“It is becoming increasingly difficult for us to carry on with our way of life,” Ghulam Nabi, a Van Gujjar from Uttarakhand laments as he spoke about a succession of laws and rules with regard to forests under which the nomadic pastoralists are being slowly squeezed out of their traditional homes and migration routes. At 64, Ghulam Nabi is the ‘painchi’ or the headman of the Gujjars of Gohri Range. Nabi has never attended school and is illiterate. But he is alert, knowledgeable, cheerful and above all articulate. He is also looked up as someone with immense knowledge of traditional herb-based medicines which are used to treat ailments both in animals as well as humans.
The Van Gujjars of Uttarakhand are a semi-nomadic pastoral community who have lived in the forests for hundreds of years. Though they are part of the larger Gujjar community, these forest Gujjars have carved out a separate identity for themselves through their lifestyle and practices after migrating to the Himalayan regions of northern India, Pakistan and even Afghanistan. They are the custodians of a unique nomadic practice described in the realm of academics as ‘transhumance’ which roughly means that they alternate between the foothills and meadows located in higher altitudes of the Himalayas along with their cattle. Entire families including children and older people make the trek. The people belonging to these groups make their living in the lush forests of the Uttarakhand Himalayas by rearing cattle and farming in small segments of the forests.
The Van Gujjar community does seasonal migration with their livestock – up into the middle Himalayan meadows in the summers and down into the foothills of the Shivaliks during the winters. Their nomadic life mainly involves herding water buffalos and finding food for them. They treat both animals and trees as part of their families. And in doing so, they gather hands-on dynamic knowledge of the environment. In addition to this, they are equipped with the experiences passed through various generations that laboratory based-scientists and foresters often miss out.
The Van Gujjars has developed close links with animals as well as the ways of the forests. This is evident from the likes of Dhiman, who lives in one of the half-a-dozen deras (homesteads) in the Gohri Range, which is part of Rajaji National Park that stretches across the state of Uttarakhand, running through three districts – Dehradun, Haridwar and Pauri. These deras are located near the banks of the Ganga where the buffaloes are taken for their daily ‘dip.’ “She is 25 years old and gave birth to a calf only last year… unusual at this age for buffaloes,” Dhiman informs us about his favourite animal which weighs a tonne and is about nine feet long, standing about four-and-a-half feet at the shoulders. Dhiman calls out to his daughter, a slip of a girl about a twentieth of the buffalo’s weight who leads the way by the tether around its neck. This ‘tough’ buffalo follows her docilely back to the trough where she continues with her interrupted evening snack of grass and leaves.
The connection of the Van or forest Gujjars with Uttarakhand goes back to more than two centuries after they migrated from the foothills of Jammu and Kashmir to Himachal Pradesh and what is today Uttarakhand over a period that saw a number of administrative and political changes in the entire region. According to a lore prevalent among the Van Gujjars, it was the queen of the princely state of Nahan (belonging to the Jammu) region who was responsible for bringing them to the Nahan-Chakrata region bordering Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. It was her love for the dairy products supplied by Gujar Bakarwals to her paternal home that led to invite some of the tribal families to settle down in the Nahan-Chakrata area. They were then further spread to Mohund, Barkot, Pauri and Uttarkashi areas that today fall within the boundary of Uttarakhand.
The period when these nomadic people moved into the hill state coincided with the period of transition from the feudal-princely era to the colonial domination and lately under democratic governance after independence. Not much is recorded about the forests in Uttarakhand prior to the British takeover of the hills in the western Himalayas from the Gurkhas of Nepal in the early 19th century.
It took half a century for the British to consolidate their position in northern India, their commercial approach to the forests is evident as large tracts of forests disappeared from the Tehri area that had been placed under a king from Garhwal. This was the heyday of the biggest depredator of those times – Frederick (Pahari) Wilson (1816-1883) who floated logs down the Bhagirathi to supply government demand for the upcoming railways (wooden sleepers) and for kilns that produced bricks for the Ganga canal that was coming up. According to a recent book “Mussoorie and Landour: Footprints of the Past” written by scholars Virgil Miedema and Stephanie Spaid Miedema “Entire forests of deodar and other trees disappeared from the Himalayan foothills. And no one had more to do with or benefitted from this than Frederick Wilson.” The forests were leased out by the Raja of Tehri to Wilson for 20 years and subsequently they were given out on a 20-year lease to the British government.
It was not until 1865 that the Imperial Forest Department was set up for forest management under which all forests were claimed as government owned. In 1878 colonial administrators gave detailed legal shape to the regulation of forests and their management passing the first Forestry Act. But even in this was revealed their commercial motives since the entire exercise of formulating the new law was prompted by alarm at the steep fall in revenue from the Himalayan forests. Mr. H.G. Walton, a British administrator has recorded in his well-known Gazetteer published in 1910, the reactions of a newly appointed deputy conservator on the condition of the hill forests following indiscriminate felling of trees. “There can be no doubt that sal, tun and shisham were the trees chiefly felled, for even now there is no demand for any other kinds of timber; and when I entered the department in 1854 the ground was everywhere studded with stumps of those trees.” Waltson notes that “all that was valuable” had already been cut and it was the duty of the forest department (formed in 1855) to find a market for the inferior trees.
For the first time an effort was taken to create a special cadre of forest managers for whom a forest school was established on the recommendation of Dr. Dietrich Brandis, a German forester employed by the British government in India. Dr. Brandis has been described as the ‘father of scientific forestry’. What is more pertinent for the Van Gujjars was the classification of forests that was made under the Act of 1878 – the first class closed government forests, the second-class open government forests and the third class of forests outside the previous two areas that included what were usually described as ‘wastelands’, which were lands that yielded no revenue for the government. While all villagers and pastorals were completely excluded from the first class forests, grazing and collection of fuel wood was permitted in second class forests. The third class forests were left for management to the villagers. But the significant thing was the clash between revenue and forest department officials over the term ‘grazing rights’. The former’s push for the recognition of ‘prescriptive rights of grazing as having existed from time immemorial’ was rejected by the forest department who were not willing to recognize their rights.
The various laws and rules that were passed under the colonial administration with regard to forests were consolidated under the Forest Act of 1927 and this became the foundation for the forest policies followed even after independence. Naturally, since it was inclined towards the commercial exploitation of forests, the law could do little to prevent the indiscriminate felling of trees during the Second World War as the Tehri Raja Narendra Shah wanted to show his loyalty to the British crown by supplying timber for the war effort. The total amount of wood supplied during 1939-1942 was more than 14 million cubic feet. The plunder continued even after independence, though later in the “nobler cause” of development. The continued destruction of forests and wildlife resulted in two new laws – the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 that aimed at checking the alarming fall in the number of tigers in India and the Forest Conservation Act of 1980.
However, even the forest laws formulated after India’s independence also perpetuated the colonial legacy. The emphasis of the 1980 Forest Conservation Act was on curtailing the powers of the states to change the status of forests as defined under the previous Ace of 1927. There was no mention of the role of the community in managing or using the forests which instead was mainly described as “illegal” and overuse that resulted in the degradation of forests. And most importantly, the term forest was nowhere defined clearly. (The Report of the Tiger Task Force: Joining the Dots, published 2005 by Project Tiger of the government)
Complicating the issue further were the efforts to protect wildlife under the flagship project ‘Tiger’. A view that prevails in the realm of conservationists is that the only way to save the tiger is to completely fence off forests to provide an ‘inviolate space’ to tigers. This in effect meant the eviction of human and cattle populations that lived in these areas. Environmentalists who want to save forests also hold similar views in their eagerness to restore the forest land. However, in both the cases the sufferers are the forest people like the Van Gujjars who are almost never consulted when plans about drastic changes in their habitats are drawn up by the government.
They were settled in two villages near Haridwar. It was not until a 1991 amendment to the Wildlife Protection Act that for the first time the rights of forest dwellers were recognized though it was limited to just the tribals. So, these rights were not considered during the first 19 years of the law.
But it was the Forest Rights Act of 2006 that broke new ground when it recognized for the first time in India the rights of not just tribals but also other traditional forest dwellers were recognized. Autonomy for tribals was recognized in the constitution’s fifth and sixth schedules but they applied only to some selected states. Besides, there was neither any mention of forests or other traditional forest dwellers (OTFD).
According to a report jointly prepared by kalpavriksh.org the FRA – full form Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights Act) 2006 aims at undoing ‘historic injustice’ meted out to forest dependent communities due to curtailment of their customary rights leading to their marginalisation and displacement. The Act formally recognizes their right to use, manage and conserve forest resources as well as their critical role in conservation and maintaining biodiversity.
So, is the confidence of the lawmakers in the entire forest dwelling community justified? It is and this borne out by the experience of Justin Adams of the Tropical Forest Alliance when he compared the aerial view of the Amazon forests – forests on the part inhabited by indigenous people were in much better shape than an adjoining part under private ownership. This view is endorsed by the Aichi Biodiversity Targets set in Nagoya, Japan in 2010 under the Convention on Biodiversity. Target 18 clearly specifies that by 2020 traditional knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous people and local communities relevant for conservation and maintenance of biodiversity must be respected. It called for the “full and effective participation of indigenous and local communities, at all relevant levels.”
Though the FRA came as a shot in the arm for forest dwellers of India, its good work was sought to be undone by two subsequent developments that set the clock back for communities like the Van Gujjars. The first was the passage of the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Act of 2016 that sought to bypass the FRA. A running battle has followed ever since between the Ministry of Tribal Affairs and the Ministry of Environment Forests and Climate Change over the issue of permissions under FRA. Later, a Supreme Court ruling in 2019 said that all the forest dwellers whose claims had been rejected should be evicted forthwith. This order has been stayed by the Supreme Court itself till the legal issues regarding the rejection of claims are settled, but it does hang like a sword of Damocles over the heads of the forest communities. Meanwhile, the forest communities like the Van Gujjars who have access to knowledge on the preservation of forests and biodiversity are being displaced and resettled by various govenments due to which they are losing their traditional nomadic cultures and attachment to the forests and its ecology. Alarmed by this, Ameer Humza, a Van Gujjar who has succeeded in equipping himself with mainstream education is trying to organise people to keep the Van Gujjar cultural flag flying. For this purpose, he has founded the Van Gujjar Tribal Yuva Sanghatan (VGTYS) that seeks to keep their language, customs, dresses and way of life alive. Pranav Menon, a researcher from JNU and an advisor to the VGTYS, he is helping to put together a bio-cultural protocol that records the cultural practices of the nomadic communities of India. According to Menon it is important to keep the nomadic culture alive since it is this culture that has endowed them with the knowledge of the environment necessary for the success of any effort to conserve biodiversity.