Hill folk are a temperamental sort. Their memories are long and patience, short. Virendra Singh Negi, who was born and grew up in a small village called Dartha in Uttarakhand, is a patient man.
He has spent the 67 years of his life along the tendrils of mountain paths that crisscross pine and deodar-filled slopes, where the winds rasp between the conifers while spinning pinecones downhill raking up the slippery carpets of pine needles.
He knows where a lost path is, or a small waterfall, a fishing spot—he is special to the land because he has governed the eight villages that fall under his purview as ‘pradhan’ for an uninterrupted 40 years. As India’s longest-serving village head, he was awarded the President’s medal, a fact he is extremely proud of.
“They invited me to Delhi and gave me a car to get around, and took me to Vigyan Bhavan,” he recalls with pride and a bit of awe. What makes Negi so special to the villagers? Says Bhagat Singh Rawat who works at one of the nearby hotels in Umrikhaal village, “He is very proactive.
Not a day will you find him loafing around. He is always at the panchayat block office, urging officers to do their work.” There is a metal water pipe almost black with age, cutting through the earth in parts, disappearing under rocks and bringing the villages below water. It travels down from a forest pool with a perennial spring.
“This pipe is over six-km-long, and difficult to maintain. But I make sure the crops never go dry,” Negi boasts. When a pipe breaks and the water supply stops, climbing up to the pool is risky. It’s a place where leopards roam. “It is dangerous but then people need water,” Negi shrugs in a matter-of-fact fashion. Under his stewardship, the area has seen many changes.
He is responsible for bringing solar lighting to the villages, made bridges, check dams and cultivated orchards where people grow fruit to be sold in the towns. Even at his age, Negi doesn’t have time to waste. His current project is repairing a half-broken road that runs through the forest, skirting aged banyan trees and flower-splattered bushes.
“It is an old British road that leads to Lansdowne, and has been around since my father was young. I can’t let that piece of history be discarded,” he claims. Lansdowne is about 15 km away, a cantonment town where the Garhwal Regiment has its headquarters. Negi is a soldier of the hills. He has been fighting for them a long time.