RUDRAPRAYAG: A trek of 2 km from the road takes one to Byunki village, some 12 km from the famous temple of Kalimath. A narrow path leads to a few houses -- most of them locked. Trekking further, a breathtaking view opens up: small houses perched on the mountainside, pine trees dotting the landscape. The silence punctuated by birdsong is soothing.
Further on, after passing yet more locked houses and a locked school, you arrive at the doorstep of the house of Madhuli Devi. She’s a 65-year-old woman with a serious stomach ailment. “They have all left. There are no jobs here, not a single factory. We live in fear of leopards and wild animals.”
The lady and her husband have decided to pack up. There’s no hospital here to treat her, just a medical shop whose owner doubles as a doctor. They intend to move to Srinagar. It’s a 100 km away, a light year away in this terrain of kutcha paths and treacherous roads. In the town, Madhuli Devi and her vegetable vendor husband plan to eke out a livelihood doing odd jobs.
The exodus of Pahadi people like Madhuli Devi is the big issue of this election in Uttarakhand. It continues unabated as politicos debate solutions and analysts say it is too late in the day. Any plan would take years to work. Madhuli Devi has no time to wait.
Unemployment and lack of infrastructure are not the only drivers of this phenomenon unique to Uttarakhand. The man-animal conflict is feeding it too for these hills are where the single column fillers carried in newspapers come from.
''Sure this place looks serene and beautiful. But for us it is a miserable life. Leopards, bears, snakes, wild boar, monkeys, langurs. You name it,'' says Satkari, a resident of Khunnu village in Ukhimath block, not far from Byunki.
According to wildlife expert Sanchay Rawat, villagers here fear leopard attacks the most. Livestock numbers have decreased and leopards come down the mountains and into human habitats in search of food.
According to one study, nearly 60 people are killed by leopards in Uttarakhand every year. Hundreds escape with injuries. Nine out of the 13 districts of Uttarakhand are in the hills. “There’s no village in these hills that’s not vulnerable to a leopard attack,'' says Rawat.
The study suggests that there are more than 1,000 villages in Uttarakhand that are totally deserted. A majority of the villagers have shifted to flatlands like Dehradun, Haridwar, Noida, Delhi, Gurgaon and even Mumbai for employment in factories, industries and hotels.
''There is nothing to do here. The salaries are meager in those cities but something is better than nothing,'' says Ashish Kumar Semwal, a resident of Rudraprayag.
To the Pahaadis, this election holds out no hope no matter who wins it, Congress or BJP. ''We have no faith left in political parties. Most of us have decided to use the NOTA option,'' says Semwal.
Till a decade ago, migration had not been in such large numbers. There used to be a trickle of it when Uttarakhand was carved out of Uttar Pradesh in 2000. But it has now become a torrent. The state governments of the new state have been able to nothing to stop it. Anita Narayan, a resident of Jalmalla village, said there used to be 100 families in her village. Now only 50 are left and planning to leave.
In the heat of the electoral battle, parties make promises. Congress spokesman Mathura Dutt Joshi promises bonus payments to farmers, doctors in remote areas, industrial training units for the youth and jobs in the forest sector.
And BJP MP Munna Singh Chauhan promises small and micro enterprises, organic farming, tourism, roads and bridges. He says the all-weather road for Char Dham Yatra, the foundation stone for which was laid by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is a move in this direction.
But Dehradun-based analyst Triloknath Rawat says it’s too late.
''The Congress is talking about reverse migration by 2022 while the BJP says it will create and infrastructure. Even they know it’s impossible. In five years, these villages will be empty.''