Sabhi Bhai of the Van Gujjar community milks his cow in Tumadhia village, Nainital district, just outside Corbett National Park. Photo: Eleonora Fanari
On May 25, 2021, the nomadic Van Gujjars finally relaxed. After a protracted struggle with the forest administration of the Govind Pashu Vihar National Park in Uttarkashi, the high court of Uttarakhand ordered the local administration as well as the deputy director of the national park to allow the pastoralists entry into the bugyals (meadows) within the protected area as they are entitled to do under the Forest Rights Act, 2006.
The court recognised that the treatment meted out the Van Gujjars in the past month had forced them to survive without any basic human dignity. It set a deadline of June 15, 2021 to ensure the community has access to their summer homesteads and is provided with basic amenities for their survival as well as for the well-being of their livestock. While initial reports have seen positive enforcement of the order by the relevant authorities, the Van Gujjars continue to live in fear of the Forest Department, who have time and again, in contempt of court orders, issued eviction notices in the past without regard to their claim to reside within the forest.
But for how long will the Van Gujjars have to seek legal remedies for a routine livelihood practice like transhumance? Will the forest department continue to find their migratory practices unfavourable and deny them their basic right of existence within forests? Is the COVID-19 pandemic another excuse for the department to inhibit such practices and forcefully resettle the Van Gujjars from their nomadic ways? Can the conservation of wildlife continue to be cited to deny legitimate forest rights to these pastoralists?
In 2020, there was a complete ban on the annual migrations of the Van Gujjars due to the nationwide lockdown for the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to a loss of income propelled by the lack of availability of fodder and drinking water. So they had hoped that in 2021 they would not face challenges in accessing their summer homesteads. However, arbitrary actions taken by Komal Singh, the deputy director of the Govind Pashu Vihar National Park in the Purola division of Uttarkashi, has had them camping in tents at the edge of the forest for nearly two months now, prevented from entering the park for one unjustified reason or another.
People of the forests
The nomadic practices of the Van Gujjars see them traverse the Terai Bhabar and Siwalik regions of Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh in the winter and climb to the higher reaches of the western Himalayas in the summer months in search of greener pastures and the plentiful water resources provided by recently melted snow.
The migration undertaken by the community is attuned to the lifestyle and need of the indigenous gojri breed of cattle they tend, which requires rotational grazing.
However, although the Forest Rights Act, 2006, recognises the rights of pastoralists under section 3 to access common pastures and claim community forest resource rights, the implementation of the legislation has been dismal, with frequent barriers imposed by the Forest Department who contest the access claims of the Van Gujjars.
The discourse of forest conservation pursued by the Forest Department has sought to inhibit access to the Van Gujjars in protected areas of the forests, often citing them as a threat to wildlife despite ample proof of coexistence amongst the community, including the maintenance of water sources and fire lines within the forests, the equitable use of forest produce, no recognised poaching background due to a predominantly vegetarian diet and deep knowledge of the ecosystem that shows them where they can safely graze their cattle and which areas to avoid due to threats to wildlife.
‘An animal existence’
The present issue concerns Komal Singh, the deputy director of Govind Pashu Vihar National Park in Uttarakashi, and the Van Gujjars who migrate to the bugyals within the protected area of the park.
When the Van Gujjars arrived at the outskirts of the park at Naitwad at the end of April 2021, they were denied access to their homes within the park because the deputy director failed to recognise the permits and permissions from the chief secretary of the chief minister’s office requesting the principal chief conservator of forests (PCCF, also known as the head of forest forces or HoFF) to grant the Van Gujjars permission to migrate.
As time passed, Singh continued to deny them entry even though he received letters from the PCCF as well as the chief wildlife warden to permit the Van Gujjars to enter the national park, not to mention numerous representations sent by the Van Gujjar Tribal Yuva Sanghathan.
Singh also cited COVID-19 protocols as a reason to prevent the Van Gujjars from entering the park, stating that they would be a health risk to the wildlife and thus showing that he thought of the community as below the dignity of animals. Rather than conducting COVID-19 tests at the earliest or deciding upon quarantining rules based on standard operating procedures, he usurped the authority of the district administration in complete violation of the right to life and basic dignity which the Van Gujjars required after a tedious transit.
Singh is not the nodal authority under the Disaster Management Act, 2005, but he arbitrarily denied access to the Van Gujjars without a deadline. In doing so, he directly contravened the Uttarakhand high court’s orders in the Think Act Rise Foundation case of 2019, which had granted an injunction upon the Forest Department to evict any forest dweller until a committee that the high court had ordered to be established decided upon the requisite rights of the Van Gujjars.
Because of the actions of Komal Singh, the Van Gujjars continue to stay precariously in open tents. The last month witnessed severe rainfall and hail, which the community had no option but to cope with since they do not have access to their homes. The inability to sell milk in neighbouring towns and villages due to lockdown has led to another barrier in their livelihood. The rest stop where they are stationed lacks access to grass and fodder for the livestock, which has so far resulted in the starvation to death of ten buffaloes. Babies, young children and elderly people have been exposed to adverse health conditions. This situation was aptly described to the Uttarakhand high court on May 25 as one of mere animal existence, all due to the autocratic exercise of power by certain officials.
A malafide act?
Komal Singh appears to have a history of prejudice against the Van Gujjars of Uttarakhand. In 2017, as the chief wildlife warden of Rajaji National Park, he had wrongfully, without adhering to Section 61-A of the Uttarakhand Forest Act, issued notices for the eviction of the Van Gujjars across the three ranges where they resided – the Gohri, Chillawali and Asarori ranges across the Pauri Garhwal, Haridwar and Dehradun districts, respectively.
By categorising the Van Gujjars as encroachers and using violence and intimidation, Singh managed to evict around 200 Van Gujjars from these ranges. However, certain members of the communities from the Gohri and Asarori ranges somehow managed to resist the eviction and stayed put.
Thereafter, as deputy director of Govind Pashu Vihar National Park, Singh was made a member of a committee for the rehabilitation of Van Gujjars, which he delayed for two years, denying benefits to those he had evicted by referring to them as illegal encroachers. Some of the evicted members of the community are still eking out their existence on rented land or on the banks of the river Ganga in Haridwar.
Singh’s actions as the chief wildlife warden of the Rajaji National Park are now pending enquiry. They were questioned as malafide in the 2019 Think Act Rise case in the Uttarakhand high court, which ordered the establishment of a committee with the chief secretary of the Social Welfare Department, Uttarakhand, as the chair and people from the Forest Department and civil society as other members, to ensure the rights of the Van Gujjars under the Forest Rights Act, 2006.
Right to human dignity
The Think Rise Act Foundation is a student-led, self-funded NGO founded in 2018 by Arjun Kasana, a graduate of the University of Delhi, to pursue justice through legal and extra-legal means for the Van Gujjars.
In 2019, the foundation challenged the evictions of the Van Gujjars from various areas of Rajaji National park, which had been carried out through illegal notices under Section 61-A of the Uttarakhand Forest Act. The foundation also pleaded for the recognition of the legal rights of the Van Gujjars.
When Komal Singh denied the Van Gujjars entry into Govind Pashu Vihar National Park this year, the community contacted the foundation on May 17, 2021. The foundation thereafter filed a supplementary affidavit and mentioned the issue on the ongoing PIL No. 140 of 2019 before the high court, highlighting the plea of the Van Gujjars and their deplorable condition in makeshift tents.
On May 25, the high court held that in accordance with Article 21 of the constitution, the Van Gujjars must be accorded a dignified life as pastoralists and must not be left in deplorable conditions that resemble ‘animal existence’. The court rapped the Forest Department and the district administration for failing to ensure that the Van Gujjars are treated as equitable citizens. The court held that the Van Gujjars cannot be isolated to lead a life without human dignity and must be provided with pucca houses, adequate food and water facilities, fodder for their livestock and medicinal supplies to cope with the pandemic.
Furthermore, the court ordered that all the members of the community were to be tested without charge for COVID-19 and if negative, allowed to migrate to their designated permit areas within the national park. The district magistrate and the deputy director of Govind Pashu Vihar National Park were directed to submit a status report on the implementation of the same by June 15, 2021, prior to the next hearing of the Think Rise Action Foundation case.
While initial reports suggest that the district administration in Uttarkashi is keen on implementing the order fairly and is working to provide requisite relief to the Van Gujjars, it is hopeful that the order of the high court will engender a fear amidst the Forest Department officials to treat the Van Gujjars with respect and dignity. There is a need to recognise the sustainable value of a traditional livelihood exercise like migration that will allow the nourishment of the grassland ecosystem for the subsequent season.
Numerous ecological benefits such as revitalising water sources, preventing forest fires, checking on invasive species as well as fertilisation of soils are linked to nomadic pastoralism. Furthermore, the civilisational traits imposed by government officials must be challenged with a rights-based discourse for forest dwellers, which may find fruit with the effective implementation of the Forest Rights Act, 2006.
It is imperative that the Van Gujjars find the opportunity to flourish within their traditional livelihood without being forced to resettle or sedentarise by the Forest Department. The COVID-19 pandemic should not be used as an excuse to deny them access to their grazing pastures and homesteads since they too perform an essential function in practicing a sustainable livelihood.
The verdict of the Uttarakhand high court to recognise the right of a qafila (party) of Van Gujjars to access their migratory homestead may help in fostering a change in mindset, but it is imperative for the Forest Department to decolonise its dogmatic perspective on nomadic pastoralism.
Update: On May 28, 2021, the deputy director of the Govind Pashu Vihar National Park in view of the high court order, wrote to the range officers in Supin, Rupin and Sankri ranges to allow the permit-holding Van Gujjars and their buffaloes within the park. While this order is the result of sustained pressure on the Forest Department at the Govind Pashu Vihar National Park, the movement of the community into their summer homestead has to be viewed as a victory of the efforts of the Van Gujjar Tribal Yuva Sanghatan.
Pranav Menon is a research scholar at the Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.