Homeless in the jungle

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Nearly 200 years after they first rebelled against the British, the Van Gujjars, a nomadic pastoral community that lives in the Rajaji National Park, along the Uttarakhand-Uttar Pradesh border, continues to fight for identity and recognition. More than three decades before the Revolt of 1857, the Van Gujjars had terrorised and tried to oust the British, who had taken over their forests.

Van Gujjars may not be an excessively oppressed community but their tragedy is that centuries after they fought for dignity, they continue to languish on the margins and are forced to lead primitive lives. Far from getting basic facilities of education, healthcare or employment, the community is deprived of basic standards of living. Their daily activities are limited to cutting grass and herding. And if wild animals are a constant threat to their lives, forest officials and the law of the land are no less a menace.

In 2012, hearing a distressing plea from the Van Gujjars, the National Commission for Minorities chairman Wajahat Habibullah had said, “It is condemnable for the government that such a large community of Van Gujjars is still alienated from the mainstream even after so many years of independence.”

While the community enjoys ST status in Himachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir, in Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh they are still classified under the Other Backward Classes category. The government had rehabilitated more than 1,300 Gujjar families living inside the National Park by 1998. But the plan went into cold storage soon. Today, no government authority has any data on the number of Van Gujjar families living within the park limits. When asked about it, SS Sharma, the chief conservator of forests, Uttarakhand, says, “A new rehabilitation policy is underway for these Gujjar families. According to varying estimates, there are more than 9,000 Gujjars presently living in different forest divisions of Uttarakhand.”

While the Van Gujjars, who were rehabilitated by 1998, are slowly coming closer to the mainstream, those forced to live in the forests still have a long wait ahead. Avdhash Kaushal, the head of Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra (RLEK), an NGO working for Gujjar rights, says, “It is strange how a section in the community, already alienated from the mainstream, is lagging behind their own brethren who were rehabilitated. The delay in their rehabilitation is pushing them further back.” A comparison between townships of the rehabilitated Gujjars and their clusters in the jungle shows an ever increasing divide between their living standards.

For several generations, Van Gujjars have lived in Mohand, a forest area adjoining Rajaji National Park, 25 km from Uttarakhand’s capital Dehradun. From a distance, the thatched huts appear beautiful. A closer look, however, tears down the illusion and a hideous reality takes its place. In one of the huts, broken utensils and other stuff is strewn about. Whatever space is left accommodates a number of people, giving the hut a look of the refugee camp. As kids aged between 3-12 years play behind the hut, their faces reflect an untouched innocence.

But a chat with 70-year-old Ali Khan is enough to evoke uneasy feelings. Pointing towards the children, he says, “When I was a kid, I used to play like this, carefree. I did not know what the future held. Now when I think of the future of these kids, I am scared.” He continues, “We did not receive any education. Our present generation is also being deprived of the right to education. My mind goes numb with fear when I think of the future.”

There isn’t a single government school for the Gujjar children residing in the Rajaji National Park. Although a junior high school has been opened in Mohand by the RLEK, outside the park limits, it is not accessible to all Gujjar families. Community leader Irshan says, “Had we been rehabilitated at the right time, our new generation could have received education. God knows when it will happen.”

Of the families that were rehabilitated in 1998, 512 families were rehabilitated to Pathri, 15 km from Haridwar. The life of Gujjars in this colony presents a contrasting picture. Zealousness pervades the township with men and women going about different kinds of work in their clean and well-planned houses as opposed to their deras in the jungle. As we enter the colony, we come across a primary school and a junior high school. Village pradhan Ghulam Mustafa says that two students who passed out from these schools are now pursuing an engineering course. At the time of rehabilitating them, each Gujjar family was given 2 hectares of land for farming. They earn their livelihood by cultivating cash crops like corn and sugarcane. Working in his field in the scorching heat, 55-year-old Imran says, “If we had continued living in the jungle, we’d still be selling milk. But now we have a lot of employment options before us.”

However, the entire process of rehabilitation of Gujjars is wrought with irregularities. In Pathri, several major scams have surfaced in the construction of houses, toilets and cattle sheds. Moreover, the rehabilitation was coerced — no consent was sought from the community before resettling them at Pathri. In addition, several measures for the protection of the community were also ignored. RLEK’s Kaushal says, “It was feared to be a marshy land but the government took no notice of it.” In 2006, a hospital was built here for the Gujjars and their cattle. The structure, which is on the verge of collapse, proves that the land is marshy.

“No doctor was ready to work at the hospital because they all knew that the building could collapse any time,” says Mustafa. The biggest issue is that even after so many years of rehabilitation, the Gujjars have not yet been handed over the ownership right of their lands. Mustafa says, “We will remain sceptical until the land we were allocated is legally transferred to us.”

Despite the problems faced by them, they admit that their lives are way better than the rest of the community living in destitution in Rajaji National Park. Settling down in permanent colonies has changed both the condition and direction of their lives.

Here, it is important to understand why a group of Gujjars has been discriminated against and failed to benefit from the rehabilitation project. Let’s briefly glance at the sequence of events before and after rehabilitation of Gujjars.

The Van Gujjars have been dwelling in the jungles for generations. Rearing cattle and selling milk is their primary occupation and means of livelihood. In search of new pastures for the cattle, several nomadic Gujjar families reached the forests spread from Saharanpur to Dehradun and Ram Nagar. Both the Jim Corbett and the Rajaji National Park are located in the region. In summers, when water and fodder are scant, Van Gujjars migrate to hilly areas of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh. After spending some time there, they return to live in the jungles. They have maintained this way of life for over 1,500 years.

The Gujjars are oblivious to changes around them. Neither the government made an attempt to embrace them into the mainstream, nor did the community show any such interest.

73-year-old Gujjar Mohammed Yusuf says, “The jungles are our whole world. There are two main reasons. One, we are uneducated. Two, there was no one to tell us that there is a much better world beyond the jungles.”

When the government of India also started introducing programmes for conservation of forests in the 1970s, eviction of forests dwellers was the primary agenda. For the first time, the government noticed the Van Gujjars with the aim of relocating them. It is stated in the action plan formulated by the UP government for the rehabilitation of Gujjars. According to the document, the first systematic attempt to resettle the Gujjars was made in 1975. Initially, the plan was to allocate land to the Gujjars inside the forest in a way that neither the forests are endangered nor the community is troubled. But it did not work out. In 1979, the community was given land outside the forest. There was a proposal to provide each Gujjar family 500 sq m land for housing and one hectare land for farming. But the terms were not acceptable to the Gujjars. According to them, the land was not enough for cattle- grazing nor were they ready to give up their ancestral occupation. Shamsher, a Gujjar rehabilitated in Pathri, says, “How could such a small piece of land suffice for us and our animals? Gujjars do not possess any other skill. So, our forefathers rejected the proposal immediately.” Two years later in 1981, a plan was laid out to resettle the Gujjar families of Garhwal division away from the forest. The government could not arrange the required land for the plan and the matter was again put in cold storage.

With the announcement of Rajaji National Park project, a vast forest area situated between Dehradun and Saharanpur had to be included in it. Eviction of Gujjars living within the perimeter of the project was now inevitable. A meeting chaired by the principal forest secretary (Uttar Pradesh) was held in 1985, focussing on the rehabilitation of the Gujjar community. Soon, the government decided to relocate 512 Gujjar families in the Pathri range of Haridwar district. According to the scheme, every family would be provided a house with two rooms, kitchen, bathroom, toilet, store room and cattle-shed.

After initial hesitation, some Gujjar families relented and took interest in rehabilitation. Elected pradhan twice consecutively, Ghulam Mustafa’s family was one of them. He says, “After spending our entire lives in jungles, we realised that if we don’t move out of the jungle now, our future generations will be doomed.” He says that the others followed soon and the number rose beyond 512. The Census of 1998 revealed that within the perimeter of the Park, there were about 1,390 Gujjar families. They had to be relocated too, but the government was short of land in Pathri. So, 613 families were shifted to Haridwar’s Gendikhatta. A total of 1,125 Gujjar families were relocated by 1998.

However, after 1998 the rehabilitation programme came to a standstill, the population of Gujjars residing in the Rajaji National Park rose sharply. A significant number of Gujjars had been left out of the plan. One major reason was that the government rehabilitated only those Gujjars who were counted in the 1998 Census. The last census conducted by the government was in 2009. The census revealed that there were 228 Gujjar families within Haridwar’s Chilla forest division, who were not rehabilitated. There were several other forest divisions apart from Chilla with a considerable number of Gujjar families.

As forest laws were strengthened, problems mounted for the Gujjars. Issues of education, health and employment were also adding up to their worries. RLEK wrote a letter to National Commission for Minorities chairman Wajahat Habibullah explaining the pathetic condition of the Gujjar community. Participating in a convention held in Dehradun on 16 March 2012, Habibullah addressed Van Gujjars and asked them whether they wanted to continue living in the jungle or be rehabilitated. They responded in unison that they wanted to be rehabilitated, demanding a better life for themselves.

Kaushal says, “Realising how the standard of living of the rehabilitated Gujjars had changed for the better, even they understood that their future generations can be a part of the mainstream only when they move out of the forests.” After getting the opinion of Gujjars, Habibullah wrote to the Uttarakhand government on 3 April 2012, in which he appealed to the government to immediately rehabilitate the Gujjars and also consider granting them ST status. A copy of this letter was also forwarded to the Ministry of Tribal Affairs and Panchayati Raj, which directed the Uttarakhand government to take the right measures.

A year later, in May 2013, the then chief minister of Uttarakhand Vijay Bahuguna suggested to set up a high level committee for the rehabilitation of Gujjars. Headed by the chief secretary, the committee was directed to submit its report within two months. The report had to include important topics like rehabilitation of Gujjars and their inclusion in the mainstream. Bahuguna also sought to extend ST status to the Van Gujjars. But no action was taken for a long time. Despite failed promises, the Gujjar community continued to press the government for its demands. Commenting upon it, Chilla’s Gujjar leader Irshad says, “We pressurised the government and held on to our demands through various organisations and forums.”

The National Commission for Minorities and Ministry of Environment and Forests had also expressed concern over the delay in the rehabilitation of Gujjars. In November 2013, the government issued a directive giving a nod to rehabilitation of 228 Gujjar families living in the Rajaji National Park. According to the order, they were to be relocated to the Shah Mansoor reserved forest in Khanpur range of the Haridwar forest division. At that time, the additional secretary (forests and environment), Manoj Chandran had promised that within a month the Gujjars would be allocated plots and provided photo-IDs along with a possession certificate. The order gave hope not only to the Gujjar community but also to the people working for environment conservation. But the issue of rehabilitation was put on the back burner again.

The current attitude of the government in this regard puts several question marks over its intention. On 20 March, a meeting of forest officials took place headed by the chief secretary. The sole objective of the meeting was to resolve the issue of rehabilitation of Van Gujjars still living in the Rajaji National Park. No details, not even the outcome, of the meeting were made public.

When Gauri Maulekhi, a worker associated with People for Animals Organisation, an NGO, filed an RTI application seeking details, she received a bewildering response from the forest and environment department. It said that the chief secretary’s office and the forest department had planned a meeting regarding Van Gujjars, but no action was taken. It simply meant that the department achieved nothing in the meeting. Even the state information commission of Uttarakhand expressed dismay over the response of the forest department. The information commissioner hearing Gauri Maulekhi’s appeal, Prabhat Dabral called it a ‘disappointment in a healthy administration’.

The rehabilitation of Van Gujjars living in Rajaji National Park has once again been pushed under the carpet. Forest officials claim that they will come up with another scheme soon, which means that the Van Gujjars will have no respite. Some may call it destiny, but for 78-year-old Mohammed Alam, it is nothing but the indifference of the government.

Translated from Tehelka Hindi by Naushin Rehman

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