Our life is linked to the forests we call home: Van Gujjars Receding forest cover and forced 'rehabilitation' is imperiling their existence

20, Feb 2021 | Mohammed Meer Hamza

They are often hailed as eco warriors, as they take care of the forests, they live next to. For the Van Gujjar community taking the health of the forest is a top priority. But now, their very existence, as a community is in peril, as the forest cover is shrinking across the land, and the community itself is being ‘rehabilitated’…

A case in point are the forests in the state of Uttarakhand, where many Van Gujjars live. One such community member Sharafat Kasana shared his fears about the deteriorating health of the forests, which will have an impact on his people.

“We are nothing without our forests. The forests are essential for our cattle to graze in, these animals only eat what the forests provide. We are farmers and cattle keepers, this is the only way we survive,” Kasana’s words are soaked in pain and worry.

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Who are Van Gujjars?

The Van Gujjars are a transhumance tribe of pastoralists belonging to the Himalayas. Their livelihood and subsistence depend primarily on their cattle. During summer they walk over  long distances, traversing the mountains and trek down to the forests in the plains and near rivers, at the onset of winter. The community travels in groups, and takes their cattle with them.

The Van Gujjars live in temporary wooden structures called ‘Dera’. Each Dera belongs to a family. And many families, often related, travel together when they migrate for the summer. Chores are divided equally, everyone lends a helping hand in collecting fire for wood and grass from the first, and tending to the cattle. It is mostly the men who go out and sell the home-made dairy products and fresh milk, in nearby villages.

Importance of forests

Sharafat Kasana, who is also known as Shapi Van Gujjar says the importance of forest in the life of the community cannot be summed up in mere words. Forests are home, forests are schools, forests are the food providers. The community has the knowledge of wild herbs, the forests are also the medicine providers for them. “If us Van Gujjars have an identity, it is because of our forests, he says, adding, “forests are the faith of the community.”

But then forests are also changing now, and that has set up new challenges for the Van Gujjar community today. I travelled and lived at different places with the community, as I too belong to it, and discussed the issue with other Van Gujjars at different locations. All of them spoke in one voice and concluded that the existence of the Van Gujjar community is in danger without forests.

“We are Gujjar people who once belonged to Jammu and Kashmir to Himachal Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh to Uttarakhand. Our main occupation in the state is animal husbandry and we live a nomadic life according to the weather. We have been migrating to different forest areas, this lifestyle has been going on since ancient times,” said Kasana. The community moves from one place to another, as decided by the changing seasons. He said, “We always move with our animals, and follow the ancient routes marked naturally by trees and rivers.”

He says the community enjoys living in the mountains as much as they do along the rivers, but always live in the forest areas, “Our society is within the forests. Our habitat remains the forests, and that is in keeping with our traditional life and social customs.”

The Van Gujjars surely enjoy life differently, and are happy to be away from the urbanisation of the cities. The forest remains the main source of their livelihood of the community. “As taught by our ancestors, we have been rearing animals, we keep them in the forests where they feed on straw, grass and the leaves of different species of trees. This diet enables them to produce high quality milk which we then give to the good people of the city. This milk is organic and isn’t adulterated in any way,” says Kasana. The logic is simple, that the Van Gujjar’s cattle doesn’t just feed itself, it nurtures its human family, and the community as well.

The community is also herbalist, “the forest is our doctor” is their slogan. “Many people living in cities are exposed to various diseases, and have to spend lakhs of rupees on medicines. Whereas we use pure herbs for and medicines found in the forests and live a happy life.”

The community can identify many such forest herbs and know their usage. There is an herb called ‘addy’ that is fed with water to heal bone fractures in humans. If an animal has a fracture, then the paste of another herb called ‘rayn payd’ is applied and helps with healing, they say.

According to another community members, Irshad Bhadana, the forest is the main identity of the community, “Our ancestors had so much faith in the forest that they took on the name of the forest, and we are proud to be called ‘Van Gujjars, the forest is the identity of our community, our culture and center of faith.”

So, what happens when the Van Gujjar community relocates from the forests?

In 1979, over 1,393 families were removed from the park area in Gandhikhata of Haridwar district. A ‘rehabilitation’ was initiated and around 10 bigha land was given to each family but the traditional customs, understanding, and occupation of the rehabilitated families have been completely destroyed today. So much so that many people are now forced to go to the cities to work for wages.

The Van Gujjar community had an in-depth knowledge of animals and forests and moving away from that has proven to be detrimental. Adding to the crisis is that many Van Gujjar families have now stopped migrating. The Van Gujjar’s who have been ‘rehabilitated’ have almost forgotten their ancient customs, and now seem to have made a different identity for themselves.

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.

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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