KINNAUR ~ For the record, there is a road that leads to Rakchham—the last but one Indian village on this side of the Chinese border in the Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh. But practically speaking, only for the record. For most parts of the 15 km stretch from Sangla to Rakchham, the road is just a track of loose gravel and mountain dust slit frequently by flowing streams fed by freshly melted snow.
In such picture-postcard surroundings at 10,500 feet above sea level, you care little for roads or amenities, but once you get here, the village throws up a bunch of surprises. It is lined with cobbled paths and solar-powered street lights. Not only does every house have a modern toilet—nationally, less than 30 per cent village homes have access to a toilet—the gram sabha has constructed 12 public toilets fitted with solar water heaters and an open air washing area with a steady supply of hot water for visitors. These distinctions have earned Rakchham a few national awards and the title of a ‘modern village’ from the state government.
Yet, what is likely to surprise visitors most is that as of 1 January, Rakchham has become a no-smoking zone. Residents—around a thousand in number, with more women than men—are not allowed to smoke even in their homes. In October 2002, a devastating fire destroyed most of its wooden homes. No one knows what caused the fire but a short circuit or smouldering cigarette stub could have been the reason. The village has been reconstructed now with more stone than wood. “In our 1 January village council meeting, we resolved to do away with smoking, making Rakchham the first no-smoking village in the state. I was a regular smoker too. Now, I smoke occasionally—when I travel,” says Tikam Singh, the village head.
Visitors to this tribal village, besides adhering to its customs, also have to make sure they don’t light up. Else, they are fined. Compliance is near total. The council has fined nearly half a dozen households so far, among them one where guests at a wedding broke the rule. Singh’s latest worry is that he is getting married next month and expects a few hundred guests from his bride’s village.▪