Flanked by hills and with a steady stream of the Sutlej running down the middle, lies Ka. The hamlet, with a few isolated houses on uneven ground, is an eye-catcher for tourists heading towards Lahaul-Spiti and Leh. But with the state vote on Saturday, Ka has had visitors.
Last week, a team from the Election Commission visited Ka, in the Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh, and set up a booth for the 16 voters – the lowest number of voters of 7,881 polling stations in the state. The election officials also helped residents with their voting and Aadhaar cards.
It’s this that Tenzin Gonpo, 27, and his wife Gulab Poti, 26, are excited about – the visitors, not so much the elections. Among Ka’s 16 voters, the couple runs a dhaba that usually serves as the first point of contact for outsiders.
“We like tourists. It’s nice when they come over and we talk to them. They are in many ways our link to the outside world,” said Tenzin, who is voting in his first election.
Most of the 16 on the EC’s electoral roll are extended relatives of Tenzin and Gulab.
The echoes of the high-election campaign in the rest of the state have all but disappeared by the time one reaches Ka, a village of about 50 inhabitants that is part of the Kinnaur Assembly constituency. The BJP has raised Surat Negi, who is up against incumbent Congress MLA Jagat Singh Negi.
Both sides have rolled out their best arsenal – Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Interior Minister Amit Shah have made multiple visits to the state and the ruling BJP has made a range of pledges, from the uniform civil code to 8 lakh jobs. Not to be outdone, Congress has pledged Rs 1,500 to women between the ages of 18 and 60 and assured that it would bring back the old pension scheme.
But Tenzin says the residents of Ka have low expectations of the government and political parties and are therefore not disappointed.
“Elections are important, but we have to earn our own living and cannot count on government benefits. For us it’s about survival. First we survive the rains, then we survive the winters. And somehow through all of this we earn our living. So we’re happy if someone comes to meet us,” says Tenzin, who sits outside his dhaba and watches the sparse traffic below.
The sound of the silence is broken only by the rustle of the cold wind and the occasional army truck and tourist vehicles on the highway below.
The nearest health center is in Nako, 30 km away, and the nearest specialist hospital is in Shimla, about 300 km away. The nearest medical shop is also 30 km away.
People in Ka usually travel to lower villages such as Spilllow to stock up on their vegetables and groceries. On a Monday evening, the hamlet was largely deserted except for Tenzin and Gulab, and two elderly residents. With no broadband or Wi-Fi networks, villagers rely largely on mobile internet, although the signal is usually patchy.
“If I have to use the internet, I better cross the road. I have to do the same when I have to listen to a politician’s speech.
So I don’t hear them much,” Tenzin jokes.
A broken mud staircase winds to a two-story building right next to the highway. It used to be a primary school, but it has been closed for years as the village has no children – it has now been converted into a voting booth.
While satellite TV has helped villagers stay in touch with political events, they prefer a different pace.
“There is not much politics here. Mode factor? Hmm… People in our family had a high regard for Virbhadra Singh. He was the one who built Himachal and we were told that he would visit these areas. We keep hearing about the BJP, but we haven’t seen their great leaders in person. Are they promising schemes for women? But here we are alone,” says Gulab, sipping the tea.
Tenzin, who studied Tibetan culture in Dharamshala, returned to Ka four years ago to set up the eatery. He says Gulab and he built it without any government support or loans. The electricity supply is regular and rarely interrupted. “Water is a problem. The supply comes from a nearby station and we use a motor to pump the water up and store it in cans. We have a good road connection. But that’s not for us. The military must have access and a lot of road infrastructure is being built for them. It would be nice if the government had a special arrangement for us. We may be fewer in number, but we also matter,” Tenzin says.
The Election Commission disagrees.
“People tell us that 16 is a small number, but for election purposes it is a significant number because the policy is to focus on every voter. The people of Ka are crucial to our democracy and the government will ensure they are helped every step of the way,” said Abid Hussain Sadiq, DC Kinnaur.