The attitudes of the forest department towards the Van Gujjars’ nomadism must change in order to view it as a matter of right for the forest dwellers
The Van Gujjars, the nomadic pastoral community of the Uttarakhand Himalayas, secured a crucial victory May 25, 2021. The Uttarakhand High Court in Nainital passed an interim order upholding the right of a qafila (caravan) of Van Gujjars to migrate to their summer homesteads in the bugyals (Himalayan alpine meadows) located within the Govind Pashu Vihar National Park in Uttarkashi district.
The court relied on Article 21 of the Constitution. It ordered the collector of Uttarkashi district and the deputy director of the park to ensure the Van Gujjar families are accommodated in pucca houses and provided with adequate food, water, medicines as well as fodder for their cattle.
The court ordered the district administration to conduct novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) tests at the earliest. If found negative, valid permit holders must be allowed entry into the park.
The court ordered both, the district magistrate of Uttarkashi, as well as the deputy director of Govind Pashu Vihar National Park to submit a report with regard to substantial steps taken towards implementation of the order before June 15, 2021.
But why were the Van Gujjars initially barred from entering the park? Let us take a detailed look.
Nomads of the mountains
The Van Gujjars pursue seasonal migration from the Terai-Bhabar and Siwalik region of Uttarakhand to the higher bugyals in the Western Himalayas in summer and vice versa in winter. The phenomena of transhumance pursued by the community is among the few climate-adaptive and resilience strategies that ensures their pastoral livelihood remains viable and sustainable.
The Van Gujjars have always cherished their nomadic lifestyle for the well-being of their buffaloes. The onset of summer makes conditions unbearable for their livestock in the warmer climate of the Siwalik and Terai. Furthermore, the depletion of grass cover coupled with the dry weather makes these regions vulnerable to forest fire.
Similarly, snowfall in winter pushes the community back to the plains, where they can finally access the pastures which have been refurbished. While there have been several attempts to resettle and sedantarise the Van Gujjars, several members continue to pursue a nomadic lifestyle to ensure the sustenance of their pastoral livelihood.
This nomadism has been frowned upon by the forest department from time to time within the state. The Van Gujjars do possess legitimate permits across their summer and winter homesteads. But the forest department had made it an informal arrangement to procure permission and prescribe cattle limits on grazing year after year.
Several Van Gujjars were frequently made to pay penalties and fines for violating such pre-conditions set forth by the forest department. However, the advent of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 or Forest Rights Act (FRA) has changed things.
It has ensured that even pastoralists possess rights to access grazing pastures in lieu of the Community Forest Resource right they are eligible for. Section 2 (a) prescribes for the rights of pastoral communities on customary common forest land within the traditional or customary boundaries of a village.
It also prescribes the seasonal use of a landscape in case of pastoral communities, including in unclassed forests, reserve forests, un-demarcated forests, deemed forests, protected forests, sanctuaries and national parks.
Unfortunately, despite being aware of the law, the inability to assert their legitimate land claims, coupled with the disregard for the legislation by the forest department has resulted in poor recognition of rights for these forest dwellers.
Throughout the last decade, numerous attempts have been made by the forest department to restrict entry for the Van Gujjars on the pretext of their pastures being declared as protected area or on the ground of encroachment.
However, the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic has become another excuse to restrict access of the community within forests. Throughout 2020, the seasonal migration was restricted in lieu of the country-wide lockdown.
This forced the members of the community to continue residing in their winter pastures during summer. The adverse heat led to deterioration of the health of their livestock, causing the deaths of approximately 80-100 buffaloes.
The pandemic also led to severe depression of incomes as the nomads had to purchase additional fodder from the market since the landscape did not offer much for grazing. Nonetheless, they were hopeful about being able to migrate freely in 2021.
Yet, the forest department has been keen to utilise the second wave of COVID-19 as another means to deny basic human rights to housing the Van Gujjars, especially during a pandemic.
In the middle of nowhere
The qafila in question includes 150-odd families. They commenced migrating from Dharmawala in Dehradun district to the national park in the last week of March. They were expected to complete the journey by the last week of April.
Initially, they did not face any hassle in finding shelter. But as April progressed, more villages started denying them entry to rest. Hence, they chose to stay in secluded areas while aspiring to quickly complete their migration transit. They also faced several hassles procuring fodder from nearby villages and had to often arrange it from Haridwar and Rishikesh, around 150-200 miles away.
On arrival at Naitwad, at the outskirts of the park, the deputy director, Komal Singh, served them with a legal notice denying them permission to access their bugyals. Safi, a Van Gujjar, says: “We tried to reason with the officer that we had the requisite permits to access the Sankri, Rupin and Supin ranges in the summer but to no avail.”
The Van Gujjars also possessed a letter from the chief secretary of Uttarakhand dated April 7, 2021, written to the principal chief conservator of forests (PCCF). It recognised their legitimate claim to access the bugyals in the summer of 2021 and carry out their migration without any trouble.
Manzoor, a Van Gujjar, says: “We thought there was no restriction to migrate this year when we commenced our journey from the Terai. But these officials keep bringing up COVID-19 to prevent us from accessing the bugyals for which we have possessed legitimate permits.” '
The chief wildlife warden, in a letter dated May 13, 2021, issued a request to Singh to issue the grazing permits to the Van Gujjars and allow them access to the Rupin and Supin ranges within the park.
Thereafter, the PCCF, Uttarakhand, in a follow-up to the previous letter dated May 11, 2021, for access to the Sankri range and in response to a letter by Mohamed Umar, a representative of the Van Gujjars, sent a letter May 18 to Singh to swiftly look into the issue based on the previous government orders issued in this context.
However, Singh continued to assert: “COVID-19 protocol mandates us not to allow any human entry into the park for the safety of the wildlife.” Lalli, a Van Gujjar, says: “The forest department has always prioritised the health and safety of the animals at the cost of marginalising us Van Gujjars despite living in coexistence with the forests since generations”.
Thus, the Van Gujjars were forced to stay in the open for three weeks. There were storms during that time. They were also at higher risk of falling prey to COVID-19. During this time period, the lack of access to fodder and grazing lands led to the starvation and death of 10 of their buffaloes.
The strict lockdown imposed in the district makes it highly difficult for them to traverse to neighbouring towns and villages to sell milk. Many villagers are reinvigorating the stigma that the community had to face last year due to the Tablighi Jamaat incident.
A little too late?
The petitioner of the ongoing case, Think Act Rise Foundation case (WP PIL No. 140 of 2019) filed a supplementary affidavit in the high court in pursuance of providing some relief in this issue.
The petitioner argued that Singh was willfully flouting the previous orders of the court that had denied the forest department from conducting any eviction or denial of access till the matter was subjudice and the committee so formed had produced its reasoned report.
He also argued that the Van Gujjars had followed all social distancing rules while migrating and had already completed the COVID-19 protocol of quarantining for 14 days as it had been already been four weeks since they were in the region. Despite not being a competent authority to decide on COVID-19 protocol, Singh was alleged to be acting beyond his authority by denying access to the Van Gujjars.
After the court order, Mohamed Meer Hamja, the president of the Van Gujjar Sanghatan, said:
It is unfortunate that some Van Gujjars had to face severe hardship to complete their migration due to the whims of certain officers in complete abeyance of the permits and permissions they possessed. We are grateful for the petitioner, Arjun Kasana, who intervened in this regard and are greatly satisfied with the expedite relief granted by the high court. We hope that the order is implemented in full letter and spirit to ensure the community does not face in any further difficulty in gaining access to the bugyals.
A routine activity like migration for a nomadic pastoral community like the Van Gujjars is today a political hot potato. The attitudes of the forest department towards this activity must change in order to view this activity as a matter of right for the forest dwellers.
The effective implementation of FRA remains the only hope to recognise community access and tenure of the Van Gujjar pastoralists in the region. However, in order to exercise these rights freely, the community should not need to depend on judicial support. The access to grazing pastures must be realised as a right. Bureaucratic barriers must not be created citing protocol. Rather, a decolonised approach is the need of the hour.
Pranav Menon is a research scholar at the Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi
Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth
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