No Rights to Live in the Forest: Van Gujjars in Rajaji National Park

India is a green country. According to the Forest Survey of India,
 forestland occupies a little over 21% of the country’s total
geographical area with moderately dense to very dense forests covering
approximately 13% of the landmass.(Forest Survey of India: 2011).
95% of this land is owned by the state, a practice dating back to the
British rule, when the colonial regime viewed forests as a reservoir of
colossal wealth, and the state had a monopoly over its resources.

Forests may be a source of wealth for the state, but for more than 10
crore forest dependents, as the Ninth Five-Year Plan noted in its
mid-term appraisal, (Planning Commission: 2002)  it is a source of
livelihood and sustenance, fodder, fuel-wood, small timber, honey, wax
and fruits. More than 6 crore of these people are adivasis, and as most
of forests are located in dry and deciduous regions these people live a
very hard life.

The forest dependent communities, irrespective of castes, depend on
forests for their livelihood and have had a symbiotic relationship with
forests for centuries. They have their own model of forest management
with customary rules for harvesting biomass ‒ extracting only as much as
they need ‒ and also rules which prohibit hunting and extraction of
resources during certain times of the year.

Government Policy

The forest dependent communities  were considered as  enemies of
forests by the colonial regime. To promote “scientific forestry”, the
British established the Forest Department  in 1868, which was basically a
tool to bring  all the  forests of India under government control.  It
divided the forests into reserved and protected categories, making them
inaccessible  to these communities.

The government of independent India continued with the same colonial
policy, albeit under the garb of sustainable forest management. The
Forest Policy Resolution of 1952  paved the way for the forest
department to keep India’s forests firmly under its control and people
out of them.  Between 1951 and 1988, measures were undertaken to
increase the national forest area from 41 million to 67 million
hectares. (Ministry of Environment and Forests: 2011)This exercise paid
no attention either to determine the ecological status of these forests
or to the rights of the existing occupants or its uses as required by
law. Today 60% of the state forests are in 187 tribal districts. Maoist
insurgency has taken deep root in these districts, and often the Maoists
have taken advantage of the dictatorial and despotic attitude of the
forest department to lure the forest dependent adivasis into their fold.
Finally the government of India in order to undo the “historical injustice” done to the forest dwellers, passed the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act (FRA), in 2006. (Ministry of Tribal Affairs: 2006)

FRA and its Implementation

Today, seven years after the promulgation of the Act, there is a
pressing need to assess  its implementation,  as this will  affect the
lives and livelihoods of more than 100 million people living on land classified as public forest. (Fisher, RJ, Srimongkontip, Somjai and Veer, Cor: 1997)

As was expected, the forest department ‒controlling almost one-fourth
area of the country‒ has not  let its authority get undermined so
easily and has used all its arsenal at its disposal to sabotage the
basic features of the Act,  rejecting an overwhelming majority of claims
filed all across the country.  In 2010, the Council for Social
Development presented a summary report on the implementation of the FRA. The report stated that:

“key features of this
legislation have been undermined by a combination of apathy and sabotage
during the process of implementation. In the current situation the
rights of the majority of tribals and other traditional forest dwellers
(OTFDs) are being denied, and the purpose of the legislation is being
defeated. Unless immediate remedial measures are taken, instead of
undoing the historical injustice to tribal and OTFDs, the Act will have
the opposite outcome of making them even more vulnerable to eviction and
denial of their customary access to forests. The testimonies made it
clear that this is not merely a result of bureaucratic failure; both the
Central and the State governments have actively pursued policies that
are in direct violation of the spirit and letter of the Act”. (Council
for Social Development: 2010)

In many Naxal dominated regions like in Andhra Pradesh, the
implementation of the FRA remains poor. (Reddy, Gopinath M: 2011) The
implementation of the Act has not yet conferred any meaningful benefits
on forest dependent communities, and the situation on the ground largely
remains unchanged.  More than half of
 the claims put forward by the forest dwellers under the FRA had been
rejected by the forest department. (Srivastava, Kumar Sambhav: 2012)  A recent article in  Down to Earth
recently reported that over “1.3 million tribals and OTFDs have got
rights over the land they had been using for years under the FRA”, but
“not one state has initiated concrete steps to officially register the
title holders in the state land records. Without this they remain what
they used to be—officially non-existent”. (Srivastava, Kumar Sambhav,
Pallavi, Aparna, Suchitra, M & Mahapatra: 2012)

Van Gujjars in Rajaji National park

In Uttarakhand  where more than 64% of the state’s geographical area is under the control of the forest department,
(Forest Department, Uttarakhand: 2012) and  an overwhelming majority of
people are forest dependents, the implementation of the Act has been
tardy. According to the deputy director of the Scheduled Tribe Welfare
Department, all claims submitted
by OTFDs under the Act until June 2012  had been rejected,  as they
could not provide proof of their stay in the forestland for the last 75
years. (Secretary, Tribal Affairs: 2012)  It should be noted here that
the government of Uttarakhand notified the Act in the state in November
2008 and issued an order for the establishment of state district level
committees and block district level committees. Since then, though
institutions like Forest Right Committees have been constituted, no
awareness and training programmes have been conducted by the government
(Ministry of Environment and Forests and Ministry of Tribal Affairs:
2012) or by any non-governmental organisation (NGO).

However, the present study is limited to the evaluation of the impact
of the FRA on the Van Gujjars who live in the Rajaji National Park
(RNP), which straddles the states of Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh.

Covering an area of 820 sq km, the RNP is  home to  the Van Gujjars
in winters, and the  tribe  considers the forest to be their veritable
lifeline. It is the only Muslim forest dwelling community in the
country. The author  has been studying this area and has been
interacting with this community for more than five years. This nomadic
tribe resides in the RNP,  located along the Shiwlaik foothills. At the
beginning of summer, the Van Gujjars migrate to the bugyals
(grasslands) located in  the upper Himalayas with their herds of
buffaloes, and at the end of  monsoon they return to their makeshift
humble huts called deras in the foothills. This well-planned and finely tuned transhumance  helps to regenerate vegetation in the upper Himalayan stretches.

Traditionally the Van Gujjars have practiced buffalo husbandry, and
on an average, a family owns up to 25 heads of buffaloes, who are
considered sacred and are treated with utmost care and affection. The
high quality pesticide free  milk and dairy products produced fetch a
good price in the urban centres 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 flavour to the milk, thereby enhancing its quality.

While Van Gujjars have been granted the scheduled tribe (ST) status
in Jammu and Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh, in Uttarakhand and Uttar
Pradesh they are still classified under Other Backward Classes. This
proves to a big stumbling block in claiming their forest rights. The RNP
officials want to evict them from the park in the name of conservation,
denying them their rights and proper rehabilitation due to them.

A Struggle to Live with Dignity

 Faced with eviction notices and harassment from the park
authorities, who refused to recognise their traditional rights, the Van
Gujjars, under the banner of Ban Gujjar Kalyan Samiti (BGKS), approached
the Uttarakhand High Court in Nanital 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.

According to a joint report of the Ministry of Environment and
Ministry of Tribal Affairs, the total number of claims filed by the Van
Gujjars residing in the RNP up to the year 2010 were 485 (MoEF/MoTA
Committee on Forest Rights Act: 2010).  The forest department rejected
all claims filed by the Van Gujjars ‒who have not been accorded the
scheduled tribe status and fall under the category of OTFDs‒  because
they were unable to provide two proofs of the  occupation of land by
three generations (75 years) in that area. One of these proofs could
also be in the form of a testimony of an elder. (Ministry of Law and
Justice: 2007) In 2013 (the fifth anniversary of the Act’s notification
in the state),  after immense pressure from the activists,  media and
researchers (including the author), the officials accepted 797 claims,
out of which only 41  were disposed of and  rejected because of the lack
of evidence, according to information from sources in the Ministry of
Social Welfare, Government of Uttarakhand.

Over the last few years, approximately 1,390 families have been
relocated, though not rehabilitated, in squalid one-room makeshift huts ‒
far removed from their social, cultural and environmental milieu ‒ in 
Pathri and Gaindikhata in Haridwar district. (Joshi, Ritesh and Singh,
Rambir: 2009)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, in Saharanpur district,  on 28 June, 2011 on false charges
filed by the forest department and 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. (Pioneer News Service: 2013)
After this  recent relocation, about 215 Van Gujjar households ,
residing in in the Ramgarh and Gauhri ranges, will be left in the park.

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. In the last few years some  OTFDs
have waged a successful struggle and secured  their rights; for example
the forest village of Dafadaar Gaurhi 
in  Behraich district of Uttar Pradesh “became one of the first
villages in the country  to get land and forest rights under the FRA
Act, 2006”. (Agarwal, Rakesh: 2012a). The Kunao
village in the Pauri district of Uttarakhand perhaps becomes  the first
village in the state where the process to grant forest rights under FRA
to the OTFDs has been initiated due to the efforts of the villagers.
(Agarwal, Rakesh: 2012b) 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.


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