Shelterless Kashmiri pastoralists denied benefits of Forest Rights Act

The migratory population is unable to repair their damaged huts as the government sits on claim forms   

By Raja Muzaffar Bhat
Published: Monday 09 August 2021
Kashmiri pastoralists unable to get benefits of Forest Rights Act. Photo: Raja Muzaffar Bhat

The pastoralist communities of Kashmir lik the Chopans, Gujjars and Bakerwals, whose houses got damaged by winter snowfall and other reasons in the recent past, are awaiting clearance from the forest department to rebuild them. 

I met several affected families from June 19-21 this year. The Gujjars and Chopans were living miserably in the Pir Panjaal pasturelands in Budgam district.  In the absence of their kothas (houses made of log and mud), the affected nomadic groups sleep in the open in extreme weather conditions. 

After the implementation of the Forest Rights Act, 2006 last year in the Union territory, I was certain the government would issue a circular to the forest department in this regard. But that is yet to happen. 

A mud house or kotha of pastoralists in Kashmir. Photo: Author

I visited Dikshal meadow on June 19, after a three-hour hike from Doodhpathri on our way to the basecamp at Corag in Budgam district. I met some shepherd women and their little children collecting wild, leafy vegetables at the meadow. 

Azee Begum, 70, from Raithan in Budgam, asked my friends and me to take a look at her shelter. The old lady seemed depressed and distressed. 

I could see a white tarpaulin sheet spread over some rocks from a distance. Azee said, “Aess che aeth manz rozaan” (we live in this)

Dikshal is located at an altitude of 3,500 metres and witnesses very fast winds almost every day. I couldn’t believe Azee and her family dwells under just a tarpaulin sheet in these harsh weather conditions. 

Recently the fast winds destroyed hundreds of trees in the nearby forests of Doodhpathri and Doodh Ganga valley. Diskhal is a green pasture with no forest cover at all and the winds are faster and stronger in the area. 

The tarpaulin shelters of Chopans get damaged almost every day. The situation is horrible and every night is like a nightmare for these poor shepherds.

The shepherd women have to trek two kilometres (km) downhill every time they have to gather firewood.

We were extremely exhausted and went to our basecamp 1 km downhill of Diskhal at Corag. I assured Azee that I would come see her tarpaulin shelter on our way back. 

On our way back from Corag June 21, I visited Azee’s shelter again. This time, I made a short video that has gone viral on my facebook page. 

Kothas burnt down 

Till half a decade ago, Azee and many other Chopan families owned kothas in the meadow. Around a dozen of these log huts were burnt down around autumn 2015 when the families were away. 

It is still unclear who was behind the arson. 

The nomadic families had antagonised the local timber smugglers by alerting forest officials of the latter’s illegal activities. They may have destroyed the kothas, sources told me. 

The Chopans never indulge in timber smuggling and work hard to earn their livelihoods. They have been targeted several times for conserving the forests.

And yet, the forest department hasn’t even recognised their contribution or allowed them to reconstruct their kothas in the last five years.  

Malpractices and delays

Gul Jan, a resident of Gohi Dragan village in Kaich Khansahib and member of the Gujjar community, comes to Mechi Khanain Jabb every summer with a flock of cattle. Mechi Khanain Jabb is also a highland pasture located around Diskhal. 

Gul Jaan’s husband, who would accompany her to the meadow, succumbed to an illness in 2017.  But she didn’t give up her livelihood.  

She continues to come to the pastureland with their cattle for three months, assisted by her four children. After August, the cattle are taken back to their village for another three months. 

The condition of her kotha made of wooden logs, stones and mud is terrible. She has been requesting the forest department to allow her to collect some old wooden logs from the nearby forest area of Mechi Khanain Jabb for the repair. But the forest department hasn’t allowed it. 

Forest officials even take bribes from the poor migratory population for giving such permissions unofficially, sources alleged. 

Some months back, Gul Jan was told that under the Forest Rights Act (FRA) she would be able to get some old wooden logs from the forest to repair her hut. But her reality is quite different.

I met some forest officials in the area who told me they have no direction from their officers to allow repair of the kothas.  

Rights denied

Section 3 (1) (d) of FRA says that community rights of uses or entitlements such as grazing rights (both settled or transhumant) and traditional seasonal resource access of nomadic or pastoralist communities are recognised for individuals and communities. 

Why isn't the government notifying a concrete policy about the same, if these communities are entitled to get certain rights like repairing or construction of log kothas

Chopans, Gujjars and Bakerwals are the backbone of our economy as they take care of our almost 4,000,000 sheep and goats and thousands of other varieties of cattle. Isn’t it the duty of the government as a welfare state to ensure these nomads lead dignified lives, with better shelter facilities in the highland pastures? 

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth.

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