10, Jul 2021 | Mohammed Meer Hamza
The Van Gujjar community has been dairy farmers for millennia. Rearing cattle, and trading in milk and milk products, is the way of life they have inherited from their ancestors. They move with the seasons, their animals graze off the lands along the migration routes, and produce milk that is then consumed and traded.
However, in recent times, the nomadic tribe has felt the need to seek assistance from the government to help them produce milk at a large scale. “It is important to control the high price of the cattle fodder,” say the community elders on what is an essential step the government must now take. They say this needs to be done as the community’s source of livelihood is now at risk. With rising prices, and reducing pastures, the Van Gujjars are now vulnerable to the burden of debts they have started to incur to raise their herds cattle.
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The community elders tell me they cannot feed their cattle commercially made fodder as this breed does not take well to it. The change in fodder types has an effect on the quality of milk produced. According to the animal husbandry experts, quality of milk is affected by the health of the milk producing animals, and any steps or medication taken to improve their immunity. The health of the animals and the production capacity depends on the availability of the right fodder and water. The availability of nutritive fodder of the cattle is dependent on their physical conditions, activity and climate of the place, as the Van Gujjars know well. The fodder for cattle is dependent on the weather and rainfall. “The animals should not be kept hungry or thirsty, they shouldn’t be in pain” is the gospel the community follows.
At the same time, there shouldn’t be changes in the climate, water and air shouldn’t be polluted, there should be no lack of water or harm to the existing biodiversity, say the elders. However, that is not in their control at all. Simply put, the quality of milk depends on the fodder of the animals, the condition of the place they live at, their movement and how well they are looked after.
Growing up in the community, let me share the most popular ways of milk delivery that I have observed since childhood. A huge number of milch cattle are reared at home. They are milked daily, and soon after that, it is delivered to the consumers directly. Now there are a lot of companies that collect milk from the milk producing people. They then pack and brand the products and sell it further at a profit. Some convert the milk to powder form as well. But now the question arises how will the consumer know if the milk that reaches them clears all the standards and quality checks? There are no clear answers to that at the consumer level yet.
The issue of milk adulteration has been raised for years, however now we cannot say that milk which passes through several hands from reaching the consumer from the source of production is pure. Van Gujjars say that even if fresh milk is directly delivered to the consumer, it is always the purity of the fodder, a pollution free environment, living conditions and movement of the animals that makes a difference.
The community only has basic facilities to rear their animals. They say that if people who rear cattle get paid rightly for their labour, some improvement in milk production can be expected. The Van Gujjar community has a deep connection with the forests, and in these forests, there is no problem of the availability of the green and nutritious fodder. This is why it is generally believed that their animals which include buffaloes come to the forests for grazing, produce better quality milk.
Lockdown curdled the milk market
It is said that there is no lack of ghee and milk with the Van Gujjars around, however, this isn’t true in all weathers. In summers a shortage of fodder and water has been observed. The challenge that the community face is of feeding the ‘aahar’, ‘daana’, ‘khali’, ‘chaukar’ and other food items through which the milk production could be increased naturally.
After Covid-19 lockdown was imposed, hotels, offices and hostels were shut and did not require milk as before. Milk consumption in areas declared as containment zones became zero. The dairy industry was deeply impacted by the pandemic. The Van Gujjars were left with the unsold milk. The production of milk cannot be reduced or increased depending on the demand. However, over time this too changed.
Van Gujjar Liyaqat Ali says that the milk production has now been reduced by more than 50%. “Due to this the prices of milk should have risen but those who take the milk from us are saying that the consumption has reduced and are paying an even smaller amount for the same” he says, adding that he now sells milk at Rs 40 per kg, but fodder price has risen. “An expense of Rs 300 is incurred on an animal in a day. We are facing a loss. We are feeding the animals with the money that we are getting. We are hopeful that the milk production will rise in winters,” he says.
Hear the herdsmen
Cattle rearer Mohammed Ibrahim says that due to the lack of demand, “only 5 litres of milk out of 10 is being sold, the leftover milk is either being used at home or being sold at half the price in the nearby villages. Sometimes we have to throw the milk away or we give it to the animals to drink, earlier the demand for milk was more.” According to him the debts rise because “to buy straw to feed the animals we have to borrow from the people who buy milk from us. Gradually we sell milk and return their money.” Fodder was once available for Rs 950 for 45 Kgs, now it costs Rs 1,250.
Bashir Ahmad, another cattle rearer told me he “wants facilities from the government for cattle rearing”. He said some of his animals got sick with a worm infestation, but he didn’t get any help from the cattle rearing department of the government. “We did not get any medicines, nor did anybody come to check the animals. In one day, a buffalo’s diet is worth Rs 250, we earn Rs 100 from milk. The rest Rs 150, we borrow which we pay back through milk. We have a lot of expenses. Here we do not have a jungle where you will get the fodder. There is a plantation in the jungle that is why we can’t take the animals there. There is no tube well for water.” He says they created a pit for the animals to sit by engaging a JCB machine operator, “there are around 400 animals in both the settlements together, but no facilities.”
Even if the animals are taken to the hospital the doctors say that there are no facilities. “A prescription is written and we are asked to purchase those medicines from the market. The price of the milk hasn’t increased in three years, now they are using the lockdown as an excuse to not increase the rate. We cannot make arrangements to take out ghee from the milk due to our limited resources,” said another Van Gujjar.
At Lacchiwala in Doiwala I met a Van Gujjar named Kanshi, who told me that this summer the milk production had halved for his herd. “Milk sells for Rs 30-40 Rs per Kg but the price of the animal fodder has risen to Rs 60 per Kg. I have to borrow money to buy the animal fodder,” he said. Now, due to the lockdown the sale of milk has reduced. Many animals have fallen ill dues to the rising temperatures and that too impacted the production of milk.
One milk producing animal incurs a cost of Rs 200-300 per day and if they do not produce enough milk then there is a loss. “We often are forced to sell an animal or two to other farmers to run out homes,” says Kanshi. “We are told that the animals go to the nearby forest, grassland and on the river shores for grazing but the grass dries up in summers. The cattle that feed on the dry leaves cannot be expected to produce as much milk as before,” said Kanshi. “There is no water in the rivers, the river which flows close by the settlement is also all dried up. The buffaloes are used to sitting in the water. This is how they protect themselves from the summer heat, but where will they sit now? Water drums are filled by the family members at home using handpumps, and we use this for the animals, this is a difficult task,” he added. Among the Van Gujjar community there are nomadic families as well who migrate to the hills in summers and to the plains in winters. They have mules to carry the household items the cattle move along with the families.
Near the Doiwala there are forest regions on the edge of which are the settlements of the Van Gujjar community. There are around 20 families there and most of them earn their livelihood by selling milk products. They have been living here for the last 45 years. Many years ago, to encourage the families residing in the Rajaji Park area, the government had allocated land for agriculture and cattle rearing too. Now many settlements of the Van Gujjar families have become permanent localities. Agriculture has emerged as a new means of earning livelihood along with cattle rearing.
I also met 23-year-old Shabbir Ahmad, a Van Gujjar whose family does not live in a settlement. However, he says, “We need to change with the changing times. We now have agriculture and cattle rearing as means of self-employment but we need to pay attention to other options as well.” He has learnt to build kitchens with aluminium structures and wants to do that to earn his living. He lives in the Khiri village, a little distance from the main Van Gujjar settlement. Now, the Van Gujjar families have also started paying attention to the education of their children. The government schools are a few kilometers away from the settlement and the children walked every day to these schools before Covid-19 struck.
This report is part of CJP’s Grassroots Fellowship Program, and has been written by Mohamed Meer Hamza who hails from the pastoral Van Gujjar hill tribe. Here he showcases the plight of a forest-dwelling nomadic community facing oppression at the hands of forest officials. He is working on another deep dive into documenting how the forest dwelling Van Gujjar community’s culture and identity has been tampered with in the wake of this rehabilitation.
Meet CJP Grassroot Fellow Mohammed Meer Hamza
Mohammed Meer Hamza (26) was born in a jungle. Literally! He hails from Uttarakhand and was born on the outskirts of the Rajaji National Park. Hamza is now pursuing a masters degree in social work. For over three years now, Hamza has been working actively as a social worker for the Van Gujjar community, helping them access education, retain their culture and know their rights. He has created a youth group and is educating them about the rights of forest dwelling communities, citizenship laws, conservation and security issues. He is also researching traditional forest produce and how to enable his community to market it effectively while retaining the balance of nature. Hamza has begun his research and documentation work. He writes to share his life, and work as a Van Gujjar youth leader.