Voices of the Van Gujjars have been silenced by restrictions in the form of ‘permits’
“The forest is like a veil behind which we can live our lives; do not take this veil away from us.” This is the voice of a Van Gujjar (transhumant pastoral community) named Feroz, an inhabitant of the forests in Kaluwala, Mohand range in Uttar Pradesh.
He and the people of his tribe have been saying this for years, but now their voices have been silenced by restrictions in the form of ‘permits’.
All they can do is speak through phone calls, requesting permit approval for entry into the Govind Pashu Vihar National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary to complete their migration period.
For this forest nomadic community, home is their ecological surroundings and annual movement.
These buffalo herders live among the dry deciduous forests of the Shivalik hills in the winter season. For summer grazing, they travel to high mountain pastures located at 8,000-12,000 feet above sea level. This transhumance practiced by the Van Gujjars is important for the survival of their buffaloes, their livelihood and their fodder management.
The wild buffaloes domesticated by the Van Gujjars cannot survive in excessively hot and cold conditions. In April, with the oldest female buffalo leading the herd, they start walking towards the colder Himalayan region. The scenario repeats itself when they descend in late September.
By the time the Van Gujjars reach the mountains, the Char Dham Yatra also begins. The Van Gujjars sell their milk-made products to tourists to earn a livelihood.
Moreover, the time spent uphill allows for the regeneration of forests in the plains — a good source of fodder for the animals. Thus, the nature of migration remains eco-friendly.
“I have started receiving calls from Van Gujjars asking for permit approval for this year,” said Avdhesh Kumar Sharma, Himalayan tribal rights activist, Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra, Dehradun.
He showed letters he wrote over the years to the Chief Minister of Uttarakhand. He said that the CM directs the chief conservator of forests and chief wildlife warden of Uttarakhand to issue the permit.
Their demands were not heeded when they wrote to the forest department officer directly in the past, he claimed. So he had to adopt the ‘top to bottom level’ approach of getting permits for the migrating Van Gujjars.
In his letters, he reminded the state government that the pastoralist Van Gujjars have been dwelling with the animals in the forests for centuries. During their summer migration, these tribes go to the buffer areas of the Sankri, Supin and Rupin ranges of Govind Pashu Vihar National Park in Uttarkashi district. Whereas, in winter, they live in the Mohand area of Uttar Pradesh.
Permission for entry is granted annually, according to the Uttarakhand environment and forests department Section-II letter dated May 14, 2013, which comes under Section 4 (5) of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006.
The letter of request for permission is also accompanied by a consolidated list of families who have not been given any land or compensation.
In the letter, the government is also made to realise that the Van Gujjars do not create any pressure on the forests. Their survival will be nil if they do not earn money from pilgrims, as there will be no water or fodder available in the plains for the following six months.
In one of the years, Sharma had to get proof from the divisional forest officer, UP, stating that these permit holders do not have any land allotted in UP. The step was taken by him as the Government of Uttarakhand was reluctant to take any responsibility for the migration of these Van Gujjars from UP.
He also told the government officials that Uttarakhand was previously a part of Uttar Pradesh, and hence it would be an injustice if this migrating community was not allowed to go up to the mountains, a practice that it has been doing for many years.
This issue has been addressed in the letter shown by him in the context of the 12 permit holders from Uttar Pradesh. Information regarding the rehabilitation or recognition of forest rights for these Gujjars, therefore, is to be obtained from the concerned Divisional Forest Officer of Uttar Pradesh, and necessary action has to be taken accordingly. It is a harsh truth that this forest community has no land in either of the two states.
“Heads of Van Gujjars, also called lambardars, from Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh contact me for permits. The important spots of their migration include Nanda Devi National Park and the Valley of Flowers, Chamoli; Gangotri National Park and Govind Pashu Vihar, Uttarkashi; and Corbett National Park, Nainital. These places are the hotspots of the Char Dham Yatris, and as such, we try our level best to get permits for these places,” sharma added.
The implementation of the Scheduled Tribe and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 can solve the issue of seeking permits each year. Chapter II of the Act entails the forest rights of these indigenous communities.
It gives them the entitlement to protect, regenerate and manage forest resources, which they have been traditionally protecting in a sustainable manner for their own use.
The right to in-situ rehabilitation is another major outcome of the Act. This involves the alternative use of land in cases wherein the Scheduled Tribes or other traditional forest dwellers have either been displaced or removed illegally from their forest lands without getting any legal entitlement for rehabilitation occurring before December 13, 2005.
No forest rights holder shall be removed until an alternative package has been provided for an assured livelihood and need fulfillment of such communities, according to the provision for forest rights in critical wildlife habitats inside national parks and sanctuaries.
The rationale of community forest management (CFM) in protected areas is founded on respect for the rights and needs of the indigenous people. Its pillars are community development and consciousness towards the environment.
CFM has an integrated approach of initiative sharing with the community, wide application to all forest types and adoption of traditional management systems. By bringing CFM into the scenario, the forest communities can have a better survival.
It is time that the government should think from the perspective of tribal rights activists who are demanding the implementation of the Forest Rights Act, 2006. Until then, efficiency in giving permits to the Van Gujjars should become a priority. Saving these indigenous forest communities is equivalent to saving nature.
Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth.
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