The diminishing population in villages along the border with China has been a major concern among the defence forces in Uttarakhand. Data from the migration commission suggests that at least 16 villages – within a 5-km aerial distance from the international border – have no families left.
The issue of border security—Uttarakhand shares a border of almost 350 km with China – also came up during a meeting between CM TS Rawat and ITBP chief S Deswal at a meeting last week. After ITBP officials raised concerns on issues like reverse migration, road, mobile connectivity and power supply in areas near the border, the CM cleared funds of Rs 10 crore under the chief minister's border areas development projects.
Meanwhile, district officials of Chamoli – the district in which both Barahoti and Mana Pass are situated – say that they are “constantly interacting with the villagers along the border and working to provide road connectivity as well as communication facilities to stop the migration from the Niti and the Mana valleys.” “We are interacting with families from at least nine villages in the border areas. Since the terrain is very difficult, transport is a major issue. Buses cannot run in the area, which is why we have deployed small vehicles for people’s movement,” said Chamoli district magistrate Swati Bhadauria.
Villagers of these areas serve as critical sources of information for defence forces on the ground. Purandas Singh, a member of the Bhotiya tribe in Joshimath, told TOI, “People from our community traditionally trek with their herds for around 100 kilometres, crossing several villages up till Barahoti which is a pasture land with nutritious grass. The trek takes place by June-end and people come back to their respective villages by end of August. During monsoon, the grass gets wet in our region but it doesn’t do so in Barahoti since it is more of a cold desert. “
Singh added that on many occasions, the PLA soldiers have been found patrolling the Barahoti area. “We have had encounters with the PLA soldiers frequently. They used to destroy our camps and throw away our ration but thanks to ITBP, we got ration during such times. The ITBP wants us to visit Barahoti frequently in order to make India’s presence felt in that region. They don’t want it to remain a completely barren land. The herd community also gives local intelligence inputs to the Indian soldiers.”
Another villager, Devendra Prasari, told TOI that over the years, the tradition of herding is becoming unpopular among the tribal members especially after the 1962 war with China. “Before the ‘62 war, the community members used to maintain their herds and also conduct trade with Tibetans. We used to sell them rice and jaggery while in return, we would get ghee or wool.
But after the war, the trade with Tibet completely stopped which is the reason behind the fading interest of the community members in their traditional occupation. Currently, people are more interested in becoming government officers and moving to the plains,” said Prasari.
The villagers said that lack of communication facilities is also one of the major reasons why people have chosen not to stay in the villages. “No mobile networks work in either the Niti or the Mana valley. Also, the only source of livelihood is agriculture which cannot sustain many,” said Dhamu Pal, a resident of Bampa village.
Bhadauria meanwhile said that they are already in touch with the mobile operators to establish towers in the region and the communication facility in the area will be improved soon. “We have been in touch with mobile operators for some time and if everything goes as planned, mobile towers will come up in the region soon. Also, we are supplying knitting machines to the locals so that alternative livelihood opportunities can be developed,” Bhadauria said.