Transforming a ghost village with hill-centric livelihood and tourism opportunities

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Major Gorki Chandola is reviving traditional practices in agriculture, construction and tourism to sustainably develop his village. Photo by Archana Singh.

India’s northern state of Uttarakhand, known as the Land of Gods, is facing the dual challenge of climate change and migration. The incidence of glacier bursts, flash floods, unseasonal torrential rains, forest fires, and landslides have swelled in the state. The dwindling population is another crisis that is making life harder for the residents.

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Climate change is driving temperatures up dramatically, especially in the higher elevations. As per a recent study conducted by the Germany-based Potsdam Institute for Climate Research (PIK) and The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), Uttarakhand’s annual average maximum temperature may increase by 1.6-1.9 degrees Celsius between 2021 and 2050. The residents of Uttarakhand are already experiencing the effects of climate change such as changing seasons, less snowfall during winters, disappearing glaciers, upward-moving snowlines, and unpredictable rainfall, as mentioned in the state government’s action plan on climate change.

A combination of these factors has increased the intensity of landslides, avalanches, rockfall and has amplified water shortage, changed the crop cycles, shifted cultivation zones for specific crops and decreased the crop yields. A state where most of the population is agrarian and depends solely on rainfed agriculture, Uttarakhand finds it difficult to control distress migration.

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Climate change has amplified water shortage, changed the crop cycles, shifted cultivation zones for specific crops and decreased the crop yields in Uttarakhand. Photo by Archana Singh.

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According to India’s census from 2011, more than four million people – about 40% of the population of Uttarakhand – have migrated from the hilly state, due to which an increasing number of villages in Uttarakhand have become uninhabited, and some districts such as Pauri, Garhwal and Almora are witnessing negative population growth. According to a 2018 survey by the Uttarakhand Migration Commission, 734 villages in the state have become uninhabited since 2011, and are often referred to as ghost villages. This dual crisis of climate change and distress migration is likely to worsen for Uttarakhand over the next 30 years.

Reverse migration during the pandemic: A silver lining or just an illusion?

The COVID-19 pandemic brought a temporary respite from distress migration by catalysing the reverse migration trend. According to the data released by Uttarakhand Migration Commission in September 2020, around 327,000 migrants returned to the state in 2020. The Uttarakhand State Government launched Mukhyamantri Swarojgar Yojana in May 2020 to create employment opportunities for returning migrants. The scheme aimed to provide 15-25% investment subsidies to returning migrants who wanted to start new services, businesses, and micro industries for self-employment. However, despite the state government’s initiative, more than one lakh (100,000) migrants returned to cities after the pandemic situation improved.

Mongabay-India interacted with some migrants who returned to their villages in the recent past. Dheeraj Rawat, a resident of Pauri says, “I returned to Pauri last year in October, after 15 years, to set up my own business. But after trying for months, I gave up the idea. Getting a loan sanctioned under the Mukhyamantri Swarojgar Yojana, was very tough, involved too much paperwork, never-ending bureaucracy and the banks required collateral to disburse a loan. It seemed easier to find a job in metros than to go through all the hassle.”

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Pesticide-free seasonal fruits grown in Pauri. Photo by Archana Singh.

Rakesh Rawat, a returning migrant of Satyakhal village in Pauri who set up his own poultry business availing the scheme however, could not reap any benefits. He shares his experience, “The scheme is short-sighted and good on paper, as it provides only subsidised loans, that too, to a select few – mostly the economically well-off. The government doesn’t provide any on-ground support, and small businesses like us cannot survive against established players. I learnt it the hard way.” Nonetheless, not all Uttarakhandi people left the state. Some have restarted their life without the help of the government.

Reviving an abandoned village

Four years back, Major Gorki Chandola left his city life to settle down permanently in his ancestorial village – Rawat gaon in Pauri Garhwal. Ironically, Pauri is both the most educated and the most abandoned district in Uttarakhand.

Sharing his reason for return, Major Chandola narrates, “Having grown up in a village, I knew that my kids would miss clean air, healthy organic food and an active lifestyle, if we lived in the city. So, we decided to move to Rawat gaon, where there were hardly 10-15 people but huge acres of land available for their holistic growth.” His 12-year-old daughter is enrolled in the same school where he studied, and his six-year-old son treks for hours without complaining. The family has adopted the village’s self-sustenance model, where they grow what they eat and eat what they produce. While they have all city comforts in their house, including a Wi-Fi connection and a Netflix subscription, they prefer to spend more time outdoors, than indoors.

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Abandoned houses of Pauri that have withstood every natural calamity for centuries but might not withstand distress migration. Photo by Archana Singh.

Thanks to Major Chandola’s efforts, the locality that once looked like a ghost town, now looks lively. The road that leads to the village has been properly laid, and the crumbling houses have been restored. Abandoned farms are being used for farming, and outgrown tree branches have been pruned. A rainwater harvesting plant has been installed and new water channels are being created for irrigation. Employment and recreation centres have been set up for youth and migrants of neighbouring villages.

But this transformation didn’t come easy. The biggest challenge for Major Chandola was to attract the migrants back to the village. “I know migration is a big issue and I can’t solve it, but I can play a part by creating hill-centric and climate-resilient livelihood options. It’s straightforward – if you provide people opportunities to work, they will not not migrate. So, I started looking at traditional practices in agriculture, construction, and tourism,” explains Major Chandola.

Hill-centric livelihood options – construction, agriculture and tourism

Chandola started by restoring his own house made of stone and mud which was centuries-old and reviving his abandoned fields. A  former army officer doubled overnight as a farmer, a plumber, a mason, and anything that came with the job. Four years of disciplined efforts resulted in a bumper crop of over thirty varieties of fruit and vegetable – onions, garlic, lemongrass, pulses, peas, beans, ladyfinger, guavas, mangoes and more. Using scientific methods, he started growing fruit and vegetables, like lychee, tangerine, apples, and plum, that had almost vanished from the area due to rising temperatures in the last 10-15 years. Using traditional farming practices and scientific solutions, he has set up many poly houses to grow vegetables and medicinal herbs in the pollution-free environment. He doesn’t use any fertilisers and adds only cow dung manure.

Major Chandola plans to experiment more with the crops and provide employment to the local community, with the business Pathaal Agro in the coming years through which he plans to grow and sell 100% organic food products. He has also set up ‘Pathaal Homestay’ to give city dwellers a taste of the village life in an entirely offbeat area where tourism is almost non-existent. The materials used in the construction of the homestay are completely sustainable with the rooms made of stone, mud, and wood. His wife, Deepti Chandola, an interior designer, painter, and gardener, has helped him and together, they have restored over four ancestorial houses and revived the lost practices in construction.

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Centuries-old house restored to its old glory in Rawatgaon, Pauri, Uttarakhand for Pathaal Homestay. Photo by Archana Singh.

“When we arrived here four years back, we realised that the old construction practice of building stone-mud-wood houses that sustain even earthquakes was being forfeited for modern cement-and-brick houses. We couldn’t find masons who still used old techniques. So, we had to train them to employ traditional practices that are no longer in use; such as using urad daal (split black lentils) for binding instead of cement. Urad dal is a natural binding agent and keeps the house warm during winters and cold during summers. All the paintings that we’ve hung on the walls of the homestay are painted by me using traditional dyes and designs,” expounds Deepti Chandola.

Omprakash Chandola, 56, a native of Rawatgaon, voices the collective opinion of all villagers saying, “We have seen a lot of villagers return to the village for a few days and talk about settling here permanently, but they never do so. They visit for a few days in a year and return to their life in the city. So, when Gorki started showing interest, we felt the same, but what he has done is commendable, and within four to five years, he has become the most important member of the village. He is the first one to help whenever anyone is sick or in need of any help.”

Dinesh Kathait, 56, hailing from Thailisain village in the Pauri Garhwal district, who has supported Major Chandola for the last five years, credits the latter’s efforts to reverse migration and for inspiring many people to return to Pauri for good.

However, it is vital to note that while Major Gorki Chandola had the will and means to turn his dream into a reality, not everyone has the access and capacity. The Uttarakhand Government must invest in the capacity building of people and create climate-resilient livelihood options for the sustainable development of villages, to stop distress migration.

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