In the villages of Uttarakhand’s Rudraprayag district, June 2020 seems to have redefined crossroads. This year marks the seventh anniversary of the Kedarnath floods, when a catastrophe unfolded on the district's lap and shoulders — ravaging other areas of the region and devouring lives and livelihoods.
The Kedarnath dham withstood the force of the flash floods. Everything that stood in the path of river Mandakini, swirled into her fury, leaving thousands dead and missing. That was 2013.
In 2020, the threat of the Chinese virus is staring at the villages of Rudraprayag district.
The pilgrimage season this year was supposed to mark the turnaround in the lives and livelihoods of people.
The Centre-state restoring and rebuilding efforts led by PM Narendra Modi in Kedarnath and the region, and the smooth coordination and reviews between the Centre and the Trivendra Singh Rawat-led government, were to bear the nascent fruit.
This year, the people of the region were looking forward to the pilgrimage season. The opening of the doors of the abode of Baba Kedarnath would once again usher in pilgrims from all across the country.
For people whose lives and livelihoods depend on the inflow of pilgrims to the Kedarnath dham, their earnings during this period support their families for the entire year.
The threat of the Chinese virus has slammed a pause on what could be the bold sign of an uplifting scenario.
The Uttarakhand government has issued fresh guidelines for the 'darshan’ at the Char Dham shrines from 1 July.
The Char Dhams will be open for darshan only for the people of Uttarakhand -- barring the containment zones and the quarantined residents. The number of pilgrims has been capped for each dham.
However, villages and villagers seem as robust and resolute as they have been during these seven years, to leap away from the feeling gloom brought by the crises.
They are working to turn the current Covid adversity into an opportunity for shaping the future.
At the centre of it all are the returning migrants.
The pradhans in the villages and the state government are doing their own bit to hold the migrants back.
Protection of villages from the virus is the priority at the village level. At the same time, the pradhans are not ignoring the homework, to remain in touch with the future. They are working to make the returnees feel at home — with some convincing and help.
Reverse migration, even if short-lived, is making the villages spring back to life.
The general perception is that the livelihoods of the returnees would be threaded to the reconstruction around the Kedarnath dham, the picking of tourist inflow post-Covid, and the revival in the temple ecosystem.
For that to be in flow, the pradhans are encouraging the returnees to help in keeping the village safe from the virus, and two, in finding employment opportunities.
On its part, the state government has begun its efforts to try and hold back the returnees — to renew their roots and shoots.
The Two Watermarks
In Ukhimath block’s Byukhi village, Sudarshan Singh, the village pradhan, is worried about the safety and health of the members of the village vigilance team.
They ensure that the mandatory quarantine of the returnee migrants is followed, and keep a check on the village residents, among other duties.
He says, “We are frontline workers protecting the village. The state government must provide us life insurance. Our priority is to keep the villagers and the returning migrants safe, but what if something happens to one of us? What would our families do?”
On 16 June 2013, Hukam Singh, a resident of Lwara village in Rudraprayag district's Ukhimath block was in Sonprayag. He witnessed the first massive warning of the unfolding of a calamity. The heavy rains were wreaking havoc.
In Sonprayag, he witnessed the sliding and crashing of a massive rock. Its sound is deeply etched in his memory, just as the events of June 2013 are for villages in Rudraprayag district.
The threat of the Chinese virus: unseen, silent, creeping and feared by the residents is keeping Hukum Singh, who is now serving his village as pradhan, on guard and on his feet.
He is doing everything possible to fight the virus threat with limited means and infrastructure.
This author wrote earlier this month on how the pradhans in the districts of Uttarakhand are keeping the villages safe from the threat of the virus. Villages and village heads have a twin task — that of protecting the villages, and of assisting the returnees in finding employment opportunities.
Over the years, outmigration has been a serious issue for the hill districts of Uttarakhand.
People living in these villages have migrated to other parts of Uttarakhand, and other states, owing to challenges thrown by the geographies and agriculture, lack of employment opportunities, educational institutions, and healthcare infrastructure.
Accepting Home And Its Imperfections
So far, 57 migrants have returned to the village Raulenk of the Ukhimath block.
Village pradhan Kamlendra Singh says that many of those migrants are refusing to return to work outside the state and are filling up forms to make their details and skills reach the state government.
The pooling of land for the increase of agricultural cultivation seems to be returning to the narrative.
Nearly 50 migrants have returned to Maikoti village in Agastamuni block.
Village head Amit Pradali faced some hurdles initially in the quarantining of returnees. He says, “Initially, it was tough to see people not taking the quarantine seriously. There are times when villagers have to move around for the care of their cattle, herds and fields. We have to take these things into account. Things settled down gradually with more communication,” he says.
This doesn't distract him from taking a look at the future. Pradali feels that the policies and programmes reflect the government’s readiness to bring change. The village youth want to see things falling in place on the ground.
He adds, “They prefer agri-based livelihood options. Dairy units and fruit orchards would be good options.”
Earlier this month, it was reported that CM Rawat stated that providing employment opportunities to residents of the state was one of the top priorities. He held a meeting with officials of the Rural Development and Migration Commission (RDMC) in this regard.
Promoting local products, making the benefits of Mukhyamantri Swarozgar Yojana reach the people, and helping them in packaging and marketing are part of the state government's current priorities.
Officials of the commission will provide recommendations for the economic rehabilitation of the returnees and a report will be prepared.
Several aspects of migration in Rudraprayag (along with Chamoli and Bageshwar districts will be taken into account).
Fight the Crisis While Shaping the Future
The forced reverse migration coincides with the work on the Rishikesh Karnprayag rail project, which is expected to be complete by 2024.
Between 2020 and 2024, the work on helping the returnees find ground in their own villages and the completion of the ongoing road and rail projects in Garhwal would be one of the top priorities for Teerath Singh Rawat, Member of Parliament from the Garhwal seat.
Rawat says that he will be working with the state government in providing sustainable employment to the returnees, which would require a push to agriculture and agri-related activities and the marketing of produce.
For providing livelihood support to women through skill-based activities, he wants to encourage the Mahila Mangal Dal, local self-help groups, village residents and block level administrations to pool action on ground instead of NGOs from outside.
“Sehkarita ke madhyam se unki training aur samooh ke adhar par yeh kaam hona chahiye,” he told Swarajya.
He is looking at a scenario where the all-weather road and the Rishikesh-Karnprayag rail project will spur change in Badrinath, Kedarnath, Rishikesh, Karnprayag, Gwaldam, Bageshwar Dharchula, Tharali, Ramnagar and Kashipur.
"The work has gained momentum. It hasn’t stopped during lockdown. It has gained progress in Gauchar, Karnprayag, Srinagar, and Maletha,” adds Rawat.
The road infrastructure is expected to bolster the improvement in health facilities and infrastructure.
He adds, “Connect this with the benefits of the Bharatmala project — till the Mana border. We are keeping a watch on the work in coordination with CM Rawat. Once machinery and industry reach where they haven't [yet], it will work towards curbing migration.”
He is looking at a scenario where the journey from Dehradun to Srinagar (in Uttarakhand) will come down in terms of hours.
Health infrastructure is a big concern for the state, especially in the hill districts. It is understood to be one of the reasons for outmigration from the hill districts of the state.
Covid has pushed migrants back to their villages in Rudraprayag despite this grey area.
Rawat adds, “We (Centre) will pursue the vision and work towards the setting up of medical colleges in every district of Uttarakhand. CM Rawat has been making efforts to improve the presence of doctors and the improvement in health facilities in the hill districts of the state.”
Holding Back The Returnees
Ganga Singh, the pradhan of Chauki Barsil village of Agastmuni block, is not wasting time. “The village needed work to be done on a prasuti kendra and pratiksha grah. Some of the returnees are working on that.”
Some returnees have told Ganga Singh that they would not like to leave the village even after Covid fades — especially in NCR. “Yeh mentality ban gayee hai,” he says.
Others are not too happy with Covid throwing them back in the village. They would want to leave the village for the greener pastures once the virus recedes.
He says, “It is a strange situation. The Nepalis and Biharis work really hard. Locals trust them and appreciate their work. On the other hand, our own people are not ready to work in the village. Better employment options will help in keeping them in the village or district.”
With the help of the existing Veer Chandra Garhwali Yojana, which was broadened in 2019 in order to address and pierce the problem of outmigration, the Trivendra Singh Rawat government is looking at creating sustainable employment opportunities related to tourism.
Facilities to run restaurants, taxis, cars, buses and tourist information centres are the focus areas.
However, migrants seem to look at these as mere ‘policies’.
Ganga Singh is of the view that the migrants’ turning to villages for rebuilding lives and remaining there would need solid work on ground. “It will fall in place with more communication and awareness,” he says.
They Call Her Persistence
Jyoti Semwal, a resident of Dewali Bhanigram in Ukhimath block of Rudraprayag district finds it hard to comprehend the events that unfolded in her life between 16 June and 19 June 2013.
She didn't have a moment to grieve.
Now the pandemic has mounted a huge responsibility over her shoulders.
Having fought hardships in her personal life during the seven years, today, she is at the helm of the village's fight against the threat of Covid.
Her concerns oscillate between the panchayat shishu kendra and a private hotel, which have been turned into quarantine centres for people arriving from outside Uttarakhand.
People returning from within the state are under home quarantine.
Semwal lost her husband to the floods. Her brother-in-law, too, did not return.
So devastating was the loss of lives from this village that many women were left widowed. These were men earning livelihoods with the help of ‘"ghoda-kachchar’, whom they consider part of the family.The animals are used for making the journey of pilgrims easier.
The village briefly got the heartrending title — ‘village of widows’ — in 2013 in the mainstream media narrative that year.
During these seven years, whenever anyone in her village spoke about the 2013 Kedarnath floods, Semwal felt as if she was hearing about the disaster for the first time. “It all seems like a joke. We didn't have the time to come to terms with the loss.”
Many NGOs came to the village. Among them was Sulabh International. She adds, “It helped the women of the village stick together while helping us revive and imbibe skills — such as stitching and knitting.” She points out that some NGOs left the village after mere tokenism and after taking pictures.
She tells Swarajya that in a post Covid scenario, the reconstruction and rehabilitation in the region would begin to bear fruit. Yet, many women of her village would still be left largely untouched by the prospects of livelihoods associated with the pilgrim inflow.
She says, “We have children to take care of. Picking up livelihood options associated with the pilgrim inflow means that women will have to leave the kids behind and spend an entire day away from home and village for work. That's impossible.”
Meanwhile, Teerath Singh Rawat says that he is and will be working closely with CM Rawat in trying to hold back the sons of the soil who have returned amid the pandemic, in the villages, by the state-centre work in different spheres.
He concludes, “The villages, the state and the country's soldiers need them in the villages.”
Sumati Mehrishi is Senior Editor, Swarajya. She tweets at @sumati_mehrishi
An appeal from Swarajya
At Swarajya, we rely on our readers' support through subscriptions to sustain our media platform. Unlike larger conglomerates, we are unable to relentlessly chase advertising money — our model is largely built on your patronage.
Your support has never been more crucial. We work tirelessly to deliver 10-15 high-quality articles daily, ensuring you receive insightful content from 7 AM to 10 PM.
If you believe India's story has to be articulated in a way it has never been done before without shrugging it off, become a patron (or) subscribe now for ₹̶2̶4̶0̶0̶ ₹1999 and get 12 print issues, unlimited digital access for 1 year, a special India that is Bharat T-shirt (Offer ends soon).
We are counting on you!