No more bribes, Gujjars tell foresters

The prospect of being kept out of forests they have occupied for 50 winters, on the pretext of environmental conservation, the Gujjars of Uttar Pradesh have finally taken a stand against the avarice of forest department officials.

 
By Amit Mitra
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

"WE WILL stop all traffic on the Dehra Dun highway if our demands are not met by December 5," roared a crowd of more than 1,000 Gujjars and ban (rope) workers on November 5 at Mohand, 20 km from Dehra Dun, outside the Rajaji National Park (RNP).



When the migrant Gujjars returned to the park this September, forest department officials stopped them from going back to their traditional deras (hamlets). Incensed by the threat to "relocate" them and supported by local voluntary organisations, such as the Rural Litigation Kendra (RLK), Disha, Vikalp and Kisan Sanghatan, the Gujjars and ban workers got together at Mohand to protest their ouster from the park by forest officials, first on October 20, and then on November 5.

imageThe Gujjars are nomadic pastoralists who face being uprooted from their traditional sites of occupation because of environmental conservation rules. At the Mohand meet, they resolved not to move from the park, "even if it means laying down lives," as Mastuk Lodha, a Gujjar leader put it. The Gujjars have demanded scheduled tribe status, as has been done in Jammu & Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh, and intend to take the issue to the Supreme Court if necessary.

Another Gujjar leader, Meer Ali Dhinda, said the state government has done nothing about late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's promise to accord Gujjars of Uttar Pradesh equal status with Gujjars in other states.

Non-tribal villagers, mainly ban workers who live outside the RNP but depend on the park for fuel, fodder and the bhabbar grass with which they make ban, also want their traditional user rights to forest products reinstated.

The RNP was formed to "conserve the fragile ecosystem and biodiversity of the Shivaliks", says Digvijay Singh Khati, the park's 33-year-old director. "Notification of intent was issued in 1983 to consolidate three contiguous sanctuaries -- Rajaji, Motichur and Chilla -- to form the state's largest, 82,000-ha, national park, spread over the districts of Hardwar, Pauri Garhwal and Dehra Dun. Rajaji has the largest single population of Asian elephants -- nearly 400 -- in north India, as well as a number of tigers and leopards." However, the formal notification cannot be issued while the Gujjars and others live within the park boundaries.

But the Gujjars are not the only reason for holding up notification of the park. RNP has major roads and a railway track running through it (see map). On one side, at Ranipur, there is the Bharat Heavy Electricals Ltd factory and township and, at Veerbhadra, the Indian Drugs and Pharmaceuticals Ltd plant. Khati refuses to comment on the adverse effect, if any, of these factories on the ecosystem of the RNP. The two divisions of the RNP were contiguous till the army built an ammunition dump in one part of it. Tehri dam oustees were also resettled in this part. There is a proposal now to shift 13 of these families and create a corridor.

Top forest officials, however, emphatically deny these encroachments, blaming instead the Gujjars and their grazing animals for the degradation of the park and for the spread of weeds in the park. Khati claims 41 per cent of the park's ground area is covered with weeds.

"Khati and the forest department don't take into consideration the single largest mammal species of RNP -- human beings," says Mohammad Yusuf, a Gujjar youth studying for a science degree. Shamser Ali Bhadana, a Gujjar youth working on a population and livestock census, says as many as 3,000 Gujjar families have lived in the park area for more than 50 years. Another 4,000 families live outside the park. About 170,000 non-Gujjar families who stay in the 216 villages in the Ghaad region outside the RNP have customary rights to the forest.

RNP's Gujjars came to the area as part of the dowry of a Jammu princess married to a Sirmaur prince in Himachal Pradesh early this century, says Haji Abdullah Kasana, a 110-year-old Gujjar. In the 1920s, when many more Gujjars came to the RNP area, 512 families were given permits by the British to make deras (hutments) in the forest when they came down from the mountains.

In response to Khati's argument that their ouster is essential for the preservation of the park's biosphere, Kasana said, "The forests are our children. How can we destroy them?" Mastuk Lodha, whose dera is in Kunaon, near Rishikesh, told the meeting, "As long as the Gujjars are there, the forests will remain. Without us the forests will become safe dens for terrorists and distillers of illicit liquor. We know all the wood-smugglers and poachers, but they work in connivance with the forest department."

Mastuk complained Khati was harassing his people so they would be forced to move to the new resettlement colony set up at Pathri by the forest department at a cost of Rs 3 crore, intended to house 512 Gujjar families. At an earlier settlement in Kunaon in 1972, 42 families were settled on 8 ha of land and provided another 52 ha of unirrigated land. But they were given no papers of possession. "We've been here for more than 20 years. Don't we have any rights to the place?" asked Mastuk.

None of the Gujjars want to move to Pathri. "The area is known for its lawlessness," said Meer Ali. "We were not consulted in choosing the site or planning the buildings," said Mastuk. Assistant conservator of forests N P Nainwal said in his report the land in Pathri was marshy and prone to waterlogging and the area lacked perennially flowing water.

The 80-ha resettlement colony has 512 houses, each with a room, kitchen and a small store. Common cattle-sheds, fodder-sheds and toilets have also been built. According to Khati, the colony has electricity, roads, handpumps, a community centre and primary schools. Each family will get 1,000 sq metres of land for fodder cultivation and a 25 per cent subsidy on fodder. But there are no signs of electricity in the colony, the handpumps are not yet ready and, according to workers there, the borings are not deep enough.

The few buildings, barely two years old, are already cracking. "Look at the mortar we are using. Where is the cement?" asked a labourer. He pointed out the corrugated roofs of the cattle- and fodder-sheds, painted red to make them look like tin, are actually made of inferior cardboard. RLK chairperson Avadesh Kaushal demonstrated at the meeting in Mohand how easily the roofs could be torn apart.

A labourer at the site said Gujjars, who visit the site out of curiosity, are forced to put down their thumb-prints on blank pieces of paper. Later, officials claim these people have agreed to shift. The Gujjars also confirm this.

Kaushal refers to a meeting between Khati and the Gujjars in the Motichur forest guest house on September 25: "Khati threatened to shoot all of them if they did not leave the forest immediately. Some of the leaders challenged him to do so. But when he saw me sitting on the floor, Khati changed his tone."

Bribing officials
Mastuk told the Mohand assembly every Gujjar family has to pay the forest officials an annual salaami (illegal cess). Apart from that, a dastoori has to paid per buffalo, in addition to fees to the diwan (clerk) for permission to enter the forest.

In the colonial times, Gujjar herders were given permits, for a fee, to set up huts in the forest, graze their animals and lop trees for fodder. Though the original permit-holders are long since dead and the number of families and herds have multiplied, the authorities do not renew the permits in fresh names as the extra families provide a permanent source of income for them. Furthermore, whenever a senior official visits the area, every dera has to provide four litres of milk and two kilos of ghee. These practices extend not just to the RNP, but to the entire forest area.

The Gujjars often have to provide free labour and pack-mules for forest officials. In Uttar Pradesh, they have to pay a lopping tax and, in Himachal Pradesh, a grazing tax, depending on the number of cattle owned by a family. Receipts are given for these taxes, but only after the maximum possible amount of milk and ghee have been extracted from the Gujjars.

Meer Ali pointed out that for more than 50 years the Gujjars had paid Rs 3 in Nainital and Rs 5 in Dehra Dun, as annual grazing fees for 50 animals. In 1981, the government arbitrarily fixed higher rates -- from Rs 8 per animal for herds containing less than 10 buffaloes to Rs 16 per animal for herds containing 31 buffaloes or more. Similarly, the rates for cutting branches ranged from Rs 20 to Rs 40 per branch. "This year we've had to pay the Rio rishwat (bribe) as well," said a Gujjar herdsman who stays in the Rajaji National Park. (See box) According to Khati, in 1989, the Supreme Court dismissed the Gujjars' petition for a stay from eviction from the RNP, but the Gujjars decry the court's move as a government ploy. Showing papers, Dil Mohammad said, "The petitioner was a government stooge. Even the counsel for the state said so. We were never consulted in the matter."

Elaborating on the case, Kaushal pointed out the counteraffidavit filed by the UP government said the RNP and the forest department have not uprooted the Gujjars for they never owned any land. Asked Kaushal, "Does this mean that those of us who do not own any land, do not have any rights in this country?" At the Mohand meeting, however, Gujjar Ghulam Ali argued it was impossible to accept the forest department's argument that the Gujjars changed their deras so often, they were not inhabitants of the forest.
On their terms
The Gujjars do not want to remain backward always and "never settle down", said Alfa, a Gujjar from Ranipur. "We need literacy. But what has been done to educate us?" Ghulam Nabi stressed the people's wishes have to be ascertained in drawing up any resettlement plans. "Any talk of resettlement has to be on our terms," he said.

While all the Gujjars categorically rejected Pathri, some said they would settle down there provided the plan followed was one laid down in 1979 by C L Bhasin, then deputy conservator of forests. Bhasin proposed allotting a hectare of land to each Gujjar family -- family being defined as a married couple, their unmarried children and 25 buffaloes. If a family had more than 25 buffaloes, the land was to be increased accordingly. Each family was to get 500 sq metres of land to construct a house. But for reasons best known to the authorities, Bhasin's plan was dropped.

The Gujjars' lack of faith in the forest department's resettlement efforts stems from the plight of the resettled taungyas (labourers) of Bhagwatipur, near Mohand. The British brought in these labourers to work on their plantations and gave them land to cultivate and build huts on. Since the taungyas were considered temporary dwellers, they were not permitted to construct buildings of a more permanent nature.

Some years ago, Bhagwatipur's 108 taungya families were resettled on what used to be forest land. Only the 44 original taungya families, as described in the 1930 records, were given one acre of cultivable land each. The department did not take into account that each of the original families had grown in size and broken up into smaller families, said Bhagwatipur pradhan Jagmal.

"What is worse," said Jagmal, "we are not allowed to construct brick buildings. We were sanctioned 11 houses under the Indira Awas Yojana. We got Rs 50,000 from the government and spent another Rs 50,000 from our own pockets. But the department stopped us half-way through the construction because the settlement was on forest land. They argue we intend to sell the houses," says Jagmal.

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