Chipping Away At Their Lives

A far-flung village in Almora district could soon become history due to a silent killer: termites. 

Just like the rest of the Kumaon region, Lambari is a picture-perfect hamlet. But zoom in a little closer and you will find that the villagers out there don’t really feel at home. The source of their despair is not a wild beast, dacoit or a ghost. It is termites.

The termites have infested Lambari to such an extent that the village is being gradually destroyed and its dwellers are now forced to move out. Those left behind are worried whether their roofs will survive for the next six months or not.

The extent of the attack can be gauged by the fact that the new wooden planks of the houses are destroyed within six-eight months. Apart from wood, termites are also causing severe damage to the crops and fruit-bearing trees. For the past 20 years, the villagers have written to various authorities and pleaded with them for help, but none has been forthcoming.

“Due to termites, our houses are destroyed within six-eight months of construction,” says village pradhan Padam Singh. “The doors and frames hardly last a year. Even the walls of most of the houses are now nearly hollow. It is very dangerous to live here, but we are helpless due to our limited economic means.”

In Uttarakhand, a majority of the houses are still made in the traditional ‘pathar’ style. These are made purely out of wood and locally available stones, plastered with mud and cow dung. Due to the rich cellulose content in the cow dung, the termites here not only attack the wooden structure, but also the walls.

Located in the remote quarters of Almora district, Lambari is home to 40 families, of which 37 fall below the poverty line. A dozen families have migrated elsewhere due to the termite attack and only those who have no other alternative are staying back.

“Every six months, we have to repair our houses,” says Ratan Singh, a farmer. “This being a far-flung village, there aren’t any means of employment. The village is dependent solely on agriculture and livestock. Living here is dangerous because the roof may cave in anytime. Our economic condition is not such that we can carry out repairs year after year. We have no money even to carry out minor repairs. The harvest gets destroyed too. Nothing is safe. Even the clothes in our trunks and the foodgrain that we scarcely manage to save are all eaten or destroyed by the termites. The problem is so grave that if we leave a chapatti for breakfast at night, by morning, it shall be eaten by the termites.”

An Abandoned House on the verge of CollapseHis neighbour Shanti Devi adds, “We can’t even migrate elsewhere. The ones who had some money or relatives outside have left the village. But we have nothing… no employment, no good school, no health service…where can we go? The nearest market (Deghat) is located 12 km downhill. Though there is a road, no vehicle runs on it as it gets damaged very often. To book a Sumo from Deghat, you have to pay 700-800. No one here can afford that much, so we negotiate the distance on foot.”

Repeated pleas for help with the local administration and the political class have resulted in nothing but hollow assurances. For the past 20 years, the people have approached every authority, from the block development office to the district magistrate, chief minister and even the Central government.

“We received many assurances but no action was taken,” says Padam Singh. “I have been the pradhan for the past 15 years. I am sick and tired of writing to the administration and politicians after all these years. Our applications have reached all offices from the district level to the national capital. In 2001, we even received a written assurance from Bache Singh Rawat, the then Union MoS (science and technology). We also received letters from the first chief minister, Nityanand Swamy, and other state ministers.

“When Uttarakhand was formed in 2000, we hoped that our problem will be solved finally. Ironically, it has been further sidelined. Earlier, when we complained, we used to receive replies and acknowledgements. But of late, even that has stopped. No official wants to come here because of the painful 12 km uphill walk. We have accepted this as our destiny.”

It is not that the state has done nothing. In 1997, agriculture department officials inspected the village and submitted a report with some recommendations. But owing to administrative failures and red-tapism, nothing much was done. In October 2002, the then Almora district magistrate, C Sharma, wrote to the chief development officer, suggesting that the victims should be allocated houses under the Indira Awaas Yojana.

“Initially, four-five families were allotted houses under this scheme,” says Padam Singh. “But the strife between local politicians and the subsequent quest to take credit marked the death-knell of the scheme. The state now wants us to use iron instead of wood and cement roofs in place of traditional ones. But from where shall we get the money for this? Whatever we had, we have already sold and it hasn’t changed our situation.”

In January 2009, a three-member team of scientists from the Govind Ballabh Pant Agriculture University, Pantnagar, visited the village to study the case. In its report, the team recorded “severe damage in the houses and nearly 75 percent of the agricultural area is severely affected with termites. Even though the temperature is low, the concentration of termites in the village is very high. Termites are causing severe damage to the crops such as potato, wheat, maize and ragi and it is found that even fruit trees are infected. 40 percent of the pine trees in the forest around the village are under termite attack”.

Apart from this, the report has also issued a warning that termites may spread swiftly to other neighbouring villages too. The report said that “termites are slowly spreading to neighbouring villages such as Chiipa, Chintoli and Kalialuna where 5-25 percent termite effect was recorded. If corrective measures are not adopted soon, chances of witnessing catastrophic results in the region cannot be ruled out”.

100_8074The termite attack becomes more rampant during the monsoon season because the mud walls of the houses absorb high humidity and thus the termites are able to easily build their colonies inside it. The threat also gets compounded because of the snowfall during winters and it primarily being a cold region.

The scientific team also suggested chemicals that could be used to tackle the issue to some extent. But the villagers complain that the chemicals supplied have only had a temporary effect.

“The chemicals work only on the surface whereas termites build their colonies deep inside the ground,” says Manju Devi, a villager. “The livestock is our only source of income and using chemicals in the fields has resulted in no or minimal grass growth. Without grass, how will our cattle survive? Though the wood gets protected for some time, the chemicals are of no use for infected walls. Furthermore, the stock of chemicals was finished long ago. The state government has not given any after that.”

Last year’s torrential rains heaped more misery. The villagers complain that a large part of the agricultural land is sinking and prone to massive landslides. Cracks have started appearing on the ground and fields are breaking away inch by inch. Many houses adjoining the depression are also in immediate danger.

Lambari is located roughly 30 km from the proposed summer capital of Gairsain. Probably this shift of power will transfer some light from the majestic bungalows that will house the lawmakers to the dark and haunted lives of these villagers.

-By Mukesh Rawat

  • (This report was published in Tehelka magazine on July 19, 2014 and can be found here.)

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