Revealed! An ancient migration route that may vanish soon Tracking the path taken by Van Gujjar nomads

10, Dec 2020 | Mohammed Meer Hamza

In this interview, 40-year-old Shamshad, a Van Gujjar, reveals the unique seasonal migration of the community. Shamshad hails from Kumau Chaurd, Gohri Range, Pauri Garhwal, and undertakes the seasonal migration to the river plains of Ganga Naur near Muzaffarnagar and then onto the grasslands on the Bijnor border.

He leads his herd of 15 Cows, 35 Buffaloes and 5 Goats, and travels with an extended family. The tribe migrates according to seasons and rear milch animals for a living. Shamshad does not easily open up to outsiders. However his interviewer, Mohammed Meer Hamza is his fellow tribesman. Excerpts from their chat:

Do you still migrate the way your ancestors did, do you follow the same route?

Yes, we still migrate. Till 1994, our family used to migrate to the bugyal or meadows of Ghuttu Ghansali at Tehri Garhwal, however, there we were troubled by the Forest Department and the local farmers. The local farmers were of the opinion that as their cattle graze on that land, it only belonged to them, and that our animals should be kept away. They were influential, and perhaps it was under their pressure that the Forest Department troubled us everyday, forcing us to eventually leave the land. However, we still have the grazing permits available with us. We didn’t migrate for a year after 1994, as a result of which a lot of our cattle died. The animals are used to moving to different areas as the seasons change, and suddenly stopping migration didn’t suit them at all. So to save the remaining cattle we changed our location of migration.

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What are the changes? Has such migration become difficult now?

Migration has become very difficult, in the past, the people who lived in the areas we used to migrate and stay used to respect us. I think they understood us because they too were poor and humble like us. But things have changed now. Many of them are educated, and have risen in stature, so they do not speak to us now at all. I feel some may have even started hating us. Secondly, earlier there were not so many vehicles on the road and we never faced any problem walking on the road. But now the roads are busy and our cattle are often hit by speeding vehicles. Of course the police do not help us, in fact they impose fines on us, on the pretext that our animals blocked the road. We are afraid of  the police and cannot afford the high fine, so we pay the policemen instead. Then there is the Forest Department, which also creates a problem for us.

When did you last migrate?

We still migrate every year. This year too we migrated, my family and I moved with 25 other families, these include my relatives, friends and their families. In April we camped at Vairaj Dam Area, Bijnor, Rawli, Muzaffar Nagar, Uttar Pradesh.We travel from our homes in a vehicle and we pick it up fodder for our animals from Kumaon Chaurd. We stop on land of the forest department, on the shores of the River Ganga. The land belongs to the forest department, but it’s an open grassland so we don’t seek permission from anyone. We do give milk to the forest protectors. We stay near the river and have to carefully protect our belongings and our fuel from getting drenched in the water. We are a group of 25 families, who stay close together.

 

What changes have occurred in migration now?

A lot of changes have occurred in migration now. We’ve seen that in the last couple of generations that we had to change our routes while migrating. Mainly because there were new restrictions put in place in the forest areas along our routes.

For how long have you used one grassland as a camp?

My father used this grassland for a while but for a greater part of their lives, my father and grandfather used to camp on the meadows of  Himalyan Ghuttu Ghansali. This is the second generation using ravine grassland for the past 20 years. Before this our forefathers used to go to the Ghuttu Ghansali meadows. We do not have to pay any tax to stay on the ravine grassland, but we have recently heard that a huge sanctuary is being built there, and the forest department has also started troubling us.

Could you share the route map with us, how much do you travel in a day?

Sure, we reach Chandi Ghat (Haridwar) covering 17 km, one day; then the Kotwali River, U.P. border covering 25 km, one day. Starting of the Ravli Dam is the longest stop. We have to complete 95 km in one day, as there is no place to stop here. Vairaj ravine, the last destination is reached after covering 10 km during the day.

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.

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 id 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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