The ghost villages of Uttarakhand

People move their place of habitation because of social, political, or economic reasons. Often, natural disasters lead to sudden displacement of people. However, over the past few decades, large-scale human migration has been happening because of climate change. In India, a rise in extreme weather events like droughts, floods, heatwaves, and hailstorms is fuelling climate migration and it’s the poor who are forced to abandon their homes, land, and livelihoods. The Global Climate Risk Index 2021 puts India among the top 10 countries most affected by climate change. Today, on International Migrants Day, we kick-start a three-part series that will look at various aspects of climate change migration in the country. In the first part, we take you to Uttarakhand, home to several ghost villages, to understand why people, especially farmers, here have been migrating.

Swati Subhedar

On February 7, 2021, a disaster struck Uttarakhand’s Chamoli district. A devastating flash flood ravaged through three valleys — Rishi Ganga, Dhauliganga, and Alaknanda. It swept away the unfinished Tapovan Vishnugad Hydropower Project and severely damaged the Rishi Ganga Hydropower Project.

The state administration requested a geotechnical team’s visit to the site of flash floods for assessment. The team’s finding concluded that the cause of flash floods was the collapse of a hanging glacier — 15 football fields long and five across — breaking off high in the mountains. A hanging glacier is a body of ice that breaks off abruptly.

In the Himalayas, about 10,000 glaciers are receding at a rate of 100 to 200 feet per decade as global temperatures rise. The glaciers in Uttarakhand are very sensitive and susceptible to climate change. Supra-glacial lakes are formed on the surface of glaciers when the snow melts, and the state has 809 such lakes. The Geological Survey of India has found 13 of the 486 glacial lakes in the state to be vulnerable. A glacial lake can breach and cause floods like the one in Chamoli due to avalanche or cloudburst, a major quake, or other geological factors.

A disturbing video of glacier melt in Chamoli.
Video credit: From the Twitter handle of journalist Shiv Aroor

More than 70 people lost their lives in the Chamoli flash flood tragedy and later the government declared 136 persons who were reported to be missing as “presumed dead” so that the affected families could get early compensation. The year 2021 has turned out to be the second-worst in terms of loss of lives in such calamities after 2013 when the Kedarnath flash floods had taken thousands of lives. According to data with the State Operation Emergency Center (SEOC), nearly 300 people died, 66 were reported missing and over 100 people sustained injuries in weather-related calamities this year that include events like flash floods, cloudbursts, avalanches, landslides, and mudflows.

A recent study, titled ‘Locked Houses, Fallow Lands: Climate Change and Migration in Uttarakhand, India’, conducted by the Germany-based Potsdam Institute for Climate Research (PIK) and The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) mentions that Uttarakhand’s annual average maximum temperature may increase by 1.6-1.9 degrees Celsius between 2021 and 2050. The study focuses on how climate change impacts — like rising temperatures, increasing glacial melt, and changing rainfall patterns — could affect livelihoods and thereby shape migration patterns in Uttarakhand.

The report identifies three main areas of action for policymakers — preparing for demographic changes resulting from migration, creating alternate livelihood options in the hill districts to revitalize the economy and revisiting the state’s climate change action plan as well as the state’s agricultural policies in the wake of out-migration from hill districts.

Rescue workers looking for missing people at one of the hydropower projects after the Chamoli flash floods in February. Image credit: From the Twitter handle of Affinity Magazine

Migration and the ghost villages of Uttarakhand

The state has 6,338 village panchayats and 16,500 villages. However, it’s common to find abandoned villages where no one lives. These villages are known as ghost villages. All one can find here are locked doors and hints of civilization that once existed. The eerie silence makes you wonder what must have led to families leaving lock, stock, and barrel, never to return.

As per the data revealed in 2018 by the Rural Development and Migration Commission set up by the state, the hill state has around 700 ghost villages and more than 3.83 lakh people have left their homes between 2007 and 2017. Most of the migration to the plains in Uttarakhand is of young people. The data shows that 29% are 25 or younger, 42% are between 26 and 35 and 29% are over 35 years.

A Right to Information (RTI) query filed by Hemant Gaunia, an activist based in the Nainital district, revealed in January this year that a total of 1.18 lakh people have migrated out of Uttarakhand permanently, while 3.83 lakh have migrated in search of work and better life but keep visiting their native places in the hills. It also mentions that people living in 3,946 villages have migrated ‘permanently’ which implies that these villages also fit the definition of ghost villages.  

Rakesh Juglal, Kalawati Devi, Anju Devi and Goli Devi … the last four residents of Bhel Dunga village. Image credit: From the Twitter handle of Tanmoy.

These ghost villages can be commonly seen in the Pauri Garhwal district where 186 out of 298 villages have been totally or partially depopulated. For instance, Thalda village in the district once had around 52 houses and a population of 175. However, today, less than 30 families remain in the village and the population has shrunk to lower than 100. There are many villages where the population ranges from eight to 10, and in some places only two-three people are residing.

“I have been to some of these ghost villages. In most villages, all the families have migrated, never to return. In some villages, you can find 3-4 elderly people. It’s common to see locked houses, collapsing structures and farms full of weeds and shrubs,” said Robin Chauhan, a journalist based in Uttarakhand.

He added: “There are many reasons why people here have been migrating. The primary reasons are unemployment, lack of medical facilities and lack of schools and educational institutions. Some people returned during the lockdown, but a majority have gone back. Life is tough on the hills. People don’t want the next generation to suffer. They migrate so that their children have more avenues of earning money. The farmers, however, have been gradually migrating because of things that are beyond their control. Erratic rainfall, drying water bodies and lack of irrigation facilities have turned the land barren at an unprecedented rate.”   

The farmers living in the hills have mountain-sized problems”. Image credit: Aanand Mani, a farmer

Farmers, climate change and migration

“It’s for everyone to see that the climate is changing, and the Himalayas are melting. However, it’s the farmers who are getting impacted and are forced to migrate. If steps are not taken today to stop this large-scale migration, that day is not far when the government will have to give money to farmers to stay back and do farming,” said Aanand Mani, a farmer based in Bhimtal, a town in the Nainital district of Uttarakhand. It is situated at an altitude of 1,370 meters above sea level. “My farm is in the foothill, yet it gets difficult. The farmers living in the hills have mountain-sized problems,” he added.

The PIK-TERI study mentions that climate change in the state will increasingly force farmers to abandon farming at high altitudes and move to the plains over the next 30 years. The state government’s action plan on climate change identified three ways climate change may impact agriculture — increased water stress, increased risk of floods and changes in crop yields. Other factors include changed crop season, shifting cultivation zones for certain crops, and drying up of perennial streams.

“The monsoon pattern has changed for sure. It rained so much in February this year. I have not seen so much rain in February in the past 15-20 years. Yes, our agriculture is monsoon fed, but so much rain damaged our rajma (kidney beans), tamatar (tomato), pahadi kheera (cucumber) and mooli (raddish) crop. We used to cultivate kathal (jackfruit) in March-April. Now, we are cultivating it in October-November,” said Anil Pandey, a farmer based in Nainital district. He has his own farm, but he is also into organic farming and is part of a network of 1,200 farmers who have switched to organic farming as it is economically more feasible.

He added: “We are still better placed. Those living in higher altitudes do step farming. Their farms are smaller in size, and the problems manifold. They usually grow potatoes and ginger but could never switch to cash crops. They eat what they grow, so they can’t rely on their farms for a living, and there is nothing else to do on the hills. Water scarcity is a big problem. The spring-fed rivers are drying because trees are being cut to make dams and roads. These rivers used to be a source of irrigation. Rainfall is not sufficient anymore, or it rains a lot. The extraction of groundwater through borewells has impacted the water table. Constant drilling of mountains for tourism is leading to landslides.”

While the previous generation of farmers is not willing to give up yet for emotional or sentimental reasons, the younger generation has made up their minds. “Ninety-eight per cent youngsters want to go out. Their parents are not stopping them. They have suffered enough. They don’t want their children to touch farming. Can you imagine how disastrous that is?” asked Mani, the Bhimtal-based farmer.

Farmers in the hills eat what they grow, so they can’t rely on their farms for a living, and there is nothing else to do on the hills. Image credit: Aanand Mani

As per Narendra Mehra, a farmer based in Haldwani, both central and state governments have launched various schemes for irrigation and are taking steps to contain migration, but the results are not visible. “There is so much corruption that the schemes that look so fancy on paper are not even reaching the beneficiaries. The officials distribute seeds very randomly. They themselves don’t know the crops and their production patterns. Wild boars and monkeys destroy our entire produce. The problems that I am listing are not even related to climate change. The government and the farmers have no control over the climate. But why can’t we focus on manmade problems and find solutions? What about compensation? The October rains ruined paddy worth Rs 100 crore in Udham Singh Nagar district. Last I heard a committee was formed to evaluate losses so that compensation could be given. If you are asking me if the government is taking any concrete steps to stop migration, the answer is no,” he said.

What farmer Mani from Bhimtal said about his brother shows how the problem of migration is altering the social fabric of the state. “My brother is 36. We have not been able to find a girl for him. Likewise, there are many youngsters in the state who are facing similar problems. They are earning well but marriage is still an issue. People from the hills who migrate elsewhere, work in hotels and earn Rs 2,000-3,000 and are all settled. That is the unfortunate truth. This could become a big problem in the state in the coming years,” said Mani.        

(This is Part-1 of our three-part series on climate change and migration) 

Also read: Ladakh is sitting on a ticking time bomb.

We do hope that you enjoy reading our stories. We are a very small team of two; with no funding or resources to back us, and your contributions will help us in keeping this platform free and accessible for everyone. If you wish to contribute, click here.

“It is tragic that people make elephants run like rats by throwing fireballs at them”

Between 2015 and 2019, 62 elephants were killed by trains in India and more than 1,700 people and more than 300 elephants died in encounters with each other. The human-elephant conflict is real, and, in most cases, humans are to be blamed for it. In the name of development and wanting more coal mines, factories, railway lines and wider highways, we have entered the homes of elephants and we blame them for coming out and destroying paddy fields and harming humans. In one of the chapters of her recently published book Wild and Wilful, Neha Sinha, conservation biologist and author, has documented many heart-breaking stories of elephants and their calves falling into mine pits, getting crushed under trains or sustaining burn injuries because of fireballs thrown at them. On this World Elephant Day, The Good Story Project co-founder Swati Subhedar interviews Neha Sinha to understand how deep-rooted the human-elephant conflict is and challenges of wildlife conservation.

In her book, which came out in February 2021, Sinha has documented stories of crisis involving iconic species found in India – the Indian leopard, the Asian elephant, the Bengal tiger, the great Indian bustard, the white-bellied heron, the amur falcon, the Ganges river dolphin, the king cobra, the tiger butterflies, the rhesus macaque monkeys, the rosy starlings and the magarmach – and how development has been and will continue to be a silent killer of these iconic species.  

…..    

The elephant is our national heritage animal, yet, today only about 27,000 wild elephants remain in India, as opposed to a million a decade ago. We have entered the homes of elephants in the name of development. How can we undo the damage already being done?

There is a lot of conflict between people and elephants in India. Other than the elephant conflict that happens in terms of people and elephants encountering each other and getting hurt, there is another kind of conflict. A lot of planning has been done in areas where elephants live and many mines, industries, factories, railway tracks and highways have come up in these areas which is detrimental to them. The elephants must walk to find food and water. But, with their habitat shrinking, they have to walk through and around the obstructions made in the name of development. This leads to disasters. Let me give you an example. In 2015, the elephants near Kaziranga in Assam encountered something novel – a wall meant for a township and a golf course. The wall was a part of the elephants’ walkway. For days, they made attempts to cross this barrier. Many photos emerged and in one of the pictures, a calf was seen trying to break the wall with his tiny head. The calf was later found dead next to the wall having suffered a haemorrhage.

In another instance, in 2019, villagers in Naxalbari in North Bengal tried to push off a herd of elephants from their paddy fields by throwing fireballs at them. Scared, the herd moved towards a railway line. The entire herd crossed the line, but a young calf could not as there was a steep incline. The calf scrambled down the slope and got hit by a train that came rushing towards it. His mother Ganga – an extremely loving and caring mother figure to the entire herd – died saving her child.

There have been many instances where elephants have sustained injuries or have died because of people chasing them with sticks or throwing firecrackers and fireballs at them to shoo them away. It’s tragic. The elephant is our national heritage animal, and we make them run like rats. They are very emotional animals. They have long memories, and they remember tragic incidents. They are also sharp enough to pass on this information to their young ones. The elephant chapter in the book is the longest one. It was difficult for me to write stories so full of tragedies.

Ganga and her calf. Both were killed by a train in 2019. Image credit: Avijan Saha

Last year, during the nationwide lockdown, there was outrage when an elephant died after consuming a cracker-filled pineapple. People could express their anger because the incident was reported. Many elephants die a silent death, and we don’t get to grieve for them. What should be done to keep the human-elephant conflict debate alive?

There was outrage because the elephant was also pregnant. We must understand that at any given point in time, a female elephant is either pregnant or is a caregiver. They have long pregnancies and because they are big animals, the young ones stay with their mothers for a few years. So, a female elephant dying is extremely tragic. It was terrible the way that pregnant elephant died after consuming the pineapple which was a bait bomb. People reacted the way they did was because everybody likes the idea of a mother and the mother being a caregiver.

People should understand that elephants are not trying to harm them. By entering their fields, all they are doing is trying to survive. They enter the fields because it’s easy nutrition for them and because their habitat has shrunk. There is no need to kill them or be so unkind to them. However, instead of merely saying that farmers should not harm them, we need to have a system in place. For any kind of conservation, we need political will as well as support from people. We need to take some hard decisions. To begin with, we cannot have more highways and coal mines in elephant areas.

Author and conservation biologist Neha Sinha and her book

Your book – Wild and Wilful – documents stories of conflicts involving some of the iconic species found in India and how they are on the verge of extinction. Tell us more about your book which you started writing during one of the gloomiest chapters of our lives – the pandemic-induced lockdown. How difficult was it to a write about wilderness while being confined to four walls of your home?

I did a lot of fieldwork for this book and started writing it in the end of 2019. I wanted to finish it by mid-2020 but the pandemic happened, and things became difficult. I wanted to visit many more places while writing this book, but that did not happen. I am a wildlife person and I need to be outside. It was tough writing this manuscript sitting at home!

This book is about the wild and I have been to deserts, mountains, rivers, woodlands, lakes and political capitals to bring you the stories of India’s wildest citizens, along with some remarkable people who share insights on, and their lives with, these animals. In the book I have written about the Indian Leopard, the Asian elephant, the Bengal tiger, the great Indian bustard, the white-bellied heron, the amur falcon, the Ganges river dolphin, the king cobra and the spectacled cobra, tiger butterflies, rhesus macaque monkeys, the rosy starlings and the magarmach or the Mugger crocodile. The book loosely follows the structure of Earth, Sky, Water and Heart. It is divided further into the places where the animals are found. Under ‘Earth’, we have political capitals, deserts, woodlands and forest, under ‘Sky’, we have birds and butterflies that spend days migrating between countries or states. Under ‘Water’, we have ponds and rivers. Under Heart, we have urban jungles, the places many of us live in.

A leopard seen in a tea garden in North Bengal. Image credit: Avijan Saha

Which chapter of your book is your favourite and why?

The elephant chapter is the closest to my heart as I felt very emotional while writing it. However, I also like the butterfly chapter. The butterflies are so whimsical and mysterious at the same time they are so beautiful and fragile. Their stories are so fascinating! For instance, the black and orange-coloured monarch butterflies, found in America, migrate not just over countries but continents! They start from Canada, avoiding the cold, and reach Mexico where they cover fir trees in millions. A single butterfly cannot complete this intercontinental journey. On the way southwards, the butterfly lays eggs, caterpillars emerge, and new butterflies are born. Hence, the butterflies that reach Mexico from Canada are third or fourth generation butterflies!

Which species mentioned in your book requires our immediate attention?

It would definitely be the great Indian bustard (GIB). There are about 100 remaining in India and that’s the entire global population. Over the years, their habitat has shrunk considerably. Earlier, they were found all over Central India, the Deccan Plateau, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh. Now they and found only in Rajasthan and Gujarat. However, the solar and wind energy plants that have come up in the deserts of Rajasthan and Gujarat are the latest threat to them. The plants are not a problem, the real problem are the wires that carry the power to energy grids. The GIBs never evolved to dodge these wires. They are the heaviest flying birds on earth, so they lack the speed and manoeuvrability that other birds have. The Supreme Court has directed the governments of Gujarat and Rajasthan to lay high voltage power lines underground in the habitats of the bird to aid in its conservation efforts. We should have implemented this yesterday. We cannot afford to lose more GIBs. In 2019, a centre was set up in Rajasthan. Here, birds are hatched from eggs, chicks are raised, and ultimately, they all are released back into the wild. This is a good first step.

The Great Indian Bustard. Image credit: Dhritiman Mukherjee

India had 1.2 million snakebite deaths from 2000 to 2019. Hence, there is a tendency to attack and kill snakes. However, there is also a section that worships snakes. We have a similar love-hate relationship with elephants and monkeys. Does this make their conservation difficult? 

Yes, we do have a bipolar perspective on many animals. We kill cobras, but we also kill the rat snakes, that are not even poisonous. We worship elephants and keep them in temples, which is incorrect. They are wild animals, and it takes years of beating before they become the way they are seen in temples. All this is done in the name of culture. However, culture should be progressive and not stuck in a time capsule. Having said that, there are genuine problems and conservation cannot happen if we ignore these problems. There is a reason why people kill snakes. So instead of blaming them, there is a need to create awareness. Just like the covid vaccine is not an option, having an antidote (drug, chelating substance, or a chemical that neutralizes the effects of another drug or a poison) available in places which have snake bite is not an option. However, at many primary health centres, these antidotes are either expired or not available. These problems need to be solved and not pushed under the carpet.

A King cobra. Imamge credit: Jignasu Dolia

We love discussing politics, current affairs, cricket or our Olympic wins over chai, coffee and drinks. However, grave issues like climate change, environment-related issues, human-animal conflicts and wildlife conservation are topics that don’t come up for discussion frequently. What should be done to change this?

A report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently mentions that India may see more heatwaves, landslides, droughts, rainfall, cyclones and agricultural and ecological droughts. There has been an increase in extreme events like excessive rainfall in the Himalayas and frequent cyclones. We are going to suffer financial loss and loss of livelihood because of these extreme events. Climate change is going to affect all of us, and we must take it seriously. Henceforth, our development plans should not disregard climate change. We shouldn’t be blasting the mountains in the Himalayas to make roads. We are aware. Acceptance is not a problem, but lack of action is. We want to continue to function like we have been functioning. We are already experiencing climate change, but the government is pretending as if it does not know. We are still planning dams in the Himalayas even though every year people are dying because of floods and landslides. We need a greater citizen movement. Societal pressure will lead to the government acting. But for that to happen, people need to start talking and discussing.   

A mugger crocodile. Image credit: Neha Sinha

How should we train our children so that they start taking issues like wildlife conservation and climate change seriously right from a young age?

This is a good time. There are a lot more eco clubs than there ever were before. People are using Apps to identify birds, plants and insects. People are reading a lot more and taking up conservation and wildlife as serious hobbies. As for the kids, they need to be taken outside. I can not stress this enough. It does not matter where — in the wilderness, deserts, forests, grasslands. Seeing is learning and nature is very interesting. Something is constantly happening. Our children need to touch the soil, they need to feel the texture of the leaves. If we get them to do this, half the battle is won.  

“Our children need to touch the soil, they need to feel the texture of the leaves”. Image credit: Swati Subhedar

A million-dollar question. Can development and wildlife conservation go hand in hand?

Development is important. However, there has to be social and environmental conscience as well. If you are opening an industry that pollutes the water table, then find options for people living there and the wildlife. Don’t make things worse than they already are. There is lot of scope of sustainable development in India so we must start walking the talk now. We wanted to clean the Ganga and the Yamuna, but we have not managed to achieve that. The Ganga and Yamuna Action Plans are in place for years. We must act now. We must keep the eco-system intact. The more we disturb it, the more difficult life on earth is going to be.

Neha Sinha is an award-winning wildlife conservationist. She has studied biodiversity conservation at Oxford University, after winning an INLAKS scholarship, and works with the Bombay Natural History Society at present. She is also a noted columnist and has taught environmental politics at Delhi University. Wild animals are her favourite, followed closely by books.