COVID-19: Will Uttarakhand be able to provide work to its migrant population?

More than 330,000 people have returned to their villages so far, with Almora and Pauri Garhwal districts getting the greatest number of returnees

By Raju Sajwan
Published: Thursday 27 August 2020

There is a saying in Uttarakhand that water and the youth of the mountains do not stay there. They, instead, flow down to the plains. The hill districts of Uttarakhand have faced large-scale migration in the past decades. This trend could not be reversed despite the formation of a separate state.

Almora and Pauri Garhwal districts — in the Kumaon and Garhwal regions, respectively — had the greatest numbers of those who migrated, even though the two districts were historically better on social indicators than others.

There, however, are a number of villages in these districts where the population has dipped to a single digit or, in some cases, to zero. Such deserted villages are then termed ghost villages. Out of the 16,793 villages in Uttarakhand, 1,048 were ghost villages, according to data from the 2011 census.

A report from the Uttarakhand Rural Development and Migration Commission in September 2019 said 734 more villages were deserted between 2011 and 2018. During these eight years, the greatest number of villages (181) were deserted in Pauri Garhwal district.

When the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic emerged and work dried up in cities due to the countrywide lockdown, however, the state’s youth returned to their homes in the state.

More than 330,000 people have returned to their villages so far, with Almora and Pauri Garhwal getting the greatest number of returnees, according to the Uttarakhand Rural Development and Migration Commission.

Around 80.68 per cent of the migrants returned from other states, while 18.11 per cent of the returnees were from other districts of the state. But will they be able to survive there? Can this reverse migration be tuned into an opportunity for the economic development of the hill districts in the state?

Around 80-85 per cent of those who returned said if they earned half of what they earned earlier in the cities, they would prefer to settle down in Uttarakhand, Rajendra P Mamgai, professor at the National Institute of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj, Hyderabad, told Down To Earth.

Mamgai, however, said given the circumstances and the assets most people own, including agricultural land, earning half what they earned previously was not possible.

One of the returnees, Sudarshan Parmal said he was interested in taking up farming. Wild animals damaging crops, however, was a major barrier that stopped him from doing so. He said the state government must do something to control wild animals, including wild boars and monkeys, from destroying crops.

The youth did not look forward to staying back home, said Ratan Singh Aswal, who works for a non-profit that deals with the issue of migration in Uttarakhand. “Most of the returnees are not enthusiastic about trying farming for a livelihood and are waiting to do the same work they were doing before the lockdown,” he said.

What, then, is the state government doing to provide work opportunities to the returnees?

Uttarakhand Chief Minister Trivendra Singh Rawat — speaking to DTE — said the state government formed a committee to review and inspect schemes announced after the pandemic emerged. Rawat said several youths have begun farming and pisciculture across the state.

The state government also asked the Centre to widen the scope of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Generation scheme to include short-term works, according to Rawat.

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