09, Aug 2018 | Sushmita
Van Gujjars, the nomadic tribes living in Aasa Rodhi Range, Ramgarh in the Rajaji National Park (RNP) of Uttarakhand face an imminent threat of eviction that too during the monsoons! According to a statement issued by the All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP) this vulnerable community is being threatened and driven out by members of the Forest Department.
Located along the foothills of Shivalik range, the Rajaji National Park (RNP) covers an overall area of 820 sq. km and is home to the Van Gujjars in winters. The forests are a lifelines for the Van Gujjar tribes. And they are one of the few forest dwelling nomadic community in the country. Usually, they migrate to the bugyals (grasslands) located in the upper Himalayas with their buffaloes and return only at the end of monsoons to their makeshift huts called deras in the foothills. But now, due to the actions of some members of the Forest Department, they could be forced out of their homes and will be forced to rough it out without any shelter during the rainy season!
CJP has been supporting the rights of forest workers and forest dwelling communities and is committed to work towards the better and holistic implementation of the Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006. In the past, CJP has also helped bring to light the various assaults on Forest Movement activists and leaders. To support CJP’s efforts to secure forest rights for forest dwelling communities, contribute.
According to a statement issued by the AIUFWP, a three forest officials; Forest Ranger Rakesh Negi, Forester Arun Kumar and Forest Guard Yadav, are driving out the Van Gujjars.
Rights of Van Gujjars based in Uttarakhand
More than 64% of Uttarakhand’s geographical area is under the control of the forest department, and a large majority of the people are dependent on the forests. The implementation of the FRA, 2005 has been tardy in the area. Though the government of Uttarakhand notified the Act in the state in November 2008, issuing an order for the establishment of state district level committees and block district level committees, Forest Rights Committees (FRCs) have been constituted, but no awareness or training programmes have been conducted by the government.
The Van Gujjars traditionally practice buffalo husbandry and on an average a family owns up to 25 heads of buffaloes. They consider the buffaloes sacred and treat them with care. They are very particular about the feed of the animals as that produces high quality pesticide free milk, which in turn gets a good price in Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh markets. They have been known to make a sustainable use of forest resources as forests cater to fodder needs of the cattle,and the agricultural land is left free for producing food crops.
Constant threat of eviction despite protection under Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006
While in states like Jammu and Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh, Van Gujjars have been granted the Scheduled tribe (ST) status, in Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh, they are still classified under Other Backward Classes (OBC). This has been a major roadblock in their access over forest rights. It has come to the notice of activists working in the area that the RNP officials are always keen on evicting them from the park in the name of conservation, on the one hand denying their rights, on the other without rehabilitating them properly. Moreover, the plot allocation to the displaced communities still remains an unfinished task.
Van Gujjars threatened
As per the statement, the forest officials threatened Gulam Mustafa Chopra and Noor Baksh, both belonging to the Van Gujjar community. Their ancestors have been residing in the area for over five centuries. Reportedly, the Forest Ranger came to their place on August 5 without an intimation, and threatened their families residing in the Aasa Rodhi range saying that either they should vacate the area or they will have to face demolition of their homes. When Gulam Mustafa asked for any such eviction order from High Court permitting the eviction, the Ranger responded by saying, “You go and take the order from Director office. We will not show you,” as intimated in the AIUFWP statement.
Gulam Mustafa replied that Van Gujjars too have High Court order in their favour that says that “Until and unless the Van Gujjars a nomadic tribe are not settled under the Forest Rights Act 2006 no eviction can take place.” A writ has also been filed by Gulam Mustafa in Nainital High Court Writ no. 998/2017 where the Court has recognized the rights of the Van Gujjars.
AIUFWP highlights and condemns the threat
AIUFWP has condemned this most recent “unconstitutional act” of the Forest Department that is working against the special Act of the Parliament. The AIUFWP reported that the families of the Van Gujjar Community are “living in constant fear with their small children as in this rainy season if they are uprooted where will they go?” It also alleged that the Uttarakhand government has not made any alternative arrangements and hasn’t implemented FRA in its true spirit. It said that the act of evicting them will be “completely illegal.”
The Van Gujjar families along with their Union leader, submitted a memorandum to the Director of RNP on August 7 to immediately stop the eviction and withdraw its staff from the forest who are constantly threatening the families without any legal document.
AIUFWP demanded that Van Gujjars shouldn’t be evicted and their rights under the FRA needs to be recognised. Also the Nainital High Court order of 2007 and successive orders in various writ petitions by Van Gujjars should be taken into cognisance, implying that they have a legal claim over forest land. The letter states that until and unless those rights are not recognized the families should not be evicted as per the sec 4(5) of FRA. It noted that if any such action is taken against the Van Gujjars, the Union and the Van Gujjar Gram Sabha will be forced to take action on the forest authorities under Section 7 of the FRA and will impose fine on the authorities.
Dignity for the pastoral community
The rights of the nomadic community need to be recognised and respected. A well thought out plan is needed to secure their forest rights and entitlements. Being politically powerless, the community faces threat of constant harassment and intimidation by forest officials. They are also not equipped to secure their livelihood outside the forest environment. Hence their status of Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (OTFDs) needs also to be revised and a Scheduled Tribes (STs) status should be considered to be granted especially in the states of Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh.
*Image Courtesy Saif Arash