The Araku Valley is home to various tribes, whose lives are gradually changing for the better, thanks to the efforts of the government and trusts such as Piramal Swasthya
Shimla, Nainital, Mussoorie, Mahableshwar, Ooty, Kodaikanal.these are the names that come to your mind when you think of hill stations in India. Though these places have a fascinating history dating back several decades, travelling to the much-sought after places is best avoided these days, notably during the summer months. During the peak season, they are overcrowded and resemble Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru or Kolkata. Worse, you could get caught in traffic jams that stretch for several miles on circuitous mountain routes.
Fortunately, India has a host of other equally quaint and beautiful places that nestle the mountains and offer travellers a glimpse of natural life. More importantly, tens of thousands of people have still not started descending on these places, so one can enjoy the solitude and beauty of nature at its best. A recent visit of this writer was to the lovely Araku Valley – which surely, most readers would not have heard of, just as yours truly had not – located along the Eastern ghats in Andhra Pradesh. It is not far from the sea, just a 100-odd-kilometres east of Vishakhapatnam.
Perched 1,300 metres above sea level, the valley spreads across nearly 40 kilometres. Waterfalls (especially during the summer and winter rainy seasons), orchards, tea and coffee plantations, gardens and forests abound on the way to the valley. Araku Valley is also located close to Odisha, and the Anantagiri and Sunkarimetta reserved forest are part of it. The valley is rich in biodiversity.
The best way to travel to Araku Valley is of course by train, which passes through some fascinating places (including through 40 tunnels) providing amazing views of the hills. But Araku is also well-connected by road to Vishakapatnam and it can be quite an experience, especially once you start climbing the Eastern ghat range.
About 30 kilometres away from the valley are the Borra – which means ‘hole’ in the local dialect – caves that were discovered in the early part of the 19th century by William King George, who was then with the Geological Survey of India. It has some of the largest caves in India and feature stalactites and stalagmites, which are composed of lava and minerals that have formed over the centuries from ceiling drippings. The Araku Valley has a population of nearly 50,000 and is home to various tribes including the Khonds, Gadabas, Jatapus, Kondreddys and Savaras. Unfortunately, decades of neglect had seen very low literacy rates – amongst the Khonds, for instance, it was less than 2 per cent.
Many of the folk in the valley also suffer from diseases including tuberculosis and malaria, and there was a high rate of maternal and infant mortality rates. Members of trusts such as Piramal Swasthya, part of Piramal Foundation, point out that nutritional anaemia is a major problem among the tribal women. Consumption of milk and milk products was virtually unknown to them.
Vishal Phanse, CEO, Piramal Swasthya, points out that the combined efforts of the government and district administration, besides the trust, has resulted in the maternal mortality rate in the valley come down dramatically to zero. The trust, which works extensively in the villages, is focused on improving the status of adolescent girls. One of the main reasons for the backwardness of Araku Valley was the lack of trained medical staff, accessible infrastructure and affordability. Other factors include extreme poverty, undernourished population, poor environmental sanitation and hygiene, lack of access to safe drinking water and to healthcare facilities.
Things, however, are changing rapidly, especially with the government and trusts, such as Piramal Swasthya, putting in efforts to bring about much-needed transformation. Sadly, many of the popular and ‘glamourous’ hill stations of India also have an abundance of poverty-struck residents suffering from ailments and a host of other problems. Most of the thousands of tourists visiting these places are generally not aware of the sufferings of the poor who sustain the hill stations.
Going around the villages in Araku Valley, one comes across young girls – studying in schools and then helping their mothers in domestic chores – eager to know more about the outside world. Hopefully, the gradual inflow of tourists will generate more jobs and importantly, raise awareness about the problems that confront millions of people across India. But places like the Araku Valley should not fall victim to unplanned development, where buildings jut out of the hills and vehicle smoke pollute the atmosphere.