NITI: Nomi Devi's face lights up as she recalls the good old days when Niti used to be bustling with activity. Traders from the Indian side used to meet traders from south Tibet at Niti pass, located at a height of 5,800 m. The trade was barter: salt, kidney beans, potatoes, peas, ghee exchanged for meat, wool and milk.
And then there would be pilgrims to Kailash Mansarovar. Niti, just three days away, was an overnight stop for them “This was a flourishing area and people were prospering,” says Nomi Devi. The1962 war stopped all that. The borders were sealed and trade and pilgrimage were shut.
So now Niti, once a thriving village of 450 families, is down to 70 people -- most of them above 60 years of age. The people remaining behind have been petitioning the administration for help with agriculture and livelihood, but few officials ever bother to turn up, unless it is an occasion like the Doklam standoff.
And Niti is now a shadow of itself, in danger of becoming a ghost village dotting the mountains of Uttarakhand.
Traditionally, Rongpas, commonly known as the Bhotiya tribe, were traders, weavers, herders and farmers. Before 1962, the trade season used to last for five months after the snow melted. The traders would return from the border passes just before the onset of winter, and vacate their villages to move to the plains below.
Located in the Nandadevi Biosphere Reserve, Niti village makes for a perfect tourist destination with its snow-capped mountains, streams and ancient temples. But it is not a tourist destination.
“But who will come here? There are no proper roads and the existing path is dangerous. There is no mobile phone connectivity. There are no hospitals, hotels or petrol bunks,” says local resident Ashish Rana.
In fact, the villagers are dependent on one satellite phone for which they are charged Rs 6 per call.
“The government wants us to stay here but has never given us even basic facilities.
How are we to survive here? We were happy when the government declared this place as a tourist destination. They spoke about tourism-based jobs for the youth and assured they would promote homestays. But then tourists require inner line permits to reach here and the process takes at least four to five days and is not easy. Which tourist will like to get into these hassles,” says Ashish.
Although the Centre allocates funds running into the hundreds of crores for Border Area Development, nothing has reached Niti village so far, except electricity. The villagers are miffed with the local authorities for denying people entry to places like Parvati Kund along the border where a temple is located.
''We are local villagers, why should we need permit in our own area?” wonders S S Rana, a Niti resident.
Transportation is always a problem here. No state transport bus plies up here and the locals are forced to take shared taxis, which can be a life-threatening experience. ''Taxis here stuff people in the vehicle. There are people seated on the top, some hanging. The administration does not want over-crowding of vehicles but at the same time does nothing for transportation,'' says Rana.
Official sources say that in case more people migrate from Niti, hardly 26 km from the LAC, it can pose another major problem for the local administration. ''If the area is uninhabited for long, there is always a chance of China making territorial claims on this village as well. As far as their demands are concerned, the state government is doing everything possible including declaring it as a tourist destination. Roads will be improved. But as far the permits are concerned, the Centre has to take a call on such matters,'' an official in the local administration, requesting anonymity, said.