Nestled deep in the Himalayan foothills of Narendra Nagar, in Tehri, Uttarakhand, the village of Ouni might have jumped right out of a picture postcard.
Spread across 30 hectares, and home to 112 families, its trees are laden with lichis, grapes and mangoes. Its stepped farming fields produce wheat, rice, and millet for the consumption of its inhabitants. It has two schools, newly constructed irrigation tanks, an Anganwadi centre, a bank of utensils for the common use of the villagers as well as a bulk milk collection centre.
Its houses have been painted recently with elaborate designs in the local art style. Their bright red and yellow walls have been marked with mandalas, animal shapes and even elaborate murals. The streets have been cleaned; their hilly soil walls have been fortified by steel meshes to hold back loose gravel. And enveloping all of it is an unbound spread of hill forests, such that, when viewed from the newly constructed vantage point, the brightly coloured houses peek out in flashes of red and yellow from an otherwise thorough and uninterrupted screen of green.
As the second Anti-Corruption Working Group drew to a close on May 27, attending delegates from G20 member nations visited this idyllic location on Sunday, to unwind and gain a closer experience of rural life in the foothills of Uttarakhand.
The transformation of Ouni has been ongoing for several months now, in preparation for the Sunday visit. The village was selected from a shortlist of eight nearby villages, for its proximity to and ease of access from the ACWG’s central venue at the Westin Spa and Resorts in Narendra Nagar.
The nearly 3 km approach road connecting the village to the main highway from Rishikesh to Narendra Nagar, has been widened and laid with new asphalt. Inside, village pathways have been laid with interlocking tiles. Villagers however are most excited about the improved lighting, electricity, drinking water, and irrigation facilities. Nearly 40 solar-powered streetlights, two new drinking water tanks with an individual capacity of 10 thousand litres, and two new transformers have been installed.
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“We used to be primarily dependent on rainwater for irrigation, but now the G20 initiative has connected our fields with nearby rivers and rivulets as well as rainwater storage facilities for irrigation,” says Prem Singh who grows lichis and mangoes.
Most importantly, the village has been provided with a bulk milk collection centre (BMC). The village produces an average of 1.5 quintals of milk every day and villagers have had to travel to Rishikesh to sell the milk every day.
Mohammad Mustafa Khan, District Panchayat officer, Tehri-Garhwal, said, “Now with the BMC they will be able to sell their milk right here, that too at government-ordained fair prices.” The milk will then be delivered to Rishikesh in BMC tankers.
Besides this, the village’s Anganwadi centre has been rebuilt, equipped now with a kitchen to provide daily lunches for children.
Villagers have been provided with funds and facilities for developing fisheries, cattle rearing and protection, and developing polytunnel greenhouses.
The rejuvenation of the village is part of a larger plan to exemplify and exhibit an ideal village life for the G20 delegates. Khan said there will be elaborate tableaus re-creating the daily life of the people and their farming practices.
Villagers told Business Standard that they have been given detailed instructions on what kind of activities will be performed and at what time. The list covers everything from daily household chores to classroom activities in the village schools, irrigation activities at the newly installed polytunnels, and a re-enactment of the daily proceedings at the newly renovated village panchayat building. A few members of the community even suggested that there have been regular rehearsals of these enactments over the past few weeks.
Delegates will also have lunch at the village and then be treated to several cultural programmes in the local music and dance traditions. Facilities such as Interpretation Centres have also been built for the guests.
The transformation of Ouni is symptomatic therefore of the targeted development and renovation of local communities that have been part of India's G20 presidency, through the working group meetings hosted across India’s various tier-2 towns and cities.
A senior media and communication expert who’s also a former executive at the Central Bureau of Communication explains, “Hosting international summits such as the G20, is an opportunity for targeted development of smaller urban and suburban localities, as well as for presenting a positive narrative about the nation’s development goals to the world.”
This is evident across the major venues of G20 meetings so far. Most notably, the recently concluded tourism working group meeting in Srinagar, which was the first international meeting after the abrogation of Article 370 and downgrading of Jammu and Kashmir from a state into the Union Territories of J&K and Ladakh, saw major renovations in the city. Similar projects highlighting local culture and boosting tourist attractions have been conducted in Gandhinagar, Kumarakom etc.
Rishikesh too came under a major renovation drive with the installation of new and safer vantage- and viewpoints, taps for drinking water straight from mountain streams and stronger safeguards against land-slides in the greater Rishikesh urban region.
“However, the major challenge of such renovation drives — no matter how targeted — is to maintain a comprehensive coverage”, the senior former executive points out.
Indeed, despite the scale of renovation activities in Ouni itself, not all corners of the village community have been covered it seems.
Ratan Prakash (name changed on request) said, “Some of the houses, like my neighbour’s, which will not fall on the route taken by the visitors have been left unpainted and in their old, dilapidated conditions.”
Similarly, while the Anganwadi centre has been renovated, no efforts have been made to help Anganwadi workers connect with male villagers regarding the women’s health during pregnancy, several senior women in the village told Business Standard. Men in these households, they said, are still quite resistant to sharing the load of household chores or shunning superstitious beliefs which affect their wives’ health during pregnancy.
Others point out that the renovation should have also focused on providing a better-equipped primary health centre in the village. The village currently has an auxiliary nursing and midwife centre, and the villagers need to travel 5 km to the nearest hospital in Rishikesh.
Khan, however, is optimistic and points out that comprehensive coverage can never be the prime goal of such renovation drives.
“A start has been made. Ouni was also identified as a smart village two years back and we have gradually begun to update the facilities since then, including the availability of high-speed internet and telecom network connectivity. With the G20 push, we have also been able to attract tourist attention. This will help us develop the village as an eco-tourism hub, and this will in turn help fill the gaps in rural infrastructure in the next few years,” he said.