Not far from Rishikesh, there is a village called Chorpani (so called, because of the stealthy streams; in this particular valley, the water seems to disappear and reappear in mysterious ways).
It is hard to find Chorpani
[We drove through road-less stretches of dry river-beds, sparse but seemingly never-ending forests, with fat, old trees growing at the most inconvenient spots, making it impossible for a car to push in further. We lost our way twice and there was no option but to keep driving for several kilometres, because there was nobody to ask. Not one man, woman or child. Nothing but desolate, dry, rough earth.
We finally saw a couple of horses, grazing and assumed, wrongly, that civilization was not far off. When we finally spotted a village cut into the green waist of the hills, we parked the car in the riverbed, and walked another half kilometre up, to ask about the Bhotia settlement. There, we met an ageing woman, who was pleasant enough, but (just our luck!) turned out to be deaf-mute....]
Finally, we did reach Chorpani (never mind how) and met the people we had come to meet - the Bhotia.
The Bhotias are a nomadic pastoral tribe; every year, they descend from the upper reaches of the lower Himalayas, to Uttaranchal and Himachal Pradesh. Most belong to villages along the Indo-tibetan border; the word 'bhotia' itself refers to the original Tibetan migrants.
I wasn't the only one interested in the Bhotias, though.
A rough track - one we missed, unfortunately - had been cut into the forest, by the spanking new wheels of spanking new cars. Cars from Delhi. Cars drom Dehradun. Cars belonging to people who had come all this way to buy Himalayan pups. These puppies were going for Rs 1300 each. In Delhi, they'd probably be resold for anything upwards of Rs 10,000.
But I hadn't come to buy puppies. I'd come to meet this nomadic tribe - now dwindling, by the year.
This branch of the Bhotia come down from Neilang and Jadung, and stay for the six winter months in Chorpani. They have done so for generations. This is their life - graze cattle, sheep and horses... Make woollens... go back in the spring. They do not remember any other way of living.
But now, fewer and fewer families come down to the plains. Many come down as far as Harshit-Bhagori, but no further. The main reason, it is claimed, is that the children's education suffers.
The administration has been encouraging most nomadic tribes to settle down. Many officials claim that the Bhotia want to settle down so their kids' can get a stable schooling.
What they do not mention is that the Bhotia are remarkably well educated for a nomadic tribe (for any tribe!) We met young housewives who'd cleared their intermediate (Std XII) exams. According to them, this is hardly rare. Most kids, girls included, do finish their schooling.
This is no longer possible. Earlier, there used to be a teacher who'd come from Rishikesh to teach the Bhotia children in the winter months. For the last five years, there's been no teacher.
Some say the teacher just stopped coming to their temporary settlement. The tribe's elders insist that the administration withdrew the government-appointed teacher.
No teacher, no school.
Of course, the tribe is forced to do a rethink about their annual up-down migration.
Now, as long as the Bhotia just stop coming down to Chorpani, the administration in the plains can stay happily oblivious to their migratory existence.
However, their sheep will not survive bitter winters in the border villages, when it snows and there's nothing to eat. Within the decade, the tribe will be reduced to desperate poverty.
So, they will have no choice but to keep moving, bag and baggage, further down the slopes. But here, they will have no land to till.
From experience, the tribe's elders know that they will not be allowed to graze in reserved forests. Even if they are granted licenses, it would be ecologically unsound to allow grazing in the same area, year after year, all year through. And if they were allowed to move from one area to the other, as nomads within the forest, they would meet the same fate as the van gujjars did, in Uttaranchal. Eventually, they'd be forcibly evicted.
And the Bhotia kids would not have any education at all, then. Because their old hill-village school would have shut down, and within the forest, they'd keep moving, making it impossible for a town-teacher to come and teach them.
Possible solution: Appoint nomadic teachers who migrate with the tribe. Or hire one of the tribe members as a government teacher. In fact, RLEK, an NGO, has proved that it can be done. The government only has to replicate this model for nomads in forests, hills, and all other inaccessible students. But that, of course, would not have occured to the administration.