Gajender Singh sat in his verandah in Uttarakhand’s Thalda village, basking in the February sun, recalling the two years he spent in Delhi over three decades ago, working for a sexologist in the Paharganj area. He returned home to the hills to begin farming.

“We raised our children and even funded their weddings with our income from agriculture,” said the 70-year-old. “But now we are entirely dependent on the remuneration sent by our children [who have] settled in big cities. For the past eight to 10 years, almost all land cultivated by villagers has turned barren and agricultural income has come down to zero.”

According to the 2011 census, Thalda village – in Satpuli tehsil of the Pauri Garhwal region – had 52 houses and a population of 175. Today, villagers say not more than 30 families remain and the population is less than 100. The past few years have witnessed a steady stream of migration among residents to bigger cities in search of employment, better education and healthcare.

Asked why he had not moved out, like so many others, Singh countered, “Will you ever get to live in such big a house in Delhi? Will you get to feel this mountain air and bask in the healthy sunlight?”

If there’s one thing he wishes for, though, it’s better health facilities. Singh was born with a visual impairment in one eye and, with age, has lost vision in his other eye too. He recently underwent surgery for this in Delhi, but it led to an infection. He is now looking for better healthcare facilities closer home.

Only about 30 families live in Thalda village now, its residents say.

Living on pension

Across the region, the same story is playing out. Villages like Thalda, Toli, Khaira and Ghiri have more abandoned homes than occupied structures.

These are the same villages that once produced plentiful harvests of wheat, rice, mandwa (a grain crop grown in Uttarakhand and Nepal), and varieties of pulses and vegetables. Farmers made a decent living off the earth

However, farming here was always entirely dependent on rainfall and its vagaries. This, along with a lack of irrigation facilities, ensured that the fertile lands turned barren at an unprecedented rate. Today, the green pastures are no more, and only wild shrubs remain.

This forced residents to migrate in search of work. Today, some settlements are inhabited by a single resident.

Those who remain do so because they have nowhere to go, or nobody to live with, or no money to take such a step. They live on pensions and remunerations from relatives settled outside. Some travel to the nearest towns daily to work as labourers. Those who own cattle sell milk in neighbouring villages. A few still manage to make a living off agriculture.

An abandoned house in Toli.

Toli, located around 6 km up the hill from Thalda, is among the settlements that has seen better times.

“Once upon a time, over a hundred families lived in this village,” said 70-year-old Asha Ram Pantwal, a retired havaldar with the Indian Army. “Now we hardly see anyone.”

Pantwal’s sons have settled in the plains and he lives here with his wife. His pension is his only source of income. Asked why he had not left the village, he scratched his head and, after giving it some thought, finally came up with an answer. He had nowhere to go, he said, breaking into a smile.

According to the 2011 census, Toli had 27 families and a population of 72. At present, there are fewer than 50 people, according to the villagers. The population is largely elderly.

One of the oldest houses in Toli is that of Anil Dhasmana, who was named chief of the Research and Analysis Wing, India’s external intelligence agency, in December. The house in which he spent his childhood is over a hundred years old and located on a steep ascent from the village entrance. If you ask around about the Dhasmanas, the villagers talk about his grand-uncle Jayanand Dhasmana who, they say, was the first person of Indian origin to become a captain in the British Army. It is he who built this house, they add.

The house where Research and Analysis Wing chief Anil Dhasmana spent his childhood. Three of his family members still live here.

Around 40 years ago, the Dhasmana residence was inhabited by as many as 26 family members. It now has three – the intelligence chief’s septuagenarian aunt Bhasmati Devi, her youngest son and daughter-in-law. All the other members are either dead or have settled in towns and cities.

Pointing to a distant hill where a small patch of green was barely discernible amidst nettles and bramble, Devi, like many other residents, spoke of the once thriving farms here. Today, she lives off her husband’s pension and the humble salary her son earns at a school in a nearby village.

Bhasmati Devi outside her home in Toli.

Devi’s neighbour, Keshawanand Dhasmana, moved to Delhi with his family around 35 years ago. He worked in the Capital for a central investigation agency before retiring around 10 years ago. He was back in Toli for the wedding of a distant relative.

“Why would anyone not migrate from these villages?” he asked. “There are no job opportunities here and no basic medical facilities. And now that the agriculture is almost over, how will one make a living?”

An abandoned house in Thalda.

Fertile land gone barren

Some 19 km from Toli, the serenity gave way to screams at the house of Sanjay Juyal in Khaira village. Juyal was darting hither and tither as his wife Kanti wielded a lathi. Their enemy: a monkey that was attempting to eat the potatoes they had cultivated on their small tract of land.

Juyal could afford to chat only after he had chased the animal away – and scared it enough to ensure it did not come back for a while. “Lands in the hills have become infertile at an unprecedented rate in the past five years, leaving us with only small tracts in which we can grow some vegetables, which are not even sufficient for self-consumption,” he said. “What adds to our misfortune are the monkeys, wild boars and bears.”

Sanjay Juyal, who once worked as an industrial labourer in Delhi, returned home to Khaira village nine years ago.

Juyal, too, recalled how Khaira had been rather populated until just two decades ago. Now, it has less than 100 people. Juyal was among those who left the village in search of employment – he worked as a labourer in industrial areas in the National Capital Region for almost 15 years before heading back home nine years ago. Now he works at construction sites in the nearby towns of Satpuli and Kotdwar.

“As a labourer, I could hardly save anything, so it was better to work from the village instead,” he explained. “At least I get to be with my family. Things are different for people who are educated or manage to get better jobs in town. For the poor, it is not much different.”

Up the hill in Toli village, agricultural land now lies unused.

Reverse migration

The thinning of village populations here is only offset by one factor: the steady migration of people from Nepal who come to settle in these parts or work here for a few months every year. They make a living as daily wage labourers in the nearest towns. They take shelter in the abandoned houses.

“The villagers do not object to their presence and often settle for small favours like help in collecting firewood or fixing their houses,” said Juyal, who currently has a Nepalese person living in the neighbouring house. “They leave for towns like Satpuli and Kotdwar early in the morning and come back after sunset,” he added.

According to Annapurna Nautiyal, a social scientist at the Hemvati Nandan Bahuguna Garhwal University in the state’s Srinagar area, the trend of Nepalese people coming to these villages is relatively new.

Nepalese labourers in Lansdowne. Many are seasonal workers but some have settled in Uttarakhand.

Nearly 40 km away in Lansdowne, met a group of Nepalese labourers. Some of them have settled in the peripheries of the small cantonment town while the others commute every day from nearby villages, where they take shelter for the night.

“By the end of March, most Nepalese migrants will disappear,” said 46-year-old Biru Singh, a native of Jumla district in Nepal. “We come here looking for work only during the agriculture off-season in our villages. Farming is not a 12-month affair there. But one has to earn money throughout the year.”

While life is tough for the migrants who come to Uttarakhand for the season and travel long distances for work every day, it is not easy for the settlers either. “I have lived here for 28 years now,” said Biru Singh. “My children were born here and they attend school here. But still, I am not treated like any other villager. No one easily rents me a house in town, for which I have to live in the outskirts, or offers me work, despite the fact that there is a low supply of Garhwali labourers who prefer migrating to the plains.”

All images by Abhishek Dey.