Photo Essay: Life in the hills of Uttarakhand

July 16, 2018
By Rang De Team

Early this summer, I was on an arduous trek — made difficult only because it was after a hearty meal — to meet Pushpa Devi, one of our borrowers in Dehradun’s Lakhamandal. While we sat down at Pushpa’s house, I heard about her temperamental cow, quite aptly called Kali.

Kali doesn’t allow anyone else but Pushpa to handle her — whether it is milking or feeding. Pushpa’s husband and four children don’t venture too close either, as there have been numerous instances in the past where Kali stormed off, running into the main town on a rampage, earning her the nickname ‘Pulsar’.

Kali wasn’t even provoked when she charged at me a few minutes later. Thankfully, I was left with just a bruise that lasted a couple of weeks instead of being thrown down into Pushpa’s tomato field below.

On the path to Pushpa Devi’s home, while she works on her field, to the left
Pushpa Devi feeds Kali while her daughter Neha looks on, amused
Pushpa Devi and Kali, also affectionately called ‘Pulsar’ by the villagers

Pushpa Devi is one of Rang De’s borrowers I met during a visit to the Ushamath Mahila Mahasangh (UMM) an apex federation of women Self-Help Groups (SHGs). Like many other borrowers, she took a loan to purchase a cow. The additional income from selling the cow’s milk has made a world of difference in the lives of Pushpa and her family.

The loan and the subsequent additional income haven’t changed how hard Pushpa has to work, though. Looking after Kali is just one part of her daily work load. Still, I must say that Pushpa is among the fortunate women I met in Uttarakhand, as her husband and children work together with her on their farm.

Over the last couple of decades, Uttarakhand has increasingly prospered economically while the hill regions have remained backward. As the men increasingly migrate to the cities, tending to agriculture is left mostly to the womenfolk. Considered the backbone of Uttarakhand’s agrarian economy, the women in the hills have increasingly been taking to entrepreneurial roles to earn a livelihood and improve their standards of living — ranging from dairy farming, weaving, and apiculture to running small businesses.

Anita Devi, whose husband works in a hotel in Mumbai sits at her shop in Tilwada, Rudraprayag district, while a customer looks on. Anita also stitches clothes and runs a beauty parlour in the same space.

Rang De only started its operations in Lakhamandal recently. The area has not had a very healthy credit history, with many borrowers owing money to the banks. “The banks don’t come to us, and we don’t go them.” one of the people I met said.

Rang De’s foray into the area is breaking the notion that the locals are not credit worthy. Lakshmi Devi (pictured below) who also took a loan to purchase a cow told me that applying for a Rang De loan seemed less daunting. “We didn’t have to put in any of our own money, fill out lengthy forms, or even pay bribes… this was so easy. I am happy. I will take another loan only when I finish repaying this one.”

A UMM credit officer collects a borrower’s monthly repayment at a meeting of the Mansoona valley level association of SHGs in Ukhimath, Rudraprayag

Many of the women I met do most of household work, not too different from most parts of rural India. Their days start early in the morning — milking the cow or buffalo, preparing breakfast, gathering firewood for fuel, heading out to work on their farms, gathering fodder for the livestock, getting back home to cook lunch and then on days when the Self Help Groups is scheduled to meet, some of them travel — by foot — a distance that would take me an hour or two to trek.

On the morning we were scheduled to meet Bhuwari Devi, one our borrowers, we got held back at a prior meeting. She had to travel back home for an hour to cook lunch for her husband, and then walked all the way back to meet with us again.

Women are the backbone of the agrarian economy in the hills of Uttarakhand
Women at a meeting of one of the many SHGs currently operating under the Ushamath Mahila Mahasangh

Situated by the river Yamuna, Lakhamandal is a village in Chakrata block of Dehradun district. Grass or timber huts like the one picture below are commonly found here, called chhani by the local people. For four to five months in summer, families move to the chhani which is usually situated at a lower altitude, and return back to their higher altitude villages at the onset of autumn. The chhani is situated closer to their area of cultivation and is home to not just families but the livestock as well, providing them much more vast spaces of land to graze.

Goats offered to the Lord Shiva roam about the villages in Lakhamandal. They are not considered a nuisance by the villagers and remain revered, fed, and unharmed
Bought four months ago with a Rang De loan, Menka Devi’s cow passed away from an illness. She is pictured here with the calf it left behind.

Summers in the hills come with the added struggle of gathering grass and fodder. Cattle rearing requires a lot more effort, and with milk being produced only about six months in the year, the remainder is spent on feeding the animal while it prepares to give birth. Lower milk production results in lower incomes during these months, leaving the women with little scope for employment, even if they would like to work.

In Rudraprayag, most families cultivate land but mainly for subsistence. The little they grow isn’t always enough to feed the family, with many ending up having to purchase produce from elsewhere. Many families are supported by remittances from the men who work in cities; some have sons who are enlisted in the army while others subsist on income from wayside shops or hotels, or by renting out horses or mules that cater to the yatra tourists.

While many women I met are increasingly asserting themselves through the women’s groups they are part of, livelihoods remains a daily struggle, as they try hard to hold on to their land. They can depend on no one, and especially value the role Rang De’s credit has played in their lives.

Mimli Devi (pictured above with her daughter) who took a loan for a buffalo, has five daughters. Her husband remarried in the hope of having a son (which he did), and lives in the neighbouring village while continuing to support Mimli and her children. The month prior to my visit, he was unwell and had to be hospitalised, which meant she had to incur additional expenses. But Mimli isn’t complaining. “Growing up, all I did was my house work, help my mother in the field and care for our cattle — with no time for school. At least I am able to educate my daughters today.”

Text and photos by Lydia Thomas

Lydia Thomas is a member of the Impact Team at Rang De. She visited the Ushamath Mahila Mahasangh, our Impact Partner in Uttarakhand, in April 2018.