HC order empowers Van Gujjars during Covid-19 The community was finally allowed to enter the meadows of Uttarkashi

03, Aug 2021 | Mohammed Meer Hamza

The course the Covid-19 pandemic will now take, remains as unpredictable as ever. One the one hand, there is talk of a slowdown of the spread of the disease, one the other, there are also reports of an imminent arrival of the third wave if protocol is not adhered to. However, one cannot ignore the impact that the pandemic induced lockdown has had, especially in remote parts of the country.

A case in point is Uttrakhand, where people are still facing a lot of difficulties, with Van Gujjars, a transhumance tribe of cattle rearers being one of the most vulnerable. According to community elders, they are facing challenges from the government’s forest department.

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The migrant community, as we have documented before, traditionally live around  forest areas, rear cattle and trade in milk and milk products. The high quality, pure milk is highly sought after, and the community has been contributing their share in the state’s economy for generations.

The Van Gujjars of Uttarakhand mark the onset of summer season with their annual migration to the Himalyan ‘bugyals’ or meadows, and in the winter season they move towards the lower mountains of the Shivalik range. However, as they are a migrant community they do not reap any “benefits” that the development policies of the government offer. They simply do not have any “address proof” to offer nor do they have a chance to participate even in the access to the panchayat elections. The government it appears is not serious about this community.

Recently, it was the High Court that came to the rescue and provided relief to many migrant labourers who said they had been harassed by the divisional forest rights officers. The Van Gujjars, of the forest divisions of the Shivalik district of Dehradun migrated to the bugyals this year too. Last year during the lockdown the Uttarakhand government had imposed restrictions on migration that the Van Gujjar families had obtained a permission letter from the forest department’s senior officials, before they began the migration.

However, after a long journey when they reached close to the Mohri block, they were  stopped from proceeding further, by the forest department officials. At the meadow, the Van Gujjars were stuck with their herds of around 800 cattle, who were hungry and stranded on the route. They remained stuck for days, and some cattle started dying, setting off alarm bells among the Van Gujjars. Many families, now tired of running around government officials seeking fresh permission, were even ready to turn around and save the cattle that remained. On behalf of the community, I met activist Arjun Kasana and provided him with the permission documents that had been procured. He then filed a public interest litigation with the Nainital High Court seeking that the community be helped.

What did the court say?

The High Court took cognisance and ordered the district administration of Uttarkashi, the division forest officers, and the animal sanctuary officials to immediately provide the stranded Van Gujjars with ration kits, medical facilities, and fodder. The court also ordered that the group be tested for Covid, and upon testing negative, be allowed to enter the meadows where they had permission to camp. The district administration had to comply with the High Court’s order and the Van Gujjars were allowed to enter the areas.

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Once the orders had been issued, the stranded Van Gujjars heaved a sigh of relief. Some were surprised that they had the right to approach the courts. This was a landmark judgment for them in many ways.

“We are grateful to the honourable High Court. We weren’t aware that with the order of the High Court the administration will not only provide us with facilities but treat us with respect,” said Yaqoof Chopra. He, like others, was worried what would have happened if the High Court hadn’t taken cognisance of the matter. “Our cattle would have died and we would have lost our identity,” he said.

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.


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