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Our High Fields Could Give High Incomes

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By HUGH AND COLLEEN GANTZER

“ Uttarakhand Sarkar to Give Away 1,800 of its Himalayan Villages”. That headline would have created a tsunami of rage all through our little state. And if the news-item went on to add that these villages were in Almora, Bageshwar, Chamoli, Champawat, Pauri, Pithoragarh, Rudraprayag, Tehri, Uttarkashi and some part of Nainital, the outrage would have been even more fierce and devastating. The headline never appeared because our state government has not given away our villages. What it has done is much worse than that. According to a news- item in a national daily, one of our Members of Parliament told Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman that the number of uninhabited villages in our state, due to migration, had risen in eight years from 1,034 in 2011 to over 1,800 in 2019. That’s worse than giving them away. If we had given them away to another state, those politicians might have tried to rejuvenate them. All we have done, however, is to ignore them. Our netas and babus have behaved like little children, afraid of the dark: closing their eyes and hoping that the bogey man would go away. Or that a Superwoman would swoop out of the sky and save them! The national daily did not report the FM’s response but, obviously, she has far more on her mind than curing our galloping social cancer of ghost villages. Clearly, these ten districts are not going to get “incentives” to prevent further migration to the plains. Since the land area of Uttarakhand is fixed, in effect, our netas’ culpable neglect has decreased our viable land holdings and driven Uttarakhandi farmers out of their high fields to become subservient job-seekers in the plains. Do we really need to preserve our traditional crop patterns because that is part of our ancient cultural heritage? Are modern crops, farming practices, new methods and products taboo because they are “polluting”? Or are we too wrapped up in our own illusions that we cannot see what we are doing to our proud highlanders? We need to look inwards to see if we can help ourselves. We must think out of the box and throw away our traditional blinkers. Our neighbouring state has done so. According to the Garhwal Post of 17.11.19, snow peas grown in Himachal fetched between Rs 200 to 300 per kg in New Delhi. A scientist is quoted as saying “ .. there are plenty of exotic vegetables that can be successfully grown in mid and high hills, and can be a promising intervention for enhancing farmers income.” Have we, in Uttarakhand, even tried such alternatives? To take another example from our neighbour, in GP 13.11.’19 there was an interesting report under the headline “Himachal‘s Cold Desert to go for Contract Farming”. It went on to say “..the state government has signed a Memorandum of Agreement .. with a Polish firm… to initially involve 200 farmers of Lahaul, Spiti, Kinnaur and Chamba districts to go for contract farming of a high yield barley variety imported from Scotland.” The Poles did this because “…. the geographic and climatic conditions of Himachal State are on a par with Scotland’s and many other European regions.” Significantly, Himachal responded with contract farming because of a crisis caused by the dumping of competitive products by China, Germany and the US. Their potato crops were also attacked by an infestation of nematode worms. Farmer Deepak Bodh welcomed his state government’s initiative saying, “Barley is a cash crop here but largely for local consumption and livestock. If there is contract farming for a high yield barley, it is a good opportunity for growers to get a remunerative price.” We were intrigued by the marked difference in response, to a similar farming crisis, between our neighbour and us. Both states faced a crisis of survival in the villages living off their high fields. We meekly asked for a handout from the beleaguered Finance Minister and, clearly did not get it. Himachal proudly looked for more creative solutions, and found them. What Himachal can do, surely we can do better? Don’t we, in Uttarakhand, have the scientists? Don’t we have the will? We shall return to this topic in a future column.