Villages, unmanned
By Pranietha Mudaliar

In the plains, June is associated with heat and lethargy. But in the cooler climes of the Kumaon hills, this hectic month marks the beginning of the new agricultural season.
There is a saying in the hills here “Na pahar ka pani raha na jawani rahi.” (The hills hold neither water nor the youth). It seems that the men have disappeared from many Uttarakhand villages.

Radha Sati faces a dilemma. She is proud about the number of SHGs that have cropped up in the village, and the high incidence of women–led initiatives for forest protection, and the feeling of working towards the collective good of the village. Then she adds, “But the migration of the men folk from the village has not reduced. Now with men, even families are moving out. Who will take care of the farms if everyone moves out?”

Munni Bisht's Family with the new apricot Harvest  

Her sentiment is echoed by almost all in the village. Radha Sati, a sharecropper, works on farms that don’t belong to her. Her husband is employed in Delhi and her son has just completed his B.Tech from Bhimtaal and will move to Pune for work. He has no plans of returning to the village.

Out-migration is rampant in rural India, but in Kumaon it has turned into a mass exodus, as degrading lands have made agriculture unviable. Men move to nearby towns such as Haldwani or to cities like Delhi and Lucknow. Almost all families in Kumaon have one male member in the army. Out-migration has not reduced despite numerous programs on forest rejuvenation or watershed restoration taken up by local communities in partnership with NGOs.

Working in cities pays more. Whole families are now moving to cities where education opportunities are better. Education is considered a most crucial instrument that helps them escape the stagnant life in villages.

Aspirations are rising, too. Almost every home has a television. Says Neema Adhikari of Malla village, “with television, people have started aspiring to lead the kind of urban lifestyles as depicted in movies and soaps. They now want to lead a lavish lifestyle and dress like their favourite characters on screen. Television has created a class of people who are increasingly attracted to the urban lifestyle.”

Sitting in a patch of dappling sunlight, Dhanadevi’s hands are continuously busy with knitting the sweaters that you will find on the shelves of Fabindia. She talks about her two sons out of which one is currently serving in the army and the other is working for a BPO in Haldhwani.

Her daughter-in-laws live with her while her sons visit home occasionally. She says that people had to leave the village as agricultural productivity was at an all time low. The money her sons send home helps her run the household of seven. Now with her sons in the city, all her grandchildren go to a local school, and they too will soon be sent to the city to study.

Women have started to don roles initially restricted to males in the village. With most of the able bodied men living in cities, women have now been pushed into agricultural chores in addition to their domestic and household responsibilities. Says Kavita Joshi from Talla village,” Burdens on the women have increased like never before. But now women come out of their homes and also go to the bank themselves.” Women are now more involved in village decision making forums and have the opportunity to voice their opinions in the absence of the men.

“Who needs the men anyways?” said Dhanadevi. She reckons that since women carry the workload, it’s better to have the men living in the cities send them money to supplement household incomes. The hand-to-mouth existence was a major factor for the men to look for jobs in other cities. It makes little sense to put more labour into agriculture to increase savings.

Nevertheless, life in the village is demanding, made worse by women having to labour in small parcels of land. Unlike the neighbouring hill state of Himachal Pradesh that has implemented land consolidation, land holdings in Uttarakhand are small, and scattered. They are instances where two women are responsible for farming 28 small pieces of land.

Such voluntary relocation -- where people are being driven from their villages in part due to opportunity and in part by compulsion -- is creating spaces dominated by women, old men and children. Does this herald a new rural order, one run by women who are more liberated now and capable of running the village economy? Or does it signify the collapse of a much celebrated, imagined bucolic village life? Gandhi once said that India lives in its villages but in this part of Kumaon, the transformation into ghost villages is equally likely.

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