02, Feb 2021 | Mohammed Meer Hamza
“Hit me, I dare you… Do what you want, don’t you have stomachs,” a woman belonging to the forest dwelling Van Gujjar community is heard confronting a man, reportedly a Forest Department guard who can be heard threatening her. She was recording a video of the guards attacking a group of her fellow Van Gujjar community members who were resisting the department’s plan to spray chemicals on the fodder, and forest crops they plant and nurture.
Her brave decision to continue videographing action against the community, in the Kalega Khanta Runsali Range, located in the Terai Purvi Forest Division of Haldwani in Nainital, Uttarakhand, has put on record how the Forest Department has committed atrocities as alleged by the community members.
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According to the community members their fodder has been destroyed by the forest department’s actions, they alleged that this is in violation of the Forest Act. However, according to some department official’s claims, the forest is an eco-sensitive zone and when the nomadic community stays there, even temporarily, it is a violation of the law.
They also alleged that any form of agriculture or animal fodder gathering here is a criminal offence. A group of the nomadic Van Gujjar community arrived here in September 2020, and has set up temporary shelters in these areas in the Nainital district of Uttarakhand, as is their tradition. They engage in small scale traditional eco friendly farming as well as animal husbandry. The community has also filed claims under the Forest Rights Act 2007, seeking recognition as forest dwellers, which is pending a sub-division level review.
The community has always known that spraying hazardous chemicals in the forest area is a crime as it is an eco-sensitive zone, and that is why they were alarmed when they realised some hazardous chemical had been sprayed on the land, when there are so many rules in place on what can be cultivated there, as it is also a wildlife sanctuary.
According, to the residents of the camp of Nikka Kasana Gujjar, on September 5, the Forest Officer of Ranasali Range Terai Purvi Forest Division, Haldwani, who they identified as Pradeep Dholakhandi, came along with a team of 10-15 forest personnel, and allegedly sprayed some chemicals on the forest land.
“The crop as well as other land was sprayed, and a calf owned by a Van Gujjar family died after grazing the grass sprayed with chemicals,” said a resident, adding, “Spraying chemicals in forest areas like reserves, and uprooting plants is not allowed under the Forest Act.”
They alleged that it appeared that the ‘rakshak’ or protector has become the ‘bhakshak’ hunter or destroyer of sorts, of the forest. The community members, and other villagers are not clear about what action has been taken against “such unconstitutional action by the forest department”.
“The forest department acts as a protector in the same reserve area which is the habitat of various species of wildlife. But then their men sprayed hazardous chemicals here. That is a way of escalating the environmental crisis,” said a local. Another feared if this was not really the act of the Forest Department, “It could be a conspiracy to defame the forest dwellers in a fake case”, he feared.
The community also alleges that some Forest Department officials, who they said were seen and heard in the video, were attempting to intimidate and harass women. “When the Van Gujjar women started recording and opposing this action, the forest staff got violent,” they alleged. “There was violence and the women were physically harassed. This is very indecent. There were no female employees of the department”, added another.
Months have passed, but there seems to be a silence on the issue. As a result, the Van Gujjars of Uttarakhand say they are still feeling insecure even after the Parliament of the country had passed the Forest Rights Act, 2006.
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.