Monthly Archives: July 2016

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Travelling 'off season’ in India

A north India hill station on a quieter 'off season' day

A north India hill station on a quieter ‘off season’ day

Asheesh Mamgain

At the very onset I would make it clear that, as I see it, there is a fundamental difference between travelling for experiencing the outdoors and going out of station for holidaying.  In my years spent on this earth I have done my bit of travelling and holidaying. But I am happy to say that the travelling bit has been much more than the later bit.

For pure travelers there is no particular season they are partial to. All they need is a road they can safely drive on.

If you carry the spirit of a traveler you would love to be on the road in all seasons. The fact is that the road and the destination, offers something special in each season. Each season brings with it a set of goodies to gladden the heart of a traveler. But for the holidaying type the words tourist ‘high season’ and tourist ‘off season’ are very important.

I am a great supporter of travelling or holidaying out of station in the ‘off season.’ As I see it, the arguments in favor of ‘off season’, far out- weighs the ‘high season.’

During peak tourists seasons, all hill stations in India, be it in North India (Musoorie, Shimla, Nainital, Chail, Kausani, Ranikhet, Macleodganj, Manali) South India (Ooty, Kodaikanal, Munnar), East India (Darjiling, Gangtok) and West India (Mahabaleshwar, Mount Abu) are full to the brim with tourists.

 

If you live in the northern Indian plains going to the hills would be one of the first travel choices you would be making. So when things get hot and dusty on the plains, a time which coincides with the summer break for the kids from schools, the enticement or the reasons to go to the hills are many. No surprise then, to escape the heat, families flock to the hills.

And what you end up getting is-overpriced hotel rooms, bursting at the seams with guests which the hotel staff is barely able to cope with. This means you get poor service for which you pay through our nose. As the hill stations during these times are too crowded with tourists like you, the local cab drivers demanding insane amount of money for local sighting and restaurants make you wait for a table. Everything you get is at a premium and only thing discounted is the experience.  The view of the hills is also pretty dismal. The much appreciated things in the hills such as colonial architecture, tree covered vistas and fresh mountain air, can be barely appreciated as you are drowned by the din and crowed of people around you. And if you have dared to drive yourself in your own car than your biggest headache would be finding a car park. Also the view of the distance snow covered mountain peaks which are seen from lower Himalayan hill stations is missing too. During summers these peaks are invariably covered with a layer of haze so much so that you would never know they exist or can be seen from the hill stations.

But compared to summers, the winters in the hill stations and the mountains have much more to offer.

The view of the snow clad mountain ranges which is largely missing in the summer days, is all there to see with snow clad peaks shimmering in all their crystal clear sun lit glory.

The eating adds to the experience. The staff at the eateries are much nicer to you and are eager to strike up a conversation with you. They take pains to cook a nice meal for you rather than rushing through your dish as there are many more to cook. All hotels offer a huge discount and still offer you the room with the best view. Even the taxi drivers who idle around during off seasons would clamor over each other to offer you at the best deals. The best part though is the weather. Contrary to the prevalent view winters in the hills is a very comfortable time to be. The winters in the northern Indian plains are windy and fogy. Nowadays  with pollution levels being very high in the major cities such as New Delhi winters mean succeeding days when sun does not show its presence owing to a phenomena called smog, a combination of polluted air and winter fog.

But in the hills, though out the day, the sun would be out in all its glory and you would be able to move around without any woolens. With no crowed to compete with you are sure to get the best seats in the restaurants and the view points. In restaurants you would not be coaxed to rush over your meal. In fact the restaurant people would love you to linger on your meal, as that make you order more food and would also attract other customers to the restaurant.

And car parking would not be an issue worth worrying over.

The good part is that all the popular hill stations in India, thanks to our past colonial masters, are linked with all weather metal roads. So driving presents no increased challenge in the off season. In fact it is much better with significantly less vehicles vying for space on the road.

Some places such as Nainital, in the Kumaon hills of Uttarakhand, look their best during rainy season. Which is also a huge off season period. Another place, which looks its best during rains, is Goa. The view of approaching monsoon clouds from the south over the land and sea is too good to miss.  Mandu, Madhya Pradesh, a great destination for its forts and palaces also looks the best during rains.

 

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A walk in Kasauli, Himachal Pradesh

A walk in Kasauli

Asheesh Mamgain

I had been to Kasauli a couple of times earlier. This was the first time I went with Sonia. It was the month of March, the time of the year when the weather is just perfect in the hills and rhododendrons begin to flower.

Kasauli is an idyllic hill station that is reached through a 13-km-long winding path that branches off to the left after one has traveled around 34 km on the Kalka-Shimla Highway. The town is spread on top of a ridge that on one side looks down below into the vast expanse of the Kalka Valley and on the other side has a succession of green hills leading up to Shimla and beyond.

Not many people visit this hill station that has few hotels and still retains its small town charm, unlike the over commercialized and over-built Shimla, which is another 50 km from here. During summer days when the rich and boisterous crowd from the plains hit Shimla with a vengeance, Kasauli gets left out. And thankfully so. On clear cloudless nights the glittering lights of Shimla are visible from Kasauli. From the peaceful environs of Kasauli, the lights of Shimla look distant and pleasing.

Kasauli is known more for the boarding schools it has with children from many eminent families from the plains studying here. Sanawar is one such school, situated on a hill-top near Kasauli and surrounded by tall deodars, that has had as its alumni names such as Menaka Gandhi, Puja Bedi, Sanjay Dutt and the likes. Black and white yellowing pictures of some of these famous people as school kids in Kasauli can still be seen displayed in a photo studio in the main chowk.

We went to Kasauli on a weekend break. Our stay in the British era HPTC hotel, Ross Common, was comfortable and pleasing.

In Kasauli you go for walks. With no major shopping arcades and social indulgence on the offer, going for walks is the only thing left to do as an outdoor activity. For people like me who appreciate occasional peace and quiet in the midst of nature, it is a nice thing to do.

During one of our walks we came across a curious man. He presented an impressive sight. He was a man of small built and many years, who wore a long black overcoat, black gloves and a black cap over a snowy white crop of hair. We passed him trudging along slowly on the Lower Mall Road. Our look towards him met with a warm smile. He commented on a puppy we had found on the way from our hotel, and who seemed to have developed a fancy for Sonia and had decided to follow her in our walk. The man seemed quite eager to strike up a conversation with us. During the course of our small talk we found his name to be Mr. Maddock, and that he was a Philipino, who had come to India some 40 years ago and was a resident of Kasauli for last couple of decades. He had rented an accommodation in the Annexe of Hotel Alisha, which is another British era structure converted into a premier hotel. Mr. Maddock had a daughter who was a scribe and lived in Bombay. She visited him on holidays. She was also a painter and had made several watercolours of Hotel Alisha, which hung on the walls of the hotel’s Billiard Room. Mr. Maddock taught music at one of the boarding schools in the town. He told us that he could also repair all kind of western musical instruments.

We told him that we wanted to see the church located on the main Chowk, but somehow found it locked on the two occasions that we went there. The response from Mr. Maddock was quick and laced with a knowing smile. “The priest is a drunkard. Very often he has a drink or two too many and then dozes off to sleep.”

The next day while passing by the church we found the door unlocked. The church again was a British era Gothic structure with an impressive looking clock tower. We went in and were greeted by the priest who looked well turned out and well fed. His looked to be a person who appreciates his drinks. And thanks to Mr Maddock, we new he did. But now he seemed quite attentive and bright. No effect of the perceived last night drinks seemed on him now. In addition, the priest turned out to be another welcoming and happy character. He was quite keen to take us around the church, explaining things. He even allowed us to climb the church clock tower, which turned out to be a very dicey task. The rickety staircase took us half way up the tower, which had an impressive balcony looking over the Kasauli bus stand and the main chowk. The journey further up the tower was to be through a shaky feeling ladder. An attempt I decided to do away with.

 

During the course of our conversations with the priest he showed us a perceptibly old and impressive looking Pipe Organ. The majestic looking musical instrument had seemingly fallen on hard times and was in need of some dexterous attention. The priest lamented that repairing the instrument is a costly affair and they would need to get an expert from Delhi to get it done.

“Why don’t you get it repaired from Mr. Maddock. It will cost you far less and also save you time,” said Sonia. “That drunkard,” pat came the reply for the priest. “He is always too drunk to be of any good.”

We came out smiling.

 

 

Uttarakhand, The story of Ghost Villages

a septuagenarian farmer ploughing his land in a hill village in Uttarakhand

a septuagenarian farmer ploughing his land in a hill village in Uttarakhand

 

 Asheesh Mamgain

Lata and Reni Villages, in Chamoli districts of Uttarakhand, are located on the edges of Nanda Devi National Park. The residents of the villages made famous by Gaura Devi, the leader of Chipko movement to save trees, are today fighting a new battle. A battle on which hinges their very existence as a community.

In the last decade, 90 of the 150 families living in the Lata village have left the village. Arvind Rawat, a resident, says, “There are no jobs here. The forest officials do not allow us to venture into the National Park from where we used to gather forest produce and sell. So the people are leaving,” He adds that the Government also does not allow any tourism in the park in order not to disturb the ecosystem.

Lata village does not stand in isolation witnessing this trend. All across the 13 districts of Uttarakhand, the hills are getting devoid of its residents. Official statistics confirm the spike in migration from the hills in the past one decade. According to a 2011-12 study by directorate of economics and statistics, 1100 villages in Uttarakhand have no people left at all. Since the study, these numbers have only gone up. According to activists as many as 3600 hill villages have seen abandonment to various degrees in the last decade.  

The hill people are migrating to the cities in the plains in search of a better life. A life, which had become increasingly difficult in the hills owing to a multitude of reasons. 

The trend of abandonment of hill villages have been on the upswing since 2000 when the state of Uttarakhand came into existence. The setting up of the capital of the state in Dehrdun, which is far removed from the hill areas, ensured that the state would have a lopsided development, partial to the plains. The resultant lack of development in the hill villages, be it education, healthcare, job opportunities and lack of support to agriculture has fueled this migration.

The hills comprise 88% of the state’s geographical area. Nine of the state’s 13 districts are completely in the hills while two are partially hilly.  According to official data, a majority of the state’s total 1.1 crore people populated the hills prior to 2000. Today almost 40 percent of this hill population has migrated to the cities in the plains.

According to state officials, the problem of migration is acute in Almora, Pithoragarh, Chamoli, Rudraprayag, Bageshwar and Tehri districts, which are also some of the state’s most underdeveloped.  The hill population is migrating to Uttarakhand cities such as Dehradun, Haldwani and Kotdwar. Many more have moved to Delhi NCR and Lucknow.

This has seen unplanned and unbridled growth in foothill cities, such as Dehradun and Haldwani, with sky rocketing real estate prices and a crumbling infrastructure barely able to cope.

Poor monsoon in last few years have adversely affected farming in the state which largely depends on rains. Harihar Gosain, 44, resident of village Synsi po, in Pauri District left farming a few years ago. He now runs a grocery shop. “I have three children, my wife and my parents in the family.  Though I have some land which we used to farm and lived on, but now it has become difficult. The produce has reduced, we do not get enough money out of it and the much needed farm hands are no longer available. That is why I opened this shop.”

Government data shows that out of 664 villages with negligible population in the Garhwal region, 341 are in Pauri district alone.

Gaduli village in Uttarakhand’s Pauri district, located 250 kilometer from Dehradun, Kusum Devi, is one of the four residents left. They are all in their late sixties. In the last decade and a half the village, which had around 50 households, has steadily emptied.

Nearby village, Kyard Mandoli, presents a similar scene. Jay Prakash Sharma (39), who works as a driver in Vaishali, Ghaziabad, is one such person, who left Kyard Mandoli, for better opportunities in the plains. He has been living in Ghaziabad for the last 12 years, with his elderly parents left in the village house.

He recently took a couple of young corporate big wigs from Delhi to his village as they were showing interest in buying traditionally built abandoned houses and turning them into holiday homes for the city folks. This seems a sound business strategy and many business oriented city dwellers are exploring it.

Says Sharma, “Only a few elders are left in the village. Most of the young people left in search of better education for their children and jobs. There is nothing left in the village.” With no able hands left in the village farming, which was the chief mainstay of the village folks for centuries, has almost stopped. “The agriculture in the last few years has turned into a little earning activity. The poor rains and barely no one left to till the land, is the reason. Also whatever is planted is destroyed by hordes of wild hogs and monkeys, which have suddenly become more numerous in the area around the villages.”

This increase of wild hogs and monkey hordes point to another disturbing aspect of the problem. In Tehri district’s Gawani Village, Nawani family, who are otherwise settled in Dwarka Delhi, were recently visiting their ancestral home. As the sun goes down the conversation inevitably turns to the menace of leopards. Says Ajay Navani (42), “In the last decade the incidents of leopards attacking people in the village have increased. With the forest department in the name of saving the forest stopping any connection of the locals with the forests, with the villages emptying out of the residents and the farm land around the village which worked as a buffer between the village and the forest being abandoned, the forest has reached to the edge of the village. This has caused the animals such as leopards, bears and wild hogs to venture into the human areas.”

The administration and the political powers in the state are well aware of the problem. Chief Minister Harish Rawat, while speaking at a function to mark the foundation of the state in 2015 acknowledged that the people were migrating in search of work, leaving behind, “ghost villages.” Governor Aziz Qureshi also said that the villages in the State, where 70 percent of the population resides, are devoid of basic necessities such as healthcare and education which is causing large-scale migration.

The State’s 12th Five Year Plan document reflects his concern. Its mentions that, ‘This [migration] reflects the absence of livelihood opportunities in the hills and yearning for a better quality of life. Dissatisfaction with jobs/lack of opportunities [is] creating demographic substitution in the hill region.’

The state government has promised to bring in some new policies that will deal with, in a more effective way, the issues of improved agricultural practices, healthcare and education in the remote areas. A new industrial policy specially designed for the hill districts is also on the anvil. The larger aim is not only to stem this trend but also to encourage migrants to return to the hill districts.

In an attempt to boost the state’s economy, the Centre offered tax breaks for companies that set up units in Uttarakhand. But this new influx of industry went to Haridwar and Rudrapur belts, leaving the hills parched.

Tourism sector, another mainstay of the state economy, has also not grown and is largely stagnant. “The tourism has not moved beyond Mussoorie, Nainital, Rishikesh and char dham yatra. The 2013 floods adversely effected char dham yatra as well. Much needs to be done in this direction if employment has to be generated in tourism for hill people,” says Subhash Nautiyal, a tour and travel operator based in Nainital.

To stop the migration, the state government recently unveiled a plan to throw open some of its hill villages to domestic and foreign visitors to create a niche tourism circuit. But in absence of proper infrastructure in the hills the progress is slow. 

Some others feel that the problem calls for more innovative solutions.  One option is to use the state’s diaspora population as a resource, to come back and initiate tourism related or other small scale units in the hills. Organisations such as the Centre for Aromatic Plants in Selaqui, near Dehradun, have attempted to arrest migration by offering aromatic plants to farmers as a plantation alternative.

The local culture is another victim of the whole imbalance. Kumaoni and Garhwali, the two main languages of the area now carry the dubious distinction of being recognised as a “vulnerable” language by Unesco’s Atlas of World Languages in Danger.
Anil Joshi, chairperson of the Himalayan Environmental Studies and Conservation Organisation, a non-governmental organization, has recently started a state wide campaign called ‘gaon bachao andolan’ to raise the voice of the people so that the attention of the administration can be brought to the problems of the hill districts.

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