The Platform

Dhankar Monastery in Himachal Pradesh. (Nomad Bikers/Unsplash)

India’s border with China is populated by ghost towns.

China has been actively involved in developing ‘xiaokang’ villages near its border with Nepal, Bhutan, and India, and its 14th Five-Year Plan reveals its continued interest in building such model villages in the years to come.

As China remains heavily invested in populating these villages, Indian villages just on the other side of the border have witnessed an upsurge in out-migration due to a lack of jobs and poor healthcare facilities. Due to a number of reasons, India hopes that the alarming rates of out-migration can be reduced.

In response, India had come up with an ambitious Vibrant Villages Programme. It aims to strengthen and improve village infrastructure in the border areas of Himachal Pradesh, Ladakh, Uttarakhand, Sikkim, and Arunachal Pradesh located along the Line of Actual Control (LAC).


According to 2011 census data, Uttarakhand is home to 1,048 ghost villages, and another 44 villages with an overall population of ten people. What remains concerning is the fact that the outflux of village residents is probably not reversible.

Government data suggests that the highest number of ghost villages can be found in the Pithoragarh district. It is home to 103 ghost villages, while the Chamoli and Uttarkashi districts have a total of 89 ghost villages.

While the programme was introduced last year, villages in the districts of Uttarkashi, Chamoli, and Pithoragarh that lie along the LAC still witness high levels of migration to the cities.

Himachal Pradesh

The Lahaul-Spiti and Kinnaur districts of Himachal Pradesh lie along the LAC. Census data shows how both districts have reflected a negative decadal population growth rate of net-five percent from 2001 to 2011. While Lahaul-Spiti’s population dropped to 5.10 percent in 2011 from 7.16 percent in 2001, Kinnaur’s population too witnessed a decline to 7.16 percent in 2011 from 9.91 percent in 2001.

There are 70 villages in Lahaul-Spiti that fall within 6 miles of the India-China border, having a minimal population density of just 2 persons per 1 square mile. Such data bears testimony to the high rate of migration outflows in the two China-bordering districts.

It would be incorrect to say that this is something that has gone unnoticed since the two districts fall under the Centre’s Border Area Development Programme (BADP). However, there is an emerging need for improving infrastructure in the border villages of the two districts to prevent further outflows.

Infrastructure improvements are currently behind schedule. These improvements need to be carried out in an expedited manner if they are to compete with China’s border infrastructure projects.

Arunachal Pradesh

Migration outflows in villages falling under the Kra Daadi, Kurung Kumey, and Upper Subansiri districts remain increasingly high, while other China-bordering districts such as Shi-Yomi, Dibang Valley, East Kameng and Anjaw witnessed fewer outward movements in comparison.

Already in 2020, China had trespassed into Arunachal Pradesh and constructed a ‘xiaokang’ village on the Tsari Chu river bank in its Upper Subansiri district. This has been confirmed in a report presented to the U.S. Congress by the Pentagon on China’s military and security developments, stating that China has built a 100-home civilian village on disputed land between Arunachal Pradesh and Tibet. Reports also reveal that a second hamlet with 60 dwelling units was constructed in Arunachal Pradesh’s Shi-Yomi district in 2021.

While elected representatives of the Kurung Kumey and Kra Daadi districts have launched a “go back to villages” movement to keep a check on potential migration outflows, there is immediate need for more effective action to put a permanent end to the migration outflows.


In Sikkim’s ghost villages, there are no traces of reverse migration. The border villages lack the most basic amenities, and suffer from inadequate medical and education infrastructure. Further, people living in these areas have little access to clean drinking water. The dearth of water coupled with changes in rainfall practices have also put a strain on agricultural practices, which is the regions chief occupation.

On the other hand, China is setting up more ‘xiaokang’ villages as part of its deception tactics in the Chumbi Valley, located right next to Sikkim. Usually, these villages are also said to have reconnaissance towers.


Ladakh’s ghost villages are remote, utterly backward, and have been abandoned by their own residents due to poor connectivity and a lack of basic facilities. Faced with few job prospects, young people have moved to the capital city of Leh in search of employment.

Ladakhi villages like Phobrang, Murgo, Chushul, Merak, Dumchele, and Chumur are located along the LAC. They all have thinning populations, which is a matter of great concern in terms of India’s national security. Due to India-China border skirmishes, there has been a significant shift in Ladakh’s local economy. Nomadic tribes like the Changpas that inhabit the Dumchele and Chumur border villages, for instance, have been losing access to pastoral grounds since the border skirmishes intensified in 2020.

Thus, the programme comes at a crucial time since it aims to improve the region’s standard of living by promoting economic growth and development within the region.

Ghost villages are a threat to national security since they create room for Chinese occupation. As the Chinese develop ‘dual-use’ villages along the LAC that can house villagers and soldiers, more efforts must be taken up to avert any potential migrating outflows from India’s border villages. However, the Vibrant Villages Programme has proven useful for India for one primary reasons.

Firstly, the programme has been able to address a dearth in regular power supply through the provisioning of decentralised renewable energy and setting up tourist centers to economically benefit village inhabitants in the border areas of Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Uttarakhand, Ladakh, and Himachal Pradesh where tourism forms the backbone of the economy.

Unless more is done to prevent migration outflows, India risks becoming a ‘ghost’ of its former self along its border with China.

Prarthana Sen is a former Research Assistant at ORF, an independent global think tank. Her research interests include gender, sustainable development, forced displacement, and development cooperation. She is also a member of the Indian Association for Asian and Pacific Studies.