When the Forest is our Garden, the garden also becomes a place for Conflict (of Interests)

By SrilaxmionFeb. 24, 2023in Environment and Ecology

Parindey: Van Gujjar Tribal Yuva Sangathan
Alivelihood: Rights based activism, Education, Conservation
Region: Uttarakhand

“Van hai vanvaasio ke ghar ka bageecha, van ke phul vanvassiyon ki aangan ki phulvadi hai…”

“The forest is the forest dwellers’ garden, the flowers of the forests, the forest dwellers’ yard’s flower orchards…”

The Van Gujjar are a pastoralist tribe spread across the Northern region of India, from Jammu and Kashmir to Uttar Pradesh. Traditionally, they are transhumant people, those who practise seasonal migration with their cattle to high mountainous pastures during the summers, valleys and plains during the winters, but lately, more of them opt for permanent settlements. They mostly rear buffaloes and some cows. In Uttarakhand, with the creation of National Parks, like other tribal communities across India, the Van Gujjar community too, faced displacement and resettlement, although some still stay on in the core and buffer zones, refusing to leave their homes. The knowledge that they had the right to stay within the forest first came to a Gujjar residing in Ramnagar, Nainital district of Uttarakhand. Safi Gandhias he is popularly known was informed about the Forest Rights Act (FRA) that recognised and protected the forest dwellers’ rights to live and practise their traditional ways of life and their rights to livelihood. “When I first began campaigning and defending our rights to remain in the forest against the forest department’s campaign to evacuate us, I was alone. People from my community thought I was a madman to fight back,” Safi says. Houses were being broken, no electricity was allowed, and cases were being filed against the community to coerce them into moving out.

Buff-fellows just hanging out (left); a structure that holds fodder for cattle called twala (right). (Photo: Srilaxmi)

Word of the FRA law and Safi bhais resistance spread, and farther away in the Rajaji National Park, Uttarakhand, multiple instances of eviction from the core zone areas in 2017 spurred another local, a youth of 24, Amir Hamja, to stand up and fight back. Being one of the literate members of the community, he decided to harness this to learn more about the FRA law and the provision of rights under them. Later that year he set up the Van Gujjar Tribal Yuva Sangathan, a group consisting of youth from the community who were like minded in their motivation to secure their rights, spread education and literacy, and conserve lost traditional and cultural practices.

Amir Hamja (right), with Aman Gujjar (centre) and Shamshad Gujjar (left), form a core part of the Van Gujjar Tribal Yuva Sangathan workforce. (Photo: Srilaxmi)

The Sangathan channelises a great chunk of their energy and efforts to ensure access to the FRA and Community Forest Resource rights, which protect their right to live on forest land and their grazing and migration rights respectively. Since the community is spread out across the state, members of the Sangathan are delegated duties to go out on drives cross-checking and completing the paperwork required to file these claims. Another important intervention the group does is conducting workshops on FRA for the local youth living in that particular region so as to empower the community to be able to handle these tasks on their own while simultaneously assuring the youth take responsibility for the needs of their community, especially the older folks, most of whom are illiterate. Every day, the members of the Sangathan receive at least a dozen calls from persons across different villages for help. “This is one of our biggest challenges as we need more human power on this, which is something that can only happen if there is education and awareness in the community,” says Amir Hamja.

Filing CFR papers with the community. (Photo: Srilaxmi)

Since literacy is a major barrier to not just accessing their rights under FRA, but accessing other opportunities too, the Sangathan took it into their own hands to teach children living in remote regions from where schools are either very far or inaccessible for other reasons. They have established three schools so far across the state in different villages where children of classes 1-5 gather to attend daily lectures consisting of regular subjects and activities. The syllabus, although taught using mainstream reference books, is customised to suit a Gujjar child’s understanding and context, taking examples from their natural environments. For example, ‘buh’ (in Hindi or the Devanagari script) can be bainth (a traditional style of singing) or bakra (goat) instead of battakh (duck). Apart from helping make sense of things, this provides children with traditional knowledge that is increasingly lost today, thus conserving and building a crucial part of the child’s identity and relationship with their surroundings.

Children from classes 1-5 attending the school established by the Van Gujjar Yuva Sangathan. (Photo: Srilaxmi)

The third aspect of the Sangathan’s work revolves around protecting and, if necessary, reviving cultural traditions. One of the landmark moments in this vertical of the Sangathan’s work is the rebirth of the sela parab festival, celebrated in the month of July with the onset of monsoon showers. This festival celebrates nature by planting native varieties of trees that protect the forests, offer food for the buffaloes and provide the community with essential forest produce. It had been absent for almost a decade when the Sangathan decided to revive this practice. It is now slowly starting over, like a seed germinating back into a tree again. They also invite the forest department and local MLA leaders to be a part of this, thus creating a space for mutual interaction and expression of concerns. “As a forest dwelling community, this was one of our major festivals, a way of giving back and thanking the environment.” This festival is known by different names across India, and in Uttarakhand, one such name this festival goes by is “Hariyali.” Festivals such as these speak of the human species’ connection with the rest of nature, being a part of the larger ecosystem and protecting the land that gives life. This is also an important step in conserving native species.

Traditional jewellery of the community; the making of which has significantly declined but there is a push from the women to revive it again. (Photo: Srilaxmi)

Often, protected forests are made “greener” by planting trees that increase green cover rapidly or with timber plantations. These foreign species are sometimes also invasive species, and pose a threat to the survival of native trees. Such trees also attract few to none of the local fauna variety that can often be seen around native species. The objective of conservation is not just making forests bigger and greener, it is about the thriving variety of local flora and fauna species coexisting along with human communities whose lives and livelihoods are closely intertwined with the land. One beautiful way the community is trying to achieve this is by recognising and documenting traditional practices of migration with the cattle that allow for coexistence and conservation. For instance, the indigenous gojru buffaloes feed on native species of trees and grasses while grazing in forests and grasslands. The seeds of these trees are then dispersed to other parts of the forest through their dung, thus assisting in the growth of more native trees.

GPS mapping on plantation trees. (Photo: Srilaxmi)

Literacy and some clashes with the forest department are not the only concerns to achieving a better standard of living. The women of the community are severely underrepresented, and their contributions in daily routine are often overlooked in the narrative for rights and well-being. Women play a significant role in the pastoral methods of living, as they are the ones responsible for milking cows and buffaloes, collecting fodder for the cattle, obtaining firewood for cooking and cooking itself, making lassi and makhan and ghee out of the milk obtained, caring for the family and other such duties. Literacy amongst female children is only just beginning to rise, and negligible amongst adult women. Access to health facilities is low, and concerns related to menstruation and pregnancy and family planning need to be addressed. The involvement of women in activism is low, but slowly rising as more girls exercise their choices, and the community becomes more inclusive. The inertia has kicked in, and the way to go is up. Support and necessary intervention from governmental and non-governmental organisations that work with matters of women, domestic issues, and health will help address these challenges and sustain the will and optimism for women to be more involved in activities outside of the household. The Sangathan is already at work to tackle this. “If we can empower our women and children so they can help themselves and the community in a meaningful way, only then can we move forward,” says Ishak Gujjar, president of the Sangathan.

Reshma Gujjar, and her sisters sharing a laugh. (Photo: Srilaxmi)

Funds are another challenge for the community, project grants and personal incomes being the major source of funds for the work they do. “If we could provide people with solid employment, that would not just be a great incentive to get involved in the Sangathan’s work, but it would also ensure that they can support themselves while doing this work.”

Apart from the primary objectives of the Sangathan’s work, the community hopes to create a better organised market for their milk and milk products. Those of the community that still migrate to mountainous terrains in the summer intend to secure temporary permits in a hassle-free manner that gives them the required permissions to migrate with their cattle to the mountains and set home there for the five months of summer and monsoon between April-September. Those who choose to stay in a permanent settlement wish to secure the rights to stay on the land permanently under the FRA law, to settle and build a home with access to basic facilities without disagreements with the forest department. Some of the women also want to sustain crafts that the community earlier engaged in, but are mostly lost now. “We have so much potential, and I want us to harness it,” says Amir Hamja.

A landscape view with Gujjar deras and their cattle. (Photo: Srilaxmi)

Van Gujjar community can be reached via Amir Hamja on +919927531392

First Published by 52 Parindey on 20 December 2022.

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