In the milieu

05 Jul 2014
05 July 2014

Ever since Britain occupied the Indian sub-continent more than two hundred years ago, millions of forest-dependent people have been living in a state of subjugation. That’s because the ruling class always considered them a nuisance as it was impossible to usurp the forest wealth without kicking them out from their abode. The picture didn’t change even after independence in 1947.

In order to undo the historic injustice to them and provide them a sustainable base of existence, the government of India passed the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, called the FRA in 2006. But it has been more than seven years since this act was passed and there is a pressing need to look at the status of its implementation. It was supposed to affect the lives of more than 100 million forest dependents in the country, which is most evident in Rajaji National Park in the foothills of Uttarakhand.

Van Gujjars in Rajaji National park
The Rajaji Park, which covers an area of 820 sq km, is home to the Van Gujjars who consider the forest to be their veritable lifeline. It is the only Muslim forest dwelling community in the country. Traditionally, the Van Gujjars have practiced buffalo husbandry, and on an average, a family owns up to 25 heads of buffaloes that are considered sacred and are treated with utmost care and affection. The high quality, pesticide-free milk and dairy products they produced would fetch a good price in the urban centers of Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh. Sustainable use of forest resources is a significant feature of their trade, as the forest caters to the fodder needs of the animals, and the agricultural land is left free for producing food crops. This fodder imparts a special flavor to the milk, thereby enhancing its quality.
And these people, who erect their makeshift dwellings called dera in the foothills where they live during winter months and migrate to the hills with their herds during the monsoon, nurture and nourish the forest they live in. Their animals provide manure to the forest and their well-planned and finely tuned transhumance helps to regenerate vegetation in the upper Himalayan stretches.

Sadly, they are facing the brunt of the forest officials who destroy their deras, kick them out, even beat their women and throwing their milk and milk products away. And, as they aren’t classified as adivasis (Scheduled Tribes) in Uttarakhand, getting their forest rights is almost impossible as they must give a 75-years proof of residence in the forests.

A Struggle to Live with Dignity
Faced with eviction notices and harassment from the park authorities, who refused to recognize their traditional rights, the Van Gujjars, under the banner of Ban Gujjar Kalyan Samiti (BGKS), approached the Uttarakhand High Court in Nainital in 2005.  A legal battle ensued over the next few years, and the director of the RNP was served a notice of contempt by the High Court in September 2008 for trying to resettle the community against their will outside the park; a move in clear violation of the previous court orders, which had ordered the director to acknowledge the rights of the community under the FRA, 2006.  The High Court also ordered the state government to form committees under the rules of the Act and establish the process for filing claims within a period of two months.
As intense pressure mounted on the officials, they relented and in December 2013, the forest officials accepted 797 claims, out of which only 41 were disposed of and rejected because of the lack of evidence.

Over the last few years, approximately 1,390 families have been relocated, though not rehabilitated, in squalid one-room makeshift huts. They are living in inhumane condition, far removed from their social, cultural and environmental milieu, in Pathri and Gaindikhata villages in Haridwar district. However, the families remaining in the forest are continuously being harassed and beaten by the RNP officials and police and their deras are being destroyed. Noorjamal, a Van Gujjar from the park and a member the BGKS, was detained in Biharigarh police station, on 28 June 2011 on false charges was released only after  strong protests by the Van Gujjars.  On 26 November 2013, an order was passed by the Uttarakhand government, to move 228 Van Gujjar families residing in the  Chillawali range of the RNP to  Shahmansur locality of Bandarjud area, in the Haridwar district. After this recent relocation, about 215 Van Gujjar households, residing in the Ramgarh and Gauhri ranges, will be left in the Park.

As Van-Gujjars are nomadic tribe, there are many international human right declarations such as

  •   Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to which India is also a signatory, says, “Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each State.”
  • Segovia Declaration of Nomadic and Transhumant Pastoralists, adopted in Spain in September 2007 called upon the national leader to ensure the full participation of nomadic and other indigenous peoples in nation building by extending legal and instruments to protect the collective rights of mobile peoples, by ratifying the ILO Convention 169 concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries, and by developing national legislation in line with this declaration and other relevant international instruments.
  • The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples that was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly during its 61st session at UN Headquarters in New York City just after this Declaration, which says that such an approach is necessary for removing human rights violations against the planet’s 370 million indigenous people and stopping discrimination against them and removing their marginalization.

Clearly, kicking them out and not implementing the FRA in its true letters and spirit would also mean violating these international human rights conventions, of which India is a part.

A well thought out plan is needed to secure the forest rights and entitlements of the Van Gujjars and their right to live with dignity in their traditional forest surroundings. If no action is taken, then this politically powerless and socially disadvantaged community, not equipped to earn a living outside the forest environment, will continue to be harassed and intimidated by the forest authorities.