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Vanishing villages: How migration transformed the western Himalayan communities in India

By Garima Bhandari | OMC 2024

An old, dilapidated house in Garhwal Himalayas (photo taken by the author).

The traditional belief that India resides in its villages is no longer a social reality for numerous hilly villages situated in the western Himalayas. This can be attributed to widespread out-migration from rural areas to urban and regional centres, which has led to the abandonment of thousands of villages and left many others with a population in single or double digits. This piece discusses the pertinent issue of migration in Uttarakhand, a Himalayan state in north India, and how it has transformed the social fabric of rural communities there. 

Upon visiting these villages, one would come across numerous locked houses surrounded by overgrown bushes and weeds, making it risky to walk around due to the possibility of encountering reptiles. The intricate wooden carvings that can be seen on these dilapidated houses symbolise the Himalayan community's rich cultural past, but there are now few villagers left to appreciate and preserve these local works of art. Most of those who continue to live there are elderly individuals who are nostalgic about the past and are surprised about the younger generation's disenchantment with village life. They hold the belief that they have been put in this situation by God/Devta who is punishing them for their wrong deeds.

“Somebody has cursed our lands, and that is why we are facing such a condition that whoever goes out from the villages does not return to the village.” (70-year-old villager from Uttarakhand)

A deserted house that has been locked for decades in Garhwal Himalayas

Migration into cities has changed the social structures of the Himalayan communities to such an extent that it is unlikely to be reversed. Not only has it brought demographic change to rural areas, but it has also significantly impacted the embedded social institutions that form the backbone of these villages. This includes their agriculture, local governance, schools, and other essential aspects of village society. The subsequent section describes the changes in the village structures brought about by migration and how they impact the lives of those left behind.  

The process of out-migration has most affected the agriculture sector, which is the mainstay of these rural Himalayan communities. Agriculture, practised as terrace farming, is largely fragmented and rain-fed in nature and does not produce the desired returns to the cultivators if they choose to work in fields. Consequently, hundreds of land acres lie barren and uncultivated due to the absence of cultivators, and farming no longer remains an attractive and viable occupation for the inhabitants.

The other implication of depopulation can be observed in the decreasing political representation of rural spaces. With fewer people left in villages, their voices remain either unheard or do not reach a higher level. Since the majority of remaining residents are elderly and may lack the capacity to engage in politics, this leads to their exclusion from political processes. Moreover, political representatives tend to overlook these villages due to their limited voter base. This lack of political engagement sidelines these rural areas from meaningful political discourse and policy-making, reducing them to mere recipients of welfare programmes rather than active participants in the development of their communities.

Out-migration has also had a significant impact on primary and secondary-level educational institutions in the Himalayan villages. Due to the absence of school-going children, the Uttarakhand government has had to shut down or merge schools in rural areas with less than 10 students. The closure of these schools not only discourages the remaining families from educating their children locally but also increases the likelihood of their migration to urban and regional centres in search of better educational opportunities.

Therefore, migration has profoundly influenced the embedded social structures in Uttarakhand by altering the dynamics of its institutions and weakening the communities' political participation. The social cost of out-migration is borne by these depopulating villages that are left with invisible and unheard individuals. It can be argued that migration towards cities is not solely people-driven but is also influenced by structural forces compelling people to seek better employment opportunities, educational and healthcare facilities, improved lifestyles, etc. Further, over the past few years, the state government has consistently prioritised the development of urban centres such as Dehradun, Haridwar, and Uddham Singh Nagar, while leaving many peripheral village communities at the margin. These villages in the Himalayas require careful and particular intervention to prevent them from vanishing entirely.

Garima Bhandari is a doctoral research scholar at the Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee, India. Her research interests broadly concern migration, social change, development, and village studies. Her PhD topic focuses on Nepalese migrant workers and abandoned villages in Uttarakhand, India. Specifically, she is examining how villages in the western Himalayas have changed over time due to out-migration and the significance and temporal experiences of Nepalese migrant farm workers in such remote and rural regions. 

1 Comment

Shivnath Jha
Shivnath Jha
Jun 13
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