When the land shouts

Van Gujjars in the Shivalik foothills vociferously claim managing authority of the Rajaji National Park

 
By Pernille Gooch
Last Updated: Sunday 28 June 2015

THE conflict between people and the managers of national parks is growing in leaps and bounds. Van Gujjars, a nomadic tribe practising transhumance living in hilly northern Uttar Pradesh, were deprived of their winter headquarters in the forests of the Shivalik foot hills. This rather callous administrative step in the autumn of 1992 heralded their dramatic entrance into the Indian media. Their winter forests had been declared a national park in 1983, leading to an open conflict which, to a great extent, has been fought through the media, and has given the "victims of conservation" a human face.

In the recent past, increasing areas of forested land had been declared protected, leaving thousands homeless. In 1983, the Uttar Pradesh government notified its intention, under the Wildlife Protection Act, to amalgamate 3 former sanctuaries into the Rajaji National Park, because of "increasing pressure on forest and wildlife in this delicate ecosystem".

For ages, the Van Gujjars have been using the region as their home during the winter season. Conflicts between the Van Gujjars and forest department officers have been going on for at least a century. During the final decade of the 19th century, the Gujjars were permitted to bring a stipulated number of cattle for grazing, and a guard was stationed at the entrance of the hills to prevent entry without a permit. This hampered mobility, one of the most important factors in ecologically sound herd management. This practice continued till the summer of 1993, after which the Gujjars were allowed to migrate without a permit.

The Van Gujjars are seen by the foresters as one of the main threats to the regional ecosystem. According to the forest department and the Indian Wildlife Institute in Dehradun, the tribe's lifestyle in the forest is no longer sustainable. With increased population pressure, both in the hills, the summer camp of the Gujjars and in the foothills, the vulnerable ecosystem, the very foundation of their survival is at stake. In fact, many Gujjars have stopped migrating to the mountain pastures in summer, leading to increased pressure on the lowlands.

There is a discrepancy between what the officials have to say and what the tribals actually do. Most families still practise transhumance, managing their allocated areas sustainably. They are vegetarians, and during winters they feed their buffaloes with the leaves of certain tree species. Since they use the same trees for fodder years later, it is of vital importance that the forest be regenerated.

The removal of the Van Gujjars from the national park area proved to be a much harder task than the forest officals had anticipated. Instead of docilely going to Pathri, the relocation site, the Gujjars stayed put at transitory campsites at the edge of the park or went into hiding in the dense forests outside the park. At this point, it would have been very difficult for the Gujjars to conduct the struggle alone. A local NGO called Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra (RLEK), which was then preparing an adult literacy campaign among the Gujjars, came to their aid. Today, the Gujjars have strategically limited their battefield mainly to the forest, running rings round forest department officials.
The habitat ruckus The Van Gujjar movement became part of a general debate between those who see the Van Gujjars as examples of how tribals ruin their habitat, and those who maintain that local forest dwellers exist in idyllic harmony with the forest. From being a microlevel conflict with local ripples, the Van Gujjar struggle rapidly escalated up the environment ladder.

Since the '80s, environmental concerns have become part of the agenda for almost all community action groups. The conflict between the Van Gujjars, the forest department and the conservation lobby may be seen as part of a larger conflict over "conservation" and "sustainable development". The use of these expressions in India was inspired by the World Conservation Strategy adopted in India in 1980.

The Van Gujjar conflict over the Rajaji National Park emerged as a rallying point for an already existing debate over what has been termed "conservation conflict". It is only over the past few years that NGOs have been advocating the case of those people who lose access to natural resources because of Protected Areas and build awareness about laws and issues. And they have been pitted against a government with ecological disorder as its mainstay.

The Van Gujjar movement had its own "intellectuals" who emerged in the struggle. One of them is Mustooq Lambardar. It is worthwhile to quote him to communicate the force of the Gujjar's arguments: "The forests belong to us just as well as it belongs to the wild animals. The forest is our mother. We were all born here, my wife, my children and I. The Van Gujjars have been in these forests for hundreds of years. Now we are treated as criminals, and we will all perish if we are forced to leave the forest. The government wants the wild animals like tiger, elephant and wild boars to come here and multiply, but this should not be at our expense. We want to remain here and earn our livelihood, we do not want to go to Pathri and live in the rooms alloted to us there. We can't keep our animals there."Although illiterate, Lambardar represents a collective identity through speeches at local rallies, and by representing his people at national seminars and meetings.

Roy Burman, anthropologist and India's grand old man of tribal studies, argues that it is easily affordable to set up national parks in sparsely populated areas like the USA and Canada, but that is not always possible in India. Burman maintains that there is a "symbiotic relationship between Gujjars and forests which should not be disturbed".

Back to basics
An important milestone in getting the Van Gujjars and their conflicts with conservation practices into the national discourse was the National Workshop on Declining Access to and Control Over Natural Resources in National Parks and Sanctuaries held in Dehradun in October 1993. The seminar was attended by grassroots groups, NGO activists, forest administrators and researchers from all over India, and it was well covered by the media. Although grassroots groups had reports from all over India, the Van Gujjar case was the main illustration used.

The workshop concluded with the passing of the Doon Declaration on People and Parks. This was the first attempt to transcend specific struggles at the grassroots level in order to create a general blueprint for a national movement. The specific recommendations adopted include "a campaign for recognition of the customary rights of local people (including nomads), living inside and around protected areas, to the use of natural resources, and for making local people responsible for management of local parks and sanctuaries."

The Gujjars have become a showpiece of survival as well as pioneers in an ideological debate. Instead of the creation of a traditional national park, which means that they would be cut off completely from their natural resources, the Van Gujjars have suggested that they should be entrusted with the management of the Rajaji park, transforming it into India's first "People's National Park". This idea was first expressed by Mustooq Lambardar and the Gujjars have declared:" give us the management and we will turn this forest into a diamond."

Handing over the management of the National Park to the Van Gujjars is, of course, not without its attendant problems. The complex context of the socioeconomic structure of the Van Gujjar society, and its mode of using the forest, have to be considered deeply and for consequences too far in the future to be openly apparent. This is something that both the Van Gujjars and the involved NGOs realise.

---Pernille Gooch, an anthropologist associated with the University of Lund, Sweden, has done extensive research on the Van Gujjars.

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