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Protecting the ‘Ghosts’

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By Hugh and Colleen Gantzer

Once again we are happy that a problem referred to in this column is being addressed.

For a long time we have been harping on treating our Ghost Villages as security risks. Our aggressive neighbour, the Dragon, tends to take a traders’ view of things. If an activity makes money it is acceptable regardless of its other consequences. That viewpoint, we feel, was what the urbane Chinese Foreign Minister tried to sell to our netas. ‘Forget their salami- slicing in the north-east. Ignore their renaming of Arunachal and the claim that it is part of China. Consider the economic benefits of joining the Great Chinese Bandwagon which is the destiny of Emperor Xi’s Empire!’

We are glad that our FM said “Thanks a lot, but No Thanks!”
So, just how large is the Ghost Village problem? It’s enormous. According to a news-report in an All-India Daily:-

The country’s first Chief of Defence Staff, the late General Bipin Rawat, had also repeatedly said that the emptying out of border villages needed to be checked on priority. It is estimated that there are over 700 ghost villages in the state and at least five lakh people have left in the last ten years. According to the Government proposal, 10,905 personnel will be inducted into several HIM PRAHRI units that are to be deployed in the border areas.

This is a great beginning, but it is only a start, and a very late start at that! We need a change of mindset. For one thing we must remember that we broke away from UP because we said that plains’ people do not appreciate highlanders’ problems. But if all our High Commanders are Lowlanders has anything really changed? It is not enough to appoint glorified chowkidars and then expect them to also fulfill other civil advisory roles. A security force has to command a certain aloof respect to be effective. If they become Spin Doctors for sarkari schemes, they will lose their izzat!

And we do need many sarkari schemes to repopulate the Ghost Villages.

The five priorities are Health, Education, Employment, Transportation and Communication. Netas love proclaiming how they got a foundation to donate complex electronic equipment to an urban hospital. But how about the old woman, with an agonising fracture, living in a remote hut? We need paramedics with specially designed mountain buggies. Can’t the billionaires of India have one designed? Or are we waiting for another French-Russian-Chinese Revolution?

Cash incentives will not revive the Ghost Villages. Cash runs out, skill grows. Maggie Thatcher, possibly the wisest British PM in recent years, reputedly said, “Don’t give people tins of sardines. Teach them how to fish!” We must raise the levels of village education and employable skills using Distance Learning techniques honed in the Pandemic.

To raise income levels we must promote new low-bulk-high-value products. Himalayan herbs, spices and aromatics seem promising. Pashmina goats are another likely venture as are Trout. But these are only probabilities off the tops of our heads. They need research and planning and, perhaps, more cooperation with Himachal. Our neighbour seems to have more than its fair share of creative thinkers!

The pandemic has resulted in a break-through in digital communication. Pre-teen children are smartphone savvy. Judging from the kids of our employees, they have a hunger for education in English because they realise that it is the language of global opportunity. And when they hear netas pontificating on the virtues of Hindi they, very cynically, ask, “Are their children studying in Hindi-medium schools?” There is an implied question that is dangerous: “Are we being deprived only to be the ruled and their families the inherited rulers?”

Discontent is, often, the force that creates new and dynamic civilisations. The discontented and disenfranchised created the US and Australia. The discontent of Mahatma Gandhi shattered the ‘Empire on Which the Sun Never Sets’. Our Ghost Villages are the result of generations of sarkari neglect but today, because of the democratic flow of knowledge through smartphones, netas can no longer hide their inadequacies by Spin Doctoring reality. The continuing existence of our Ghost Villages is a growing blemish on our state.

Wake up netas. The ghost villages are real and they are growing. If we don’t step in NOW with all the force at our command, the Han horde will. And then sarkari generated language problem will be solved. We will all learn Mandarin!

(Hugh & Colleen Gantzer hold the National Lifetime Achievement Award for Tourism among other National and International awards. Their credits include over 52 halfhour documentaries on national TV under their joint names, 26 published books in 6 genres, and over 1,500 first-person articles, about every Indian state, UT and 34 other countries. Hugh was a Commander in the Indian Navy and the Judge Advocate, Southern Naval Command. Colleen is the only travel writer who was a member of the Travel Agents Association of India.)