sees tigers roaming around in the village regularly. When the women of his house climb up a hill to fetch firewood, they encounter wild boar and tigers, he says.

But he's not about to abandon his home. He says he loves the natural surroundings and doesn't have to worry about the pollution of a city. Kumar works as a lab technician in a town about 85 miles away. He stays there during the week and rides his scooter back home every weekend.

When family after family left his village to settle in larger towns, Kumar was not tempted. He says a divine power had asked him never to abandon the village or else disaster would befall his family. "So, as long as I am alive, I will not relocate from the village," he says.

Raksha Kumar is a media fellow working on migration with the Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development. This story was part of her fellowship.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Raksha Kumar
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