The sun fell sharply on the tiny village of Ghiri, perched on the Himalayan ranges of Uttarakhand, on Tuesday afternoon, as Dhruv Doval, 33, briskly walked home from a neighbouring village, breathing hard from the exertion.

Doval is a priest who lives in Ghiri. He had gone to the neighbouring village to assist a family in performing the last rites of a woman who had died the previous day. She was only 52 and suffered from low blood pressure, said Doval.

“Her life could have been saved if there had been better healthcare facilities here or nearby,” said the priest. “For medical emergencies, the residents of hilly villages, including ours [Girhi], are rushed to Pauri town. But the facilities in Pauri too are not excellent and patients are often referred to the neighbouring town of Srinagar and at times Dehradun. Many patients die during the journey.”

Ghiri lies 32 km from Pauri town in the Garhwal region of Uttarakhand. It is the village of National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, who was born here and spent part of his childhood here. The village will vote for a new state Assembly along with the rest of Uttarakhand on Wednesday.

Ajit Doval’s village

A narrow unpaved road leads to this remote village of 30 families and 110 registered voters.

“Till two decades ago, as many as 130 families used to live in the village,” said village chief Ajay Doval. But over the years, this village, like several others in the Garhwal range, has seen its residents leave for greener pastures due to the lack of job opportunities and development in the area. Those who have migrated from Ghiri include the family and extended family of National Security Advisor Ajit Doval.

The abandoned house of Chandrawal Doval, who villagers say was Ajit Doval's uncle. The National Security Advisor's family home used to stand in the adjoining plot. (Photo credit: Abhishek Dey).

The village is part of Pauri constituency whose sitting MLA is from the Congress. There are seven candidates in the fray this time. However, going by the profusion of BJP campaign material in the village, Ghiri seems to be the domain of the saffron party. While the village chief was seen campaigning for the BJP, party flags fixed on several rooftops fluttered in the mountain air. Even the posters affixed on village walls advertised the BJP.

“Residents of Ghiri started to support the BJP much before Ajit Doval became the National Security Advisor or the Modi-wave was witnessed in the country,” said Sanjay Badoni, 43, a resident of the village. “The support for the BJP started growing because the village never saw any development under 60 years of Congress rule in the country and in the several years since Uttarakhand was formed.”

Since its formation in 2000, Uttarakhand has been ruled by the Congress for at least 10 years.

Besides poor healthcare facilities in and around Ghiri, the area also lacks education facilities for children, employment opportunities for the youth, an adequate supply of water, and facilities like irrigation to support the practice of agriculture, which is dying.

Migration patterns

“Migration has a direct relation with development,” said Annapurna Nautiyal, a social scientist at the Hemvati Nandan Bahuguna Garhwal University in Srinagar, Uttarakhand. “The villagers had no other option than to leave the village to look for basic needs like jobs, education and healthcare.”

She explained that the Garhwal region of Uttarakhand had witnessed two forms of migration so far. While Garhwal has seen traditional migration – in which people leave their homes in the hope of a better life and opportunities elsewhere – for several decades now, some urban centres like Srinagar have been seeing reverse migration over the past decade.

Said Nautiyal: “In reverse migration, many people who had migrated elsewhere from Uttarakhand villages returned and settled in expanding townships [in the area] where they got work opportunities and decent facilities for education and healthcare.”

No development

In an age where vikaas (progress) is the buzzword – a term often quoted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi – Ghiri has seen anything but that.

The village has one government-run primary school that was founded in 1902, which, villagers say, would qualify as one of India’s first rural schools. However, its students have to migrate to a high school in the neighbouring village once they complete their primary education. Worse, villagers say that the school is one in name only. They say that the quality of education here is so poor that students have a hard time coping with their studies even when they migrate to the neighbouring village’s high school, leave alone schools in big cities like Dehradun.

“This year, there are only 14 students in the village school,” said 40-year-old Anil Kumar Rawat, the school’s only teacher at present. “The students here need better books and some basic kits to pursue sports.”

The one other teacher in the school has been deputed on election duty.

The jobs front is equally dismal. There are no jobs in Ghiri or even Pauri, the closest town.

Nirmala Doval, 29, is a housewife in Ghiri – less by choice and more out of compulsion. She could not find a job here despite being a qualified pharmacist. “Had there been hospitals or decent laboratories here, I would not mind even travelling 35 km to Pauri in my scooter every day,” she said. “But there is none.”

She often provides first aid and prescribes basic medicines to villagers.

“I have filled up some forms pertaining to job openings in Dehradun,” she said. “If it works out, my family shall migrate too.”

The government-run primary school in Ghiri. (Photo credit: Abhishek Dey).

Farming, a challenge

Farming used to sustain the villagers of Ghiri once. Wheat, rice and mandwa – a type of millet grown in parts of Uttarakhand and Nepal – used to be the major crops cultivated here.

However, the shortage of water in the area has taken a toll on agriculture, which is entirely dependent on rainfall and its vagaries. The water shortage is particularly bad in the summer when most villagers have to clamber down a hill to fetch water from a stream for their daily needs.

“Agriculture was a source of livelihood for many villagers till five years ago,” said Dhruv Doval. “Now it has become impossible. Around 10-12 villagers sow crops now with some other source of income for support. Also, the ones who still do agriculture have given up the large tracts of land that extended into the forests and cultivate only smaller spaces closer to the village.”

This has brought with it another problem – increased instances of man-animal conflict. In the past five years, villagers say they have seen many more encounters with wild boars and bears than before. The beasts now come closer to the village in search for food.

The slow death of agriculture has affected cattle too as they now depend solely on grasslands for fodder. Sometimes wild animals attack the cattle in the few grasslands near the village, said Sanjay Badoni.

The next government of Uttarakhand and MLA of Pauri will have a long list of things to fix here – the lack of job opportunities, the water problem (which is linked to the abandonment of agriculture too), and the poor state of education and healthcare facilities. The problem is that all these issues are the cause of mass migration, which has depleted Ghiri’s population over the years. Fewer people mean fewer votes, which is also why most political parties do not take this little village’s concerns seriously, never mind that one of its former inhabitants is a VIP now.