Neglected snow-bound villages of Borderland

(Also published in Garhwal Post)

By the time this piece appears in Garhwal Post the much hyped first Cabinet meeting of Bahuguna Government would have taken place in Gairsain, on 3rd November 2012, as one gathers from newspapers official advertisements. While the press and media cover various aspects of apparent underdevelopment of mountain regions of this new state spurred by whatever aspect their correspondent decide to high-light after their visit to the interiors of border –regions of Chamoli,  we avail this opportunity to devote some attention to the quintessence mountain villages of our state — the 109 snow-bound villages of Pithoragarh, Bageshwar, Chamoli and Uttar Kashi districts.

Snow-bound Villages : Category apart

Our media does cover these hapless 109 villages but only on two occasions. Once every year, while reporting the closing dates of the celebrated Char-dhams, namely the Yamunotri, Gangotri, Kedarnath and Badrinath i.e. when these shrines will be officially closed for the winters and the Hindu deities that reside there will also move down to the warmers locations, as their summer residences will become too cold even for their comfort ! Next, every Tenth year, when on different dates, their non-synchronous enumeration of households followed by headcount, are to be done for these villages. This becomes necessary as on the National Enumeration Day these villages do not house their residents, being snow-bound in the month of March. While the difficulty encountered by the enumerators of the Census department is adjusted every tenth year what about the life in these villages, after say the month of September every year ?  

These 109 villages fall in two categories, first those like Mana and Niti, in Chamoli district, where our Cabinet will assemble at Gairsain to send out a resounding message that they also care for the mountain villages of this so-called mountainous State, the Eleventh Himalayan State. Mana and Niti, are relatively better known because these are connected by all-weather roads. What about those villages which are not yet connected by all-weather roads, notwithstanding the fact that in the neighbourhood China has already built an airport, at the base of Mount Kailas in Tibet and Lipu-lekh pass is now connected on the China side by an all weather road. While pilgrims helped by KMVN, and local traders helped by no-one, continue to brave and curse their own government on the time being taken to complete a strategic road promised for completion in year 2012,  the local authorities and the Border Roads Organisation ( BRO ) spend yet another year doing precious nothing. No one seems to be bothered about why is it taking so long and who is really responsible for this criminal delay and utter neglect of the sentiments of the border-people.

Indifferent  Local  Administration

Officials who are generally posted to these remote and sensitive border districts continue to be those who in the olden days of Uttar Pradesh were reportedly afflicted by any one of the proverbial three Ps,  i.e. Probation ( on trial ), Punishment or Promotion ! Applications filed by this writer under RTI Act reveals that district magistrates and senior officials very rarely, if at all, visit these remote regions, and even if they do, try their best to leave just no evidence of having done so in a productive manner ! I had asked for their Inspection reports, which of course are mandatory after every official visit, and their measly number let out the true story. All that Chief Minister Bahuguna needs to ask for is a copy of the Inspection Notes recorded by his district magistrates of the border districts and he would need no better or further evidence of the utter neglect of border blocks and these snow-bound villages by his district officials. What about senior officials sitting at the headquarters ? Less said the better. Perhaps record of Uttar Pradesh days of senior officials visiting these remote areas would now look far better as they at least had the much-maligned excuse to take their summer-smitten families to the colder hill-stations and pilgrimages, once every year. Hill-postings during those “ Good old UP Days ” were coveted as these provided to some of them a golden opportunity to please and placate their bosses, at least once a year. Work-performance was given a go-bye, if this particular hospitality-duty was performed with due-diligence. As the then Hill Development Secretary I had many an opportunity to report such instances, to the then Medical and Health, Social Welfare and some other departmental heads. Administration these days has become just Dehradun bound and officials stationed at Dehradun visit Delhi much more frequently, officially and mandatorily on week-ends, than they do their actual charges, the remote underdeveloped hill districts. “ Improved Air and Train connectivity”, since the formation of the state,  is highly appreciated by our Dehradun-based –Delhi-bound officials and politicians, more than any one else, which of course is quite true in their own cases. Mountain administration has been reduced to what is well known as “rural tourism” in development literature.

How callous could local officials in these border districts could become  would be apparent from the  records of Panchayat Raj department during the latest delimitation process. When one such official was requested to consider creating more Gram Panchayats in these remote snow-bound areas, as without such a dispensation the mandatory minimum funds, like NREP/JRY, available to only Gram Panchayat could become available, for their infrastructural development, their response was just indifference. Instead of showing personal interest the best they could do was to go by what their coterie of junior official would advise them. Such requests fell on deaf-ears even though it was proved to them that before the Chinese attack in 1962 the very same region had as many as 12 Gram Panchayats, compared to the present just 2 for as many as 15 revenue villages ! Neither the life, nor the living conditions have changed for majority of these unconnected snow-bound villages. Attitude and behaviour of the officials, if anything, has definitely worsened since the creation of the new State and getting worse by the day.                  

Unheard  & Unseen at  Gairsain

By the 3rd of November 2012, when the Bahuguna Cabinet scores a major brownie point of having held the very first Cabinet meeting away from Dehradun, or rather the first ever Cabinet meeting in a mountain-place called Gairsain, what would not get heard is the voice of a 78 year old border-man who has just come back from his village at a height of nearly 10,000 feet above the mean sea-level. Durga Singh Martolia, aged more than 78 years, hails from Martoli, a village which is readying itself to go under-snow any day from now. As he came down to Munsyari, where I met him recently, he shared his experiences of living in such remote villages of Uttarakhand, which remain snow-bound for more than half of the year, every year from May to October, made to involuntarily move down to warmer places.                

Durga Singh Martolia, aged 78 years, a senior respected member of Johari Sauka tribe has been visiting his ancestral village unfailingly and notwithstanding the scandalously bad road conditions, linking Munsyari with Martoli, almost the last outpost of human habitation in these parts. This strategic road, being built by the Border Roads organisation, and promised to be completed by year 2012 is now only famous for the kind of corrupt practices which are getting reported by the villagers who benefit indirectly, through purchase of diesel being sold by these road-making officials at a rate of Rs 15 per litre ! This diesel incidently gets air-lifted to Milam and Martoli as its cartage is simply impossible and it finds way to common needy citizens through corrupt practices. BRO is a shielded organization under the RTI Act and this protection is bestowed in the name of state secret and national security. Recent disclosures of corruption in the Ladak sector, in the name of strategic road making, appear to be being practiced here as well, as alleged by Durga Singh Martolia. According to Durga Singh these villages are still living in , as he says, in the Dark Ages, without any signa of a welfare government being in place. He mentions that as against 12 Gram Sabhas in 1962 for 15 revenue villages there are just two, Panchu and Burfu. Every village suffers from basic infrastructural facilities like roads, drinking water, bridges over river and rivulets, as each village is at least 12 to 15 km distant from one another. Medical facilities and services are just non-existant.  

He warns about the increasing shortage of houses and cultivable lands in each of these villages, as the number of migrants increases year to year. As is well known in high Himalayan villages, while there is land for abadi, where the old houses have been constructed, when it comes to cultivable land, there is no separate identifiable land. Common village pool, or the “gol-khata” signified common pool land. No formal division has been tried and as more migrants are moving in, family disputes on land issues are on the increase. Unless some immediate solution to this age-old problem is not found the village life is going to be quite tense. Something like consolidation of holdings, share-division based on equitable but based-on shares, is officially arranged. Then there is going to be the issue of land-less dependent families, who never owned any land but would now need some for shelter. This according to him deserves to be attended to on top priority.

As the  number of unemployed and unemployable people migrating every year to these villages, even for short duration of five-six months, increases, issues like arranging and stocking of food-grains and other essential items like LPG, Kerosene etc, both for the BPL and the APL, assume greater importance. Mis-management and delays in supplies are already causing near law and order problems and immense difficulties for those who need them most, the poorest in need of wage employment, tribal and non-tribal labourers.

Mention has already been made about the delay and reported corruption indulged in by the Border Roads Organisation. Instances of boulders and building materials of old dilapidated houses being stolen/shifted and shown as carted, fudging of muster rolls, fake travels covered by illegal sale of diesel shown as consumed, over-reporting of work completed and above all almost non-existant supervision of work are doing rounds locally. Progress of road-making from the Dhapa-Munsyari end

is almost nil during the entire year, with best period of work now lost, and yet another year having been wasted, much to the frustration of the affected tribal population. Fake muster rolls, using names of local residents, are said to be being prepared and paid for, which calls for an independent non-departmental high level enquiry. Durga Singh is highly critical of the ways of the officials of Border Roads Organisation and their working style. The performance of the Nanda Devi Biosphere programmes, commenced since 1995-96 is not worth reporting home either. According to this old sentinel of the border regions there exists a need to differentiate between the genuine residents of these remote snow-bound villagers and those new migrants who now visit only for these benefits. There is an urgent need for better management and supervision of their schemes and programmes. 

Protection of Bhoj-Van and Kasturi-deer

A champion of nurturing precious bhoj-van, near Nanda Devi temple of Martoli, he points out that bringing timber from these bhoj-vans was strictly prohibited. Later after 1960s when the village became almost uninhabited people started drawing timber from these forests. To prevent this serious situation he got a Van Panchayat constituted in 1976 and now after 30 years or so the old Bhoj-van has been somewhat restored back to health. He pleads for not only better protection of this Bhoj-van but bats for similar efforts in all the remaining 12 villages, as it has been shown that it is indeed possible to raise such forests even in those high altitudes. These bhoj-vans are home to the state animal, the kasturi-deer. These rare species of deer are according to him under serious threat of poaching by wild-life hunters, who may be locals, from adjoin Darma valley or even from Nepal. With the down-ward migration of villagers, after September-October, these unscrupulous poachers indeed have a field-day and these abandoned villages become a happy hunting ground for these wildlife criminals, professional poachers.

Uttarakhand’s wildlife administration, if anything, is at least not renowned for its excellence in protection of our precious wild-life. Its neighbouring Askot Wildlife Sanctuary, to the best of my knowledge, is yet to be legally notified finally and certainly not fully manned by willing and qualified field-staff. The Nanda Devi Biosphere, which spills over to the Dung-Milam watershed villages, is controlled remotely from Joshimath, in Chamoli, and so is hardly in a position to make any difference to its management. Rampant poaching, increasing number of forest-offences, collusion of criminals, forest-product smugglers, slack and corrupt custom officials and a conducive Peace Treaty with Nepal allowing free-unhindered passage, and dry-port facilities for Darchula all combine to make this region, helped by abandoned snow-bound villages inhabited by just the immobile  ITBP and armed force jawans, a play-ground for all kinds of illegal activities. This calls for a serious review of internal, criminal, international and strategic man-power planning. Needless to say unless there is an increased participation of the local community and affected villagers even the best of arrangements will not be successful. There is case for revisiting the existing mechanisms for collaboration between the revenue police, civil police, forest personnel, ITBP and Armed forces with an additional participation of the local people to make security and protection arrangements fail-safe. The criminal nexus of forest-wildlife-civil-criminal-trans-boundary crime is well known and far better organised and this calls for a far superior response than that exists on ground right now.  

Senior citizen Durga Singh Martolia would have loved to present some of these issues for consideration of  the historic Gairsain Cabinet meeting but being down financially, and age-wise hugely skeptic after more than 6 decades of Independence, he is not quite sure whether any of these would have received the attention of our policy-makers. Gairsain, additionally, he confides in me, is said to be approachable only by helicopters or chartered planes, which no average mountain-man can really afford. Durga Singh Martolia belongs to a race who ‘walked the mountains’, and he would have preferred that mode of personal travel, had he received a personal invitation from Chief Minister Bahuguna on this historic occasion.

R S Tolia

Late Dr. R.S. Tolia, Ph.D., was former Chief Secretary ( 2003-05 ) and Chief Information Commissioner ( 2005-10) of Uttarakhand. He also served in various voluntary positions after retirement and devoted his time for Mountain Development Agenda.

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